Can Dogs Be Pessimistic?

By on October 12, 2010

A study has gained new insight into the minds of dogs, discovering that those that are anxious when left alone also tend to show ‘pessimistic’ like behaviour.

The research by academics at the University of Bristol, and funded by the RSPCA is published in Current Biology (October 2010). The study provides an important insight into dogs’ emotions, and enhances our understanding of why behavioural responses to separation occur.

Professor Mike Mendl, Head of the Animal Welfare and Behaviour research group at Bristol University’s School of Clinical Veterinary Science, who led the research, said: “We all have a tendency to think that our pets and other animals experience emotions similar to our own, but we have no way of knowing directly because emotions are essentially private.

However, we can use findings from human psychology research to develop new ways of measuring animal emotion.

“We know that people’s emotional states affect their judgements and that happy people are more likely to judge an ambiguous situation positively. What our study has shown is that this applies similarly to dogs – that a ‘glass-half-full’ dog is less likely to be anxious when left alone than one with a more ‘pessimistic’ nature.”

In order to study ‘pessimistic’ or ‘optimistic’ decisions, dogs at two UK animal re-homing centres were trained that when a bowl was placed at one location in a room (the ‘positive’ position) it would contain food, but when placed at another location (the ‘negative’ position) it would be empty. The bowl was then placed at ambiguous locations between the positive and negative positions.

Professor Mendl explained: “Dogs that ran fast to these ambiguous locations, as if expecting the positive food reward, were classed as making relatively ‘optimistic’ decisions. Interestingly, these dogs tended to be the ones who also showed least anxiety-like behaviour when left alone for a short time.

“Around half of dogs in the UK may at some point perform separation-related behaviours – toileting, barking and destroying objects around the home – when they’re apart from their owners. Our study suggests that dogs showing these types of behaviour also appear to make more pessimistic judgements generally.”

Dr Samantha Gaines, Deputy Head of the Companion Animals Department from RSPCA, said: “Many dogs are relinquished each year because they show separation-related behaviour. Some owners think that dogs showing anxious behaviour in response to separation are fine, and do not seek treatment for their pets. This research suggests that at least some of these dogs may have underlying negative emotional states, and owners are encouraged to seek treatment to enhance the welfare of their dogs and minimise the need to relinquish their pet. Some dogs may also be more prone to develop these behaviours, and should be re-homed with appropriate owners.”

Latest information about dogs and canine intelligence suggests we still have a lot to learn about how dog's minds work!

Related to this topic: Can dogs feel jealousy?

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26 Comments

  1. Derek James

    October 12, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    Why do we think that the human race is the only ones capable of emotions? We are only animals ourselves just a different shape. we don’t fully understand what a dog feels, but I bet it’s the same as we do.

  2. Jan Gilmour

    October 12, 2010 at 2:03 pm

    Easy one to answer. I am Mum to ex pf breeding dogs so the answer is a big fat yes they do show emotions all of them including pessimism and optimism, why would they not.

  3. Victoria Thomas

    October 12, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    Well one of mine is certainly an optimist, the way she dashes to where the biscuits are kept and smiles hopefully at me!!
    Observing my dogs over the years I have seen them experience grief, jealousy, clinginess, humour and bravado, so I’d say that dogs can easily experience most of the emotions that we have.

    • Dashers owner

      January 22, 2013 at 8:02 am

      Mine does the same thing and I like how you used the word dashes becuase my dogs name is dasher. Cheak out his Facebook page search dasher and on pages I think you will see it. Don’t tell him I know about it.

  4. j cox

    October 12, 2010 at 2:48 pm

    I saw this demonstrated when my dear old rescue dog Deefa died last year, our younger dog Molly was really devastated and began to display very strange behaviours that she previously hadnt not shown. She was showing her emotions at the loss of her pal. We rescued another dog to help Molly, who now is her best friend and has transformed her back to her normal happy contented brilliant Molly that we love….well done Barney for helping her too!!! I know they are emotional….|I only have to walk into the room to see Barney in his basket with a silly grin on his face to let me know hes tipped over the rubbish bin!! Thats him letting me know hes not happy when I go out!!!! Wouldnt be without them tho!

  5. Wolfman

    October 12, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    I have a Pug named Mugsey and he has more feelings than I do. He sleeps and eats with me. He follows me all around the house all day and I love him just like a child and he knows it. Iam very attached to Mugs and when he is gone I don’t what I will do.

  6. sconway

    October 12, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    Interesting to see another article that equates human emotions to canines.Dogs left to their own devices with no human intervention or contact would act like dogs, but put humans in the equation and we have a need to humanize everything. Interesting that we do that, the dog is what we make it by nature and nurture.

    From Wikipedia
    Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics to animals or non-living things, phenomena, material states and objects or abstract concepts.

