Wed, Oct 13, 2010 - Page 6 News List

For some dogs, the bowl is half empty, scientists say

The Guardian, LONDON

Scientists have confirmed what many pet owners have long suspected: Some dogs have a more gloomy outlook on life than others.

The unusual insight into canine psychology emerged from a study by Bristol University researchers into how dogs behave when separated from their owners.

Dogs that were generally calm when left alone were also found to have a “dog bowl half full” attitude to life, while those that barked, relieved themselves and destroyed furniture appeared to be more pessimistic, the study concluded.

Michael Mendl, head of animal welfare and behavior at the university, said the more anxiously a dog behaved on being parted from its owner, the more gloomy its outlook appeared to be.

The findings suggest that the trouble caused by some dogs when they are left alone may reflect deeper emotional problems that could be treated with behavioral therapy.

“Owners vary in how they perceive this kind of anxious behavior in dogs. Some are very concerned, some relinquish the dog to a refuge, but others think the dog is happy or even being intentionally spiteful,” Mendl said.

Mendl’s team studied 24 animals at two dog homes in the UK. The dogs, half of which were male, were various breeds, including Staffordshire bull terriers, golden retrievers and collies. They ranged from nine months to nine years old.

Researchers began the study by going to a room with each dog in turn and playing for 20 minutes. They returned the next day, but this time left the dog alone for five minutes, during which the scientists recorded the animal’s behavior with a video camera. The footage was used to give each dog an anxiety score.

A day or two later, the dogs were trained to walk over to a food bowl that was full when placed at one end of a room, and empty when placed at the other. When the dogs had learned the difference, the scientists tested the animals’ underlying mood by placing bowls in ambiguous positions — in the middle of the room, for example — and noting how quickly each dog went to the bowl.

The dogs that had been most anxious in the earlier test were slowest to approach food bowls placed in or near the middle of the room, suggesting they expected to find the bowl empty. The less anxious dogs ran to the food bowls, implying they were more optimistic, according to the report in Current Biology.

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