Thursday, October 14, 2010

Scientists Study Dog Anxiety, Everyone Makes Same Joke

If you’ve got a canine friend, you may ascribe to the belief that your dog feels happy when you come home, depressed when you leave, or sympathetic when you’re feeling down. Well, you may be right. Recent science suggests that dogs may be prone to optimistic and pessimistic tendencies, and researchers used principles from human psychology to test this hypothesis. In the words of dozens of like-minded news writers, for some dogs “the bowl is half-empty.”

In the study, headed by a team at Bristol University, test-dogs were trained with two food bowls, one empty and one full. The bowls were always kept in the same place in the test room, so that the dog learned to expect a full bowl in one corner and an empty one in the other corner. After the dogs had formed these expectations, they were placed in the room with bowls arranged at random locations. Based on how enthusiastically the dogs checked the bowls, researchers classified which dogs were more optimistic decision-makers. Basically, being excited, rather than indifferent, about an unknown element belies a tendency to expect a