Come back! Dogs that experience separation anxiety when their owners leave may also be pessimistic.

Mike Mendl

Is Your Dog Pessimistic?

Yip yip yip yip whiiiine aarrooooooooOOOOoooo! About a third of dogs display some kind of behavior problem when their owners leave home, like howling, peeing on the floor, or chewing up remote controls. A new study finds that anxious dogs may be miserable for a reason: They're pessimistic about life.

The study was part of a project funded by the U.K.-based Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which wanted to devise a test to predict whether shelter dogs are likely to have problems with separation after they're adopted. The researchers decided to look at the dogs' emotional state, says Emily Blackwell, an animal behaviorist at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. Blackwell says she got interested in separation anxiety in high school: She lived so close to the school that between classes she could hear her dog howling from home.

Blackwell and her colleagues studied the moods of 24 dogs at two shelters in southwest England. One of the researchers held a dog behind a plywood screen while a colleague put out a metal food bowl on the other side of the screen. If the bowl was all the way to one side of the room, it had a delicious treat in it. If it was all the way to the other side, it was empty. When the bowl was in place, the dog was let loose. The dogs learn quickly "if it's on one side, to race over and nearly knock over the screen to get it," says Blackwell. "If it's on the other side, they look around and quite often give us a big sigh." Some dogs amble over to check out the empty bowl; others just lie down.

Once a dog learned the pattern, the researchers started mixing it up by sometimes putting the bowl somewhere between the far-right and far-left positions. Dogs that ran to check those ambiguously positioned bowls were judged to be more optimistic. Dogs that were less interested in the ambiguous bowls were judged to be more pessimistic. Similar trials are used to judge optimism and pessimism in other species, including humans.

The researchers also tested how the dogs behaved when they were left alone in a room. Dogs that howled, scratched, relieved themselves, or showed other separation-related behaviors were also those shown to be more pessimistic, a sign that they're unhappy animals. "So many people think [separation-related behavior] is just something dogs do," says Blackwell. They think the dog is angry the owner is leaving, say, and exacting its revenge on the owner's slippers. "We want to get that message out there that this could represent a welfare problem for the dogs." Owners should focus on treating Fido's separation anxiety rather than dismissing it as normal behavior, says Blackwell, whose team reports its findings online today in Current Biology.

Samuel Gosling, a psychologist at the University of Texas, Austin, likes the study. But he would go even further—canines have personalities, he says, that go beyond optimism and pessimism. He suspects that the experiments are actually revealing that the dogs rank high on the personality trait usually called neuroticism, which can include having a pessimistic outlook and being worried. "Dogs high on this anxiety-and-neuroticism dimension are more likely to get upset when the owner leaves," he suggests, and would be less likely to show interest in the food bowls, too.