Decoding dogs: optimists or pessimists?

Can science help decode the emotional life of dogs? A series of articles highlight the process of research, from experiment to science writing to public reaction.

Animal psychology challenges our best research methods. Just because the original article is critiqued, doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. We need more feasable experiments, even if they are far from perfect. They are all steps in getting from anecdote to what can be considered facts and scientific consensus.

The original science article:

Dogs showing separation-related behaviour exhibit a ‘pessimistic’ cognitive bias

Michael Mendl1, , , Julie Brooks1, Christine Basse1, Oliver Burman1, 2, Elizabeth Paul1, Emily Blackwell1 and Rachel Casey1

1 Centre for Behavioural Biology, Department of Clinical Veterinary Science, University of Bristol Langford House, Langford, BS40 5DU, UK
2 Department of Biological Sciences, University of Lincoln, Riseholme Park, Lincoln, LN2 2LG, UK, Corresponding author
Published in: Current Biology, Volume 20, Issue 19, R839-R840, 12 October 2010,

“Here we use a new ‘cognitive bias’ measure of animal affect to show that dogs which exhibit high levels of SRB [ undesirable separation-related behaviour ] in a separation test also appear to have a more negative underlying mood.”

The New York Times take, in Observatory:

When a Dog’s Dish Seems Half Empty

By SINDYA N. BHANOO, October 11, 2010

“What the scientists say is that dogs that exhibit anxiety when left home alone by their owners may have bigger problems — they may be in a permanent bad mood.”

Insightful NYT commenters already hint at problems with the scientific conclusions, tongue in cheek posts hinting at both liking the article while not entirely trusting its conclusions:
“24. October 12, 2010, 9:07 pm
Maybe the dogs who always looked for the food bowl were in the grips of a compulsive eating disorder!— Liz
29. October 12, 2010,11:38 pm
Wondering… if the owner’s perception on life impacts on their pet’s perception…
an optimistic animal behaviourst 🙂 — Jo Righetti”

An in-depth critique:
A scientist blogger takes time to dissect the original methods. Link was posted next to the NYT article, I like that.

Pessimistic Pooches? Depressed Doggies? Not So Fast!

by Jason G. Goldman, October 13, 2010

“Does Fido see the cup as half full? Is your dog pessimistic? Last time we saw headlines like these they were about a certain barnyard animal. Remember “Pampered pigs ‘feel optimistic'”? I didn’t like it then, and I don’t like it now.”

Goldman’s post goes to the core of methodology. Really interesting, it’s not really about the dogs but about how we go about refining our knowledge of our best friends.

Dogs showing separation-related behaviour exhibit a ‘pessimistic’ cognitive bias

When a Dog’s Dish Seems Half Empty

Pessimistic Pooches? Depressed Doggies? Not So Fast!

I looked up the pig posts link, as a reference to myself for future musings:
Seeing Pigs Through Rose-Colored Glasses
and the source for the above Thoughtful Animal post:
Can you ask a pig if his glass is half full?


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