The research by academics at the University of Bristol, and funded by the RSPCA is published in Current Biology (12 October). The study provides an important insight into dogs’ emotions, and enhances our understanding of why behavioral responses to separation occur.
Professor Mike Mendl, Head of the Animal Welfare and Behavior 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 judgments 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 centers 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 behavior when left alone for a short time.
“Around half of dogs in the UK may at some point perform 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 judgments 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 behavior. Some owners think that dogs showing anxious behavior 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 minimize the need to relinquish their pet. Some dogs may also be more prone to develop these behaviors, and should be re-homed with appropriate owners.”