Do some dogs have a negative outlook on life?
In 2008, I undertook research at Bristol University as part of my Bachelor of Science degree to identify whether dogs suffering with separation anxiety exhibit longer-term effects in how they view the world. This was published in 2010 in Current Biology (under my maiden name of Brooks).
The question we wanted to ask was that we know people that are happy are more likely to judge ambiguous situations as positive and vice versa but do dogs have that same glass half full vs half-empty mentality?
This pug definitely seems to think his glass is always half empty 🙁
Working with dogs at the RSPCA in Bristol, they were trained that a bowl in one corner of the room always contained food and that a bowl in the opposite corner never did. Bowls were then moved to 3 ‘ambiguous’ locations – straight down the middle, nearer the ‘always full’ and then nearer the ‘always empty’ location.
Dogs that ran slowly to the ambiguous bowls were labelled ‘pessimistic’. Interestingly, there was a strong correlation to pooches suffering with high levels of anxiety when left alone.
So what now?
This week I was very excited to read that further studies have been carried out by the University of Lincoln to investigate whether anything can be done about this pessimistic outlook.
They adopted the test structure we designed and recruited two groups of dogs – those with separation anxiety and those that were ‘normal’. To start with they found the same as we did in 2008, dogs with separation anxiety were more pessimistic.
Banishing the ‘black dog’
However, here is the great news. They treated these dogs with a course of antidepressant medication (fluoxetine / Prozac) and undertook a programme of behaviour modification. After just 2 weeks of treatment, these anxious dogs showed a similar response to the “normal group”. The “black dog” was being banished!
This scientific study emphasises that separation anxiety is a real welfare issue. Pets that panic when left alone don’t just get stressed at that time, but suffer from the effects in their judgement of day to day activities too. But it is not all doom and gloom. Structured behaviour modification and medication can make a huge difference, something I see clinically every day.
Mendl, M, Brooks, J, Basse, C, Burman, O, Paul, E, Blackwell, E & Casey, R 2010, ‘Dogs showing separation-related behaviour exhibit a ‘pessimistic’ cognitive bias’. Current Biology, vol 20., pp. R839 – R840
Christos I karagiannis, Oliver HP Burman and Daniel S Mills, 2015 Dogs with separation-related problems show a “less pessimistic” cognitive bias during treatment with fluoxetine (Reconcile™) and a behaviour modification plan. BMC Veterinary Research 11:80