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Is Your Dog a Pessimist?

November 09, 2010 | 13,181 views
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Sad dogAccording to British researchers, if your dog suffers from separation anxiety when left alone at home, his emotional problems may be deeper than you think.

In a study of 24 shelter dogs published in Current Biology, the goal was to determine if dogs with separation-related behaviors have underlying mood disorders which also affect other aspects of their conduct.

According to the New York Times:

They placed the dogs in isolated settings and observed their reactions — many barked, jumped on furniture and scratched at the door.

Then they placed bowls in two rooms. One bowl contained food, while another was empty. After training the dogs to understand that bowls can sometimes be empty, and sometimes full, they began to place bowls in ambiguous locations.

"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," said Professor Mike Mendl of Bristol University, who led the research.

The researchers concluded the more separation anxiety a dog exhibits when left alone by his owner, the more likely it is he suffers from an underlying, generally negative mood.

According to Professor Mendl, “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," Mendl said.

These results could prove valuable in understanding how to better help dogs with behavior problems as a way not only to improve their quality of life, but also to reduce the number of troubled canines relinquished to shelters.

Dr. Becker's Comments:

It seems there are two ways to look at the issue of a ‘pessimistic’ dog.

Most of the media in the U.K., where the study was done, approached the subject from the perspective of human genetics, as though a certain percentage of dogs are born with a natural tendency to view life negatively.

In this country, however, writer Elizabeth Lopatto of Bloomberg.com whose article on the University of Bristol study was picked up by several other U.S. media outlets, dug a little deeper, conducting a telephone interview with one of the researchers. 

According to Emily Blackwell, an animal behaviorist at the University of Bristol in the U.K. and an author of the study, dogs with separation anxiety misbehave because they weren’t trained as youngsters to know that being alone isn’t something to be concerned about.

“The process of training a dog to know how to behave, called socialization, is best done during puppyhood,” Blackwell said. And she adds that although proper training of an adult dog can extinguish bad behavior, it’s a lot more work and effort to train an older pet.

Writer Lopatto also talked with the director of the Pets at Risk program for the Humane Society of the U.S., Adam Goldfarb, who feels the University of Bristol study shows a direct link between poorly or unsocialized dogs and a negative attitude about life.

“This tells us something that isn’t reflected in the way every dog is cared for,” Goldfarb said in a telephone interview. “A dog who is being destructive is a dog whose needs aren’t being met.”

So Which is It … Nature or Nurture?

In my experience as both a dog owner and veterinarian, there is almost always a reason for a dog’s inappropriate behavior or inability to adapt to certain situations.

You may never discover what the reason is, especially with a pet that arrives in your life as an adult dog, well past the formative stage. But if your beloved pooch has separation anxiety or another unfortunate behavior, odds are something happened -- or didn’t happen – to create and reinforce it.

If you’re dealing with a case of separation anxiety in your pup, I recommend you read What to Do If Your Dog Panics When You Leave. You’ll find helpful advice and tips you can begin to implement today to get the problem under control.

If you’ve just added a puppy to the family or are planning to, I hope you’ll read The Critical Importance of Socializing Your Puppy. Nothing you can do for your new little four-legged family member is as important as insuring she’s properly socialized at the right time in her puppyhood, which is before she reaches 14 to 16 weeks. Continued training and socialization should occur well into your dog’s first year of life.

Resources for Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

There are literally millions of precious dogs in the world with varying degrees of separation anxiety or other behavior problems that need to be resolved for the sake of the animals and their families or other caretakers.

Behavior problems are the number one reason dogs are relinquished to shelters. It breaks my heart to see a new dog parent of a shelter or rescued pet look helplessly on as their frightened, or aggressive, or hyper, or oblivious dog acts in ways they have no idea how to cope with.

Lots of daily exercise, species-appropriate food and calming herbs and flower essences can help, but these steps won’t cure a deep-seated behavior issue. Most of these dogs need professional, positive help. And the sooner you address a pup’s behavior issue, the more successful you’ll be at managing the condition.

If you have a dog with behavior problems or are considering offering a forever home to an adult dog with a less-than-ideal history, please don’t be discouraged!

There’s a great deal of help available out there for dog parents who need to ‘teach an old dog new tricks.’

The following is a short list of resources I think you’ll find useful, and please accept my personal thanks for opening your heart and home to a pet that needs a little extra help to become the perfect dog for your family.

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Food Democracy Now
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