Pessimistic Pups


My beagle Sadie is a rescue do whose previous owner abused her. She has always been anxious, skittish, and neurotic. She defines obsessive-compulsive behavior, walking around in circles when she wants something or methodically licking her paws. She must be crated when I leave—otherwise the house looks like a robber tossed it. I always thought the abuse made her different. I never realized that her anxiety might be so high because she sees the water bowl as half empty.

Animal behaviorists from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom have discovered that dogs with pessimistic outlooks are more likely to experience separation anxiety than dogs who see the water bowl as half full. Emily Blackwell—who lived close enough to her high school to be able to hear her own dog howling because of separation anxiety—evaluated two-dozen dogs living in two different shelters in England. The dogs waited behind a wooden screen while researchers placed a metal food bowl on one of two sides of the room.

The dogs soon learned if the bowl was on side A, it had a yummy treat, but if it was on side B, it was empty. Soon, the dogs tried knocking the screen over to race to side A and the delicious morsel. When the dogs noticed the bowl on side B, they often let out huge sighs and some even laid down on the floor.

Blackwell and her colleagues then began randomly placing the bowls with and without treats around the room. Dogs who excitedly ran to the bowls searching for goodies were considered optimistic, while those who gave up where labeled pessimistic. Then the researchers left each dog alone and recorded the behaviors. Dogs who exhibited pessimistic behaviors were more likely to chew slippers, cry, yelp, and pee on the floor when left alone—classic traits of separation anxiety.

"So many people think [separation-related behavior] is just something dogs do," Blackwell tells Science Now. "We want to get that message out there that this could represent a welfare problem for the dogs."