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Can Dogs Be Pessimists?

Can Dogs Be Pessimists?

Since the idea that animals are just little biological machines, living unemotional lives run by instinct and base condition alone, has never really sat well with me—I’ve always sensed there was more going on inside their heads than this—this next one really got my attention.

Researchers from the University of Bristol have shown via experiment that dogs can be essentially optimistic or pessimistic by nature. As The Economic Times glibly describes it, there are dogs that see the glass (uh, bowl) half empty and those which see it half full.

The experiment to demonstrate this consisted of training dogs at two UK rehousing centers that when a bowl was placed in one location in the room it contained food and when placed in another location it’d be empty. After which, the food bowl was placed in various locations in between the two.

The researchers found that some dogs, classed as “optimistic,” ran quickly to the middle locations, expecting food to be there, expecting a reward. Other dogs were, shall we say, less enthusiastic.

Extrapolating, those that were optimistic in nature were less likely to be anxious when left alone than dogs with a more pessimistic nature. The researchers say that about half the dogs in the UK at some point exhibit “separation-related behaviors—toileting, barking and destroying objects around the home—when they’re apart from their owners. Our study suggests that dogs showing these types of behavior also appear to make more pessimistic judgment generally.”

Perhaps it’s being too generous to ascribe optimism and pessimism to these behaviors. After all, we can’t fully know what’s going on with these dogs minds, any more than we can directly know the same for humans. But it is fascinating to me nevertheless to learn that, as with people, there well may be underlying emotional states—not just conditioning—influencing the behavior of dogs.

After all, this is what most dog owners (and pet owners more broadly) intuitively know anyway. But now you can point to a study demonstrating this.

Image Credit: Olis Olois

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Samantha, selected from Planet Green

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4:11AM PDT on Mar 23, 2013

I have one of each and while I believe most dogs' behavior is basically optimistic (who else do you know that always always is sure food will fall from the sky at any moment??) I think my somewhat pessimistic dog was treated badly early on and learned to be pessimistic.

4:06AM PDT on Mar 23, 2013

That's why we're best companions since our emotion is shared and understood

9:19AM PDT on Mar 22, 2013

emotions - for sure, however, about the pessimist thing - not so suure

12:56AM PDT on Aug 14, 2012

Dogs definitely have emotions defining them to pessimists is another thing !

6:22AM PDT on May 14, 2012


6:00AM PDT on Mar 20, 2012

I like to think of dogs as being eternal optimists - even tho I knwo one of mine is a bit of a pessimist, shame - she always seems to expect the worst. A product of her life before being rescued, i suppose, we will never know!

6:58PM PST on Feb 2, 2012

Yes. They know when the going is good and when there are problems and like humans they take on the attitude of their owners. If you are happy, they will laugh. If you are sad, they will climb up and sit with you to offer their companionship and hopes for a better tomorrow.

7:21PM PST on Feb 1, 2012

Criminy! Of course they have emotions. Read - The Emotional Life of Animals by Marc Bekoff, or - A Small Furry Prayer by Steven Kotler. Descartes is dead, dead, dead.

10:24AM PST on Dec 7, 2011

Animals DO have emotions.

4:13AM PDT on May 30, 2011

Optimist/Pessimist, dogs only live in Now

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