One Simple Way to Tell if Your Dog Is an Optimist or Pessimist

optimists pessimists dogs

Story at-a-glance -

  • A team of researchers concluded that dogs have left-or-right paw preferences, and further, left-pawed dogs are more negative or pessimistic
  • The same researchers conducted a subsequent study using more than one paw preference test that showed dogs’ paw preference is dependent on the activity they’re engaged in
  • The results of the second study suggest there might not be true “pawedness” in dogs, indicating paw preference might not be a good measure of a dog’s optimistic or pessimistic state of mind
  • Generally speaking, it’s assumed dogs with heightened expectation of positive outcomes are optimistic, while dogs who are more inclined to expect negative outcomes are pessimistic
  • There’s usually a reason a dog seems pessimistic, and the right environment and pet parent can affect significant positive change in that dog’s behavior and outlook

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Last year, a group of researchers at the Animal Behaviour Centre, School of Psychology at Queen's University in Belfast conducted a study to explore the relationship between paw preference and a dog’s optimistic or pessimistic state of mind. The results of the study were published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology.1 

Study Results Suggest Left-Pawed Dogs Tend Toward Pessimism

The researchers evaluated the paw preferences of 30 pet dogs using the “Kong™ ball test” that assesses which paw the dogs used to stabilize a Kong™ with food in it. The study authors drew the following conclusion from their findings:

“The study points to a possible relationship between cognitive bias and paw preference in the dog, with left-pawed animals being more negative or ‘pessimistic’ in their cognitive outlook than right-pawed or ambilateral individuals. It is proposed that limb preference testing might offer a more practical and straightforward way of identifying individuals at risk from poor welfare by virtue of how they perceive the world than more time-consuming cognitive bias tests.”

If you’re wondering why your dog’s preference for his left or right paw has any bearing on his emotional outlook, it’s a left-brain right-brain thing. Here’s how certified animal behaviorist Karen London, Ph.D., explains it in a recent article for Bark magazine:

“An animal’s tendency for a negative or positive reaction to the world is related to which hemisphere of the brain is more dominant. The emotional processing performed by each side of the brain is different. The left side of the brain inhibits fear, is more likely to encourage exploration of the world and the approach to new stimuli.

The right side of the brain is more likely to promote withdrawal from new stimuli and to process fearful information. Since each side of the body is controlled by the opposite hemisphere of the brain, left-pawed dogs are more likely to be using the right side of the brain more often and right-pawed dogs are more inclined to use the left side more consistently. That means that left-pawed dogs are at greater risk of struggling emotionally in challenging situations.”2

Based on these study results, in a perfect world every dog would be right-pawed and left-brained.

Follow-Up Study Shows Paw Preference Is Task-Dependent

Interestingly, a subsequent study performed by the same team of animal behaviorists muddied the waters a bit.3 It seems past studies of paw preference, including the one I described above, used only a single test (the Kong™ ball test) to determine paw preference.

This means we don’t really know whether dogs display consistent paw preferences, or whether the paw they prefer changes with the activity they’re engaged in. For example, maybe dogs who consistently use their right paw to stabilize a treat-filled Kong™ are more likely to lead with their left paw when they start down a flight of stairs.

For their follow-up study, the researchers evaluated paw preferences in 32 pet dogs using four different tests, and they repeated the study six months later with a smaller group of the same dogs to check preferences over time.

The four tests included the Kong™ ball test described earlier, the Tape test to see which paw the dogs used to try to remove a small piece of scotch tape stuck to their nose, the Lift Paw test to see which paw they used to “give a paw” and the First-Step test to see which paw the dogs favored when walking down a step. Each of the four tests included multiple instances of paw use to evaluate preference strength and direction.

The study results showed that the dogs displayed a definite paw preference in the Kong™ ball and Lift Paw tests, but were significantly more inclined to use either paw on the Tape and First-Step tests. Interestingly, more female dogs used their right paw on the Lift Paw test, while the males were more likely to lift either paw or the left paw. According to the study authors:

“Findings suggest that paw preference in the dog is not consistent between tasks, although stable over time. The study raises questions as to which test of paw preference is the most appropriate to employ.”

The results indicate there might not be true “pawedness” in dogs, which means it might not be a good measure of a dog’s optimistic or pessimistic state of mind.

Wondering if Your Own Dog Is an Optimist or Pessimist?

Conventional wisdom holds that animals who show heightened expectation of positive outcomes are optimistic, while those who are more inclined to expect negative outcomes are pessimistic.

A few years ago, a study at the University of Sydney evaluated optimism in 40 dogs of various breeds and ages.4 The 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 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.”5

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

Are Some Dogs Really Pessimists … or Are They Simply Realists?

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., 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.6

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." In my experience, there is almost always a reason for a dog’s inappropriate behavior, inability to adapt to certain situations, or “pessimism.” Sometimes we never learn what the reason is, especially with a pet who comes into our life as an adult dog.

I strongly encourage everyone who has, is currently, or will ever open their heart and home to a rescue or shelter dog to visit A Sound Beginning and take a look at the program. I think it’s the perfect way to give a newly rescued pet the best opportunity to come into your life feeling calm and relaxed.