  7. Jae

    October 12, 2010 at 7:12 pm

    I too believe dogs experience emotions as we humans do. I have seen emotions displayed too many times to think otherwise. My dogs display jealousy on a daily basis Mia, my JRT, will growl softly at the approach of Sandy, my Retriever,when she doesn’t want Sandy to get any attention. Both of my girls had seperation anxiety, destroying numerous objects. This behavior ended after they adjusted (approx. 6 months) and got accustomed to their routine. Mia was fearful at first not letting me even rub her belly, now she rolls over at my approach. They are truly like humans even in regards to trust, once broken it takes time for them to recover.

  8. Tracy Brown

    October 13, 2010 at 12:19 am

    I am a great believer that dogs experience emotions and experience just like humans. My German Shepherd knows when we are going away for the weekend and he thinks we are going to leaving him at home but as soon as we say are you coming he goes loopy. He also knows when something has gone wrong – when my husbands Mam was bad in hospital who just knew – especially the way he was acting.

    So yes, definitely – dogs have emotions

  9. Ruth Macrow

    October 13, 2010 at 2:57 am

    Yes – dogs do have emotions, when we left our dog this year when we went on holiday, he chewed 7 pairs of slippers and tore up his comfort blanket!

  10. Anna Paige

    October 13, 2010 at 4:33 am

    Dogs certainly have emotions. My dog is an optimist, a happy sole always on the lookout for dropped crumbs and treats. He is very laid back and takes everything in his stride!

  11. Bob Hull

    October 13, 2010 at 4:48 am

    I believe that dogs are who they are, meaning they display different personality traits just as people do. I also believe that’s where it ends. My opinion is that all dogs live in the moment all the time. Most people simply need to allow their dogs to just be dogs. Dogs react to human emotion. I don’t believe that dogs behave as people do, but in their own way based upon their environment.

  12. Jacqui Griffiths

    October 13, 2010 at 5:42 am

    I think all animals are far more intelligent and emotionally complex than we tend to give them credit for. Because of this, I think the analysis of the dogs’ behaviour in the experiment described here might oversimplify their behaviour by classifying them in terms of optimism or pessimism.
    The bowl in the experiment was placed in ambiguous locations between the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ locations where the dogs were used to seeing two other bowls – one containing food, the other empty. If a dog didn’t run to the new bowl looking for food, perhaps it was confident that food would appear in the ‘positive’ location and saw no need to explore the new bowl. I also know from experience that some dogs are anxious about unfamiliar objects, and this might affect their inclination to explore a bowl in an unfamiliar place. And with a highly developed sense of smell, couldn’t it also be possible that some dogs already knew whether it was worth investigating the bowl, even from a distance?
    My 11-year-old whippet became quadriplegic in June when a prolapsed disc compressed and damaged his spinal cord. He had major surgery and had to reroute his neural pathways to learn to walk again. I was warned that to do this, he had to ‘want’ to walk again. Whippets are very adaptable dogs, and one of the concerns was that, as such, he might just accept a level of disability and get on with it as best he could. I’m delighted to say that he clearly did want to walk again, and he’s made an amazing recovery – but if he had accepted a life of reduced mobility, would that make him pessimistic? I don’t think the two are inextricably linked.
    This is not to say that dogs can’t be optimistic or pessimistic. I’m sure they can, as well as feeling a huge range of other emotions. This study draws attention to the intelligence, as well as the emotional complexity of dogs, and anything that can help us understand their anxieties so we can help them to lead a happy life can only be good. But I think a lot more work needs to be done on the subject and I look forward to hearing about the results of future studies.

  13. Sharon

    October 13, 2010 at 10:13 pm

    I rescued my beautiful princess from a very dark place, she couldn’t stand the day I got her and was heavily pregnant. The first thing we did was look into each others eyes and she knew I was there to help her. She was due her puppies a week before my birthday but hung on until the actual day, I put her and her puppies in a basket near me and went to sleep when I woke she had moved them and put them in between me and her so she had some help protecting them. That’s something amazing to be trusted with 8 lives…. She follows me everywhere I go, she sleeps with me, cuddles me when I’m sad and is always there for me. If I look at her she is looking at me and makes me smile. If I have a shower she sits on the bath mat, if I go to the loo she sits outside the door and knows the sound of my car when I’m on my way home from work. I couldn’t have asked for a better more loyal friend…..

  14. Debby Eaton

    October 14, 2010 at 2:12 am

    Do dogs have emotions….hell yeah! I have 2 Rotties and a Black Lab, 1 of my Rottie’s who is now 4 we re-homed after a bad start, she is completely different to the other 2 who we got as puppies, she is more aware of what is going on around her, she also get’s sad sometimes and I can tell just in the way she behaves, she will go up to bed and not want to spend time with people or the other dogs. I would say that she is the pessimistic one and the other 2 are definately the optimistic ones. Rosie will always think that a noise or movement is something she has to be guarded about whereas the other 2 would look at it as a new game

  15. Mary Cronin

    October 14, 2010 at 6:20 am

    I don’t know about pessimissic but my dog Tara does get very depressed if she cant go down beach. Mary

  16. Gaynor

    October 19, 2010 at 8:24 am

    My dog Archie (a 6 month old Norfolk Terrier) has been with me every day in our doggie spa and boutique and as a result has formed a very close attachment! He follows me everywhere at home and cries if I leave him at the shop. He is however easily distracted with food.

