Want to Make Your Dog More Optimistic?
We can give our dogs a more positive outlook on life through this simple game!
Like people, individual dogs have a general outlook on life, tending either toward the positive or negative. That individual tendency influences many aspects of the dog’s mental state, and in turn, it’s mental stability. New research is showing that we can improve our dog’s outlook on life by teaching and playing scent games, like nosework, and in doing so, improve how well they learn and remember and reduce aggression and behavioral problems, like separation anxiety. These are terrific outcomes for all dogs but are even more powerful for breeders, since a parent dog’s mental state influences the future health and mental stability of its offspring. Read on for more about this fascinating new study.
Research across many species, from rats to dogs to zoo animals, show that their attitude towards life, positive or negative, affects their welfare, mental health, ability to learn and remember, and the quality of their decisions. Negative attitudes are often tied to separation anxiety or dog-directed fear and aggression. So, we want our dogs to have a positive attitude not only because it makes them happier but also because it increases mental stability, improves how easily they learn, remember, and make good decisions about situations they find themselves in. Read on to find out how one of the newest dog sports improves dogs’ optimism and with it, all of these benefits.
We all know people who are ‘glass half-full’ types – they look at life from a positive viewpoint and generally are fun to be with. And of course, there are the ‘glass half-empty’ types, who always seem pessimistic and can be kind of a downer to spend time with.
This attitude toward life is referred to as cognitive bias (also called judgment bias), and it has huge implications for mental health, as well as learning and memory. Cognitive bias has a significant influence on behavior and decision-making. In fact, changing a person’s cognitive bias is a core feature of cognitive behavioral therapy, one of the most well-founded therapeutic interventions for improving mental health.
Cognitive bias is measured in humans using a language-based test. Cognitive bias testing in animals consists of training the animal to discriminate between two stimuli: one associated with a positive event (e.g. food reward), the other associated with a negative event, such as disgusting food, a fear-eliciting object, or the absence of a reward. The animal is then given an ambiguous stimulus and its behavior observed.
Cognitive bias testing has shown that rats living in unpredictable living conditions expect less positive outcomes than rats living in predictable conditions (1). Sheep that are released from restraint have a more positive cognitive bias (2). Pigs in an enriched environment are more optimistic than pigs in a less enriched environment (3). Even honeybees demonstrate cognitive bias – those from hives that were shaken were more likely to drink from flowers containing a liquid that contained less sugar than those from a stable hive (4).
Cognitive Bias Testing In Dogs
To test cognitive bias in dogs, a dog is seated about 10’ (3m) from a 6’ (2m) line placed perpendicular to the dog and owner (see figure). When a bowl is placed at one end of the line (the positive end), it contains great food. When placed at the other end of the 6’ line (the negative end), it is empty. Then an empty bowl is placed in the middle of the 6’ line and the dog is observed to see how many seconds it takes to approach the bowl (5).
Now, you might be thinking, “Of course the dog will approach the bowl to see whether a great treat might be waiting there!” But a recent study showed that dogs that scored higher on traits such as sociability and excitability, and lower on non-social fear ran more quickly towards the ambiguous bowl and thus were considered to have a more optimistic bias than dogs with separation anxiety or dog-directed fear and aggression, who were judged to be more pessimistic (6).
Cognitive Bias in Dogs Trained in Nosework vs. Heeling
A recently published study used cognitive bias testing to compare dogs that had been trained in nosework vs. heeling (7). Here is how they did the study. Twenty dogs were trained in the cognitive bias test, so they knew where to go to get the good treat, and they knew that the other bowl was empty. The dogs were then randomly assigned to groups of 10 dogs each and both groups of dogs were tested for their cognitive bias by placing the bowl in the ambiguous position and the amount of time it took them to get to the bowl was recorded. There were no differences between the groups in this initial test.
Then one group of dogs spent two weeks being trained in nosework, while the other group was trained in heeling. Both groups of dogs spent the same amount of time training with their owners, the same amount of time being active, and ingested the same quantity of food during training. The groups were then re-tested for cognitive bias. The outcome measure was how many seconds it took the dogs to go to the ambiguous bowl after training as compared to before training.
Learn About Early Scent Introduction
We can introduce scenting games to baby puppies. Check out our free video on how to do this.
Dogs that had been trained in nosework approached the ambiguous bowl significantly faster than they did before whereas there was no difference for the dogs trained in heeling. The authors concluded that the dogs that were trained in nosework had a more “optimistic” outlook. They postulate that pet dogs generally cannot engage in natural behaviors such as foraging, which free-range dogs spend 10 to 22% of their time doing. They quote a number of studies that demonstrate that foraging is a natural behavior of many species including dogs and is a form of environmental enrichment important for animal welfare.
So how cool is this? Playing scenting games with our dogs, such as nosework, makes their cognitive bias more positive. Future research will have to confirm the final outcomes but if dogs are like other species, that more positive attitude will make them more optimistic about life, increase their mental stability, improve how easily they learn and remember, and improve their decision making.
OK, I know what you’re thinking – the dogs that were trained in nosework were clearly trained to look into boxes for food, so of course they went more quickly towards the ambiguous bowl in hopes of finding food. Well, it should be noted that the dogs in both groups were just as effective in identifying, and approaching or not, the positive and negative bowls during the cognitive bias testing – only their behavior towards the ambiguous bowl differed. That suggests that there wasn’t an effect of being trained to go and investigate bowls.
This study suggests that foraging (looking for and consuming food) is stimulating and intrinsically rewarding to dogs. Thus, increasing your dog’s foraging time, whether that means teaching nosework or scent work formally or just as a game to play around the house and yard, or using food-distributing toys might actually increase your dog’s optimism and outlook toward life.
And just as an extra note: oxytocin has been found to improve cognitive bias in dogs too (8). So all that time you spend petting, making eye contact, and telling your dog you love him/her (which has been shown to induce secretion of oxytocin in both human and dog) – that’s improving both your AND your dog’s outlook on life! I’m all for that!
(all of these are available at http://www.caninesports.com/useful_info)
- Harding EJ, Paul ES, Mendl M. Cognitive bias and affective state. Nature 2004;427:312
- Doyle RE, Fisher A, Hinch GN, Biossy A, Lee C. Release from restraint generates a positive judgment bias in sheep. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2010;122:28-34.
- Asher L, Friel M, Griffin K, Collins LM. Mood and personality interact to determine cognitive biases in pigs. Biology Letters 2016;12:20160402.
- Bateson M, Desire S, Gartside SE, Wright GA. Agitated honeybees exhibit pessimistic cognitive biases. Current Biology 2011;21(12):1070-1073
- Bethell EJ. A “how-to” guide for designing judgment bias studies to assess captive animal welfare. J Appl Anim Wel Sci 2015;18(sup1):S18-S42.
- Barnard S, Wells DL, Milligan ADS, Arnott G, Hepper PG. Personality traits affecting judgement bias task performance in dogs (Canis familiaris). Nature 2018;8:6660
- Duranton C, Horowitz A. Let me sniff! Nosework induces positive judgment bias in pet dogs. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2018;Dec. 3.
- Kis A, Hernadi A, Kanizsar O, Gacsi M, Topal J. Oxytocin induces positive expectations about ambivalent stimuli (cognitive bias) in dogs. Hormone Behav 2015;69:1-7
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