“Broadly, it’s how much you as an individual might perceive a half full glass to be half full or half empty,” explained Dr Casey.
To measure a dog’s state of mind, the researchers created a 3m x 4m space with two bowls in opposite corners, one was always full of food, while the other was empty. The dogs were of varying breeds, aged between six months and 12-years-old and were fit and healthy.
“They have a number of trials until they learn that difference so they run like if a bowl is in one location, and then we basically put bowls between those two places,” Dr Casey said.
“So we’re kind of asking them: are you optimistic that this is going to have food in it or are you more pessimistic?”
The difference in how dogs responded to this situation, and their eagerness to get to the bowls, reveals whether they’re general outlook is optimistic or pessimistic.
“What we know from humans and studies in rodents is that if animals are in a more aversive or poor welfare environment then they tend to judge things much more pessimistically.”
‘Using aversive methods tends to increase anxiety and fear’
Dr Casey says punishment rose to prominence as a training method around 40-50 years ago, and was based on flawed logic behind dog behaviour.
“It was all based around the assumption that dogs were doing things because they were trying to achieve status or dominance and that was kind of an assumption that they did that, because that’s what wolves do. But we now know that neither wolves nor dogs are motivated by that,” she said.
“From what we now understand about the behaviour of dogs we know that by using aversive or coercive methods, all we’re doing is tending to increase anxiety and fear, and those are the emotions which tend to drive the kinds of behaviours that we don’t want to see.”
Dr Casey’s advice when it comes to training is to plan ahead, control the environment, and understanding the reasons behind a dog’s behaviour.
“Let’s say you have a puppy and you want to train it to come back to you, you need to get into that puppies head right from the start. Is that coming back to you, is the best option that it has,” she said.
“But for dogs that have got problem behaviours, the majority of those are caused by anxiety and fear so if you’ve got a dog that lunges and barks at unfamiliar people, that behaviour is happening because the dog is worried by that person.
“So the approach we take is to teach the dog that unfamiliar people are actually something that’s good. We start by rewarding the dog for being calm at a distance and building up from there.
“There really isn’t a dog behaviour that can’t be resolved without aversive training methods.”
The study is published in Scientific Reports.