  17. Nigel Reed

    October 26, 2010 at 9:58 am

    My bowl is half empty

  18. Lucille

    November 22, 2010 at 10:07 am

    @Sconway: I think there is a difference between anthropomorphising and acknowledging that dogs have emotions. I do believe that they can be optimistic or pessimistic, as well as they can be fearful, confident, anxious, excited, bored, jealous etc. When we rehomed our BC 6 months ago she had extreme fear aggression (towards human strangers, not dogs), however with much work, time, patience and training she is slowly gaining confidence. It could be said that when she approaches a stranger calmly (not barking/growling as she used to) that she is being optimistic – instead of expecting trouble, she is expecting good things such as a friendly response, a treat etc, as she has been conditioned now to associate good things with new people. I think from the study and other experience that it’s pretty conclusive that a dog can display optimistic/pessimistic behaviour. If it was anthropomorphising, I personally think it would be saying something along the lines of that a pessimistic dog (for eg) is thinking “oh I don’t suppose I’ll get a walk today, it’s raining and she works late on a Tuesday so I bet she won’t be bothered to take me out” That really is putting the human mindset into an animal, but I don’t think that this study/theory is doing this. Just my view :)

  19. Marilyn NarpsUK

    April 23, 2011 at 7:31 am

    I think that dogs do have emotions and that pessimism is one of them, I also believe that pessimism is a learned behaviour. One example might be when a family rarely give tit-bits to their dog when they eat themselves, so when the family are eating something very tasty like roast chicken – even though thier dog would love to have a little it may just watch and lick its lips rather than beg because it’s not worth trying – a positive dog might try begging anyway, ever hopeful.
    A smilar example might be seen by neglected dogs in a dog’s home (very rarely fed), when the food is being brought round they may just lay still because they doubt whether they will get any.
    This is an interesting subject and I am going to put this to my NarpsUK member’s forum to get their feedback on their own experiences.

  20. NearChukwu

    May 13, 2011 at 9:09 am

    This article reminisced me back to my earliest childhood days… I still vividly remember whenever i come back home happy, our dog displays or reciprocate my happy emotion by optimistically wagging his tail + joyously jumping all over me… But whenever i come back home sometimes sad, he displays or reciprocate back my sad emotion by crawling (i guess pessimistically) + sitting quietly close to me… Yes, indeed… Dogs are one of the most sensitive animals + very much emotional like we humans… Great + interesting article!

  21. Mark

    June 15, 2011 at 2:23 am

    Our dog was barking when we had to leave him home alone. Our vet recommended a BUSTER CUBE (we bought this from Amzon) which keeps him occupied while we are out. The change in his behaviour has been amazing! It needs to be introduced correctly so your dog knows it will give him treats. Neighbours who had expressed concern before now tell us there is no sign of barking when we are away from home. A real result!

  22. Rich

    July 21, 2011 at 3:37 am

    Emotions are basic to human nature. They also can correspond to brain structures in humans that correlate to dog brains. So why not? I will never buy that dogs are as sophisticated as we are. I will go so far as to say what dog owners intrinsically know. Fifi can think, Fifi can feel. My father’s dog showed signs of depression while my father was battling lung cancer. There are a million things we could say might cause the changes in his behavior, but I believe he felt what we felt and therefore expected a negative outcome. I believe this created much anxiety in the dog when he was left alone.

  23. sarah

    February 23, 2012 at 6:26 pm

    a dog could have many emotions happy or sad but it depends on its life if its owner is nice its is probley happy if an owner is bad it is probably sad and upset. life could be harsh for a dog if its owner threats it like poop.dogs have feelings just like humans.the sayings say that a dog could be a mans best friend dont let that get recked your dog wants a better life think about it.

  24. Sue

    March 9, 2012 at 8:05 am

    I can only assume very few scientists have dogs, or they would know without doubt that dogs experience every emotion we do – you only have to look into their eyes, as there is nothing so expressive. My dog always knows when I’m going to leave her at home & is an expert at looking at me in such a way as to ensure I feel totally guilty at doing so.

  25. Maggie

    July 5, 2012 at 9:21 pm

    Yes dogs can! And if anyone thinks we do not feel…they must be mad. In fact we just wrote about what Maggie went threw during a separation recently. http://wp.me/p2gV39-kZ

    If a dog did not express themselves, how would we know when they were sick, happy, or scared?
    How can one explain that a dog knows when your leaving, or when your sad, or when your mad? If scientists just want to say its instincts…then I guest we humans are just the same.

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