It turns out that man’s tail-wagging, ear-flopping, salivating best friend is quite a complex fellow. A new study by researchers at the University of Sydney confirmed what many dog owners know: that some dogs are pessimists, while others approach the world with an upbeat, can-do attitude.
To determine which group a dog fell into, Dr. Melissa Starling and her team taught their canine subjects to distinguish between two sounds—one that preceded a treat, and one that didn’t. After the dogs had learned which sound signaled a reward, the researchers played a new, ambiguous sound. Some dogs still took the unfamiliar sound to mean a treat was in store, while others, Eeyore-like (video), assumed it didn’t.
Droopier dogs (video) also appeared more stressed after failing at a given task—as they displayed with greater whining and pacing about—another indication of pessimism. Optimistic dogs seemed unaffected by the setback and continued working, according to the study.
The researchers saw the differences as an indication of basic disposition, said Dr. Starling. Pessimistic dogs are more easily discouraged and less willing to take risks, while optimistic dogs are the opposite: they expect more good than bad to happen, and are willing to take risks in order to reap the rewards.
Both pessimism and optimism have useful applications, and the researchers said determining which characteristic a dog favors can help to determine what jobs it is best suited to. Tenacious, optimistic dogs may do well in law enforcement, helping to detect drugs or explosives. And pessimistic, risk-averse dogs might serve as better guide dogs.