Why Your Dog Acts Like He Does... Could It Be He's a Pessimist?

Pessimistic Dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • A recent study suggests that some dogs may be pessimists and not the hopeful, happy-go-lucky pooches we like to think they are
  • An optimistic dog expects positive outcomes, whereas a pessimistic dog expects less good things to happen and more bad things. This can make him more cautious and risk averse than his more optimistic counterpart
  • Pessimistic dogs aren’t necessarily unhappy – they’re just more comfortable in a predictable environment, and aren’t wild about trying new things
  • Some dogs may be labeled pessimists when they are actually realists
  • The results of the study may prove valuable to trainers of working dogs in determining what type of service best suits them. It may also help those of us with dogs ask, “How are you feeling?”… and get an answer

By Dr. Becker

Most people tend to think dogs are just naturally happy creatures, always ready for a good time. But recent research from Australia suggests that some dogs are actually pessimists.

The general theory is that animals that show heightened expectation of positive outcomes are optimistic, while those who are more inclined to expect negative outcomes are pessimistic.

Optimistic Dogs Expect Good Things to Happen to Them

For the study,1 which was conducted at the University of Sydney and involved 40 dogs of various breeds and ages, researchers played two tones for the dogs that were two octaves apart. The dogs were taught that if they touched a target when one of the tones played, they would get milk (which they preferred) as a reward. Touching the target when the other tone sounded produced only water.

Once the dogs learned to discriminate between the two tones, the researchers played tones that fell between the two octaves. Some dogs touched the target repeatedly when they heard the ambiguous tones. They were considered optimists, because they continued to be hopeful that the ambiguous tones would result in a reward.

But some of the dogs grew anxious when the ambiguous tones didn’t produce a milk reward, and they quickly gave up.

According to Dr. Melissa Starling of the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney, and lead author of the study:

"Pessimistic dogs appeared to be much more stressed by failing a task than optimistic dogs. They would whine and pace and avoid repeating the task while the optimistic dogs would appear unfazed and continue.”2

The study authors believe that pessimistic dogs aren’t unhappy, they’re just more comfortable with a predictable routine and need to be encouraged to try new things.

Optimistic Working Dogs Are Better at Some Tasks, While Pessimists Excel at Others

Understanding more about a dog’s general outlook can be beneficial to the animal’s guardian, trainer, veterinarian, and other caretakers. And knowing whether a dog is more of an optimist or pessimist can also help trainers of working dogs determine which dogs would be best for a particular task.

“This research could help working dog trainers select dogs best suited to working roles. If we knew how optimistic or pessimistic the best candidates for a working role are, we could test dogs' optimism early and identify good candidates for training for that role,” said Dr. Starling. “A pessimistic dog that avoids risks would be better as a guide dog while an optimistic, persistent dog would be more suited to detecting drugs or explosives."

Pessimists… or Realists?

Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus at the University of Colorado and a world-renowned animal behaviorist, isn’t sure the dogs who gave up trying to respond to the ambiguous tones should be labeled pessimists. He theorizes that perhaps they were simply realists who stopped looking for milk that would never come.3

Bekoff suggests that a truly pathologically pessimistic dog might generalize his failure at the milk and water task, and go on to show less interest in other unrelated reward-based tasks. However, he does believe dogs demonstrate optimistic or pessimistic personality traits – especially dogs who have been abused early in their lives. Those animals, says Bekoff, “just really won't work that hard to get love or affection, having failed before.”

"I think it's perfectly legitimate to say that there are optimistic and pessimistic dogs -- and that you can change their behavior," Bekoff concludes.

Research May Help Us Better Understand How Our Dogs Are Feeling

According to Dr. Starling, this research may be invaluable in addressing how animal welfare is assessed. Knowing how optimistic or pessimistic an animal normally is means we can track changes to determine when there are significant variations in emotional state.

"The remarkable power of this is the opportunity to essentially ask a dog 'How are you feeling?' and get an answer,” says Starling. “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."