Are some dogs optimists and some pessimists? That was the question addressed by a recent study by the University of Sydney (Australia.) The conclusion was that, yes, they are — and it’s potentially very useful information. Here’s what they did:
Researchers played two tones two octaves apart to 40 dogs of diverse ages and breeds. All were taught that touching a target when one tone was played got a milk reward, while the same action following the other tone got water. Then the researchers played tones in an intermediate range. Some of the dogs continued touching the target repeatedly. They were labeled “optimists” because they kept hoping for a reward even after many failures to get one. Other dogs, the “pessimists,” became upset and quickly gave up trying.
“Pessimistic dogs appeared to be much more stressed by failing a task than optimistic dogs,” reported Dr. Melissa Starling, lead investigator. “They would whine and pace and avoid repeating the task, while the optimistic dogs would appear unfazed and continue.”
Renowned animal behaviorist Marc Bekoff of the University of Colorado believes that dogs do demonstrate optimistic or pessimistic personality traits, “especially dogs who have been abused early in their lives.” The pessimists “won’t work that hard to get love or affection, having failed before,” he writes, but concludes, “…you can change their behavior.”
What he’s really suggesting is that you can change their expectations, which changes their behavior. Optimism and pessimism are habitual expectations of good or bad outcomes, shaped by both temperament and experience, that harden into attitudes. The psychology here is not new. But it is interesting to consider why we want to gain scientific justification for using these labels.
Authors of this study cite two important applications for the knowledge. One is utilitarian, the other is compassionate. For instance, trainers of working dogs could use it to select dogs best adapted for particular tasks. “if we knew … we could test dogs’ optimism early and identify good candidates for roles.” Here, the goal is to more efficiently sort dogs into useful (to someone else) categories.
But Starling suggests the research can also help to assess and measure animal welfare, creating “the opportunity to essentially ask a dog ‘how are you feeling?’ and get an answer. It could be used to monitor their welfare in any environment, to assess how effective enrichment activities might be in improving welfare, and pinpoint exactly what a dog finds emotionally distressing.”
I don’t know about Australia, but in this country, optimism and pessimism are heavily weighted with moral connotations. We’re praised for being optimists, even when that habit of mind betrays a curious resistance to facing facts. Optimists are “problem-solvers,” achievers, leaders, while pessimists are quitters, nay-sayers. Better, I think, is Heinrich Blucher’s aphorism, “optimists are fools; pessimists are cowards” implying that either habit, unquestioningly indulged, leads to errors.
I think the most potentially valuable use for the information would be pedagogical, or nurturing. It would take the descriptor as a starting point from which to address incipient self-limiting habits of mind so that learning is a route to more confident, competent and joyful lives.
I’ve read comparisons of how Asian versus Western educators motivate learners. Asian students are praised for their hard work, and they take pride in their persistence and diligence. Western students are praised for effortless learning, and they are proudest of their brilliance. Thing is, persistence and effort are open to everyone, and they bear fruit when they’re recognized and valued. Quick minds, like the pessimist dogs, may give up quickly if they aren’t rewarded for their specialness. They don’t want to be seen as “sloggers” or drudges.
Just like us, dogs come with diverse natural talents as well as areas of lesser strength, which are reinforced by experiences that further shape their expectations, even thought we may not know what those experiences were. As with parents and teachers, it’s the task of dog trainers and families to create opportunities for experience to hone competence, increase confidence, and enable judgment. And the ultimate purpose is larger than the immediate training objective.
While the direct reward is the treat or petting, the reinforcement also tells the dog that he is “getting it right.” And being on the right track means he is building skills and relationships, both of which are sources of deep pleasure and satisfaction for dogs, as for us. Learning to run an agility course, navigating with increasing accuracy and speed a series of challenging obstacles, is hard. Doing agility, once the timing, coordination and teamwork have been mastered, is sheer delight. Teaching a dog so that he learns to enjoy the learning and the practice opens the door to a life rich with fun and loving relationships.
So, if you have adopted a pessimistic shelter dog with low expectations, you can set him on the right path by making sure his early, tentative efforts are rousing successes, through generous and enthusiastic reinforcement. If you’ve got a canine optimist overachiever on your hands, keep encouraging him to try new things until he encounters something he finds difficult — and then help him persist to overcome the challenge. You’ll end up with a dog who is neither a fool nor a coward, but a wise and honest partner to share your life.
Laurie Raymond owns High Tails Dog & Cat Outfitters in Glenwood Springs.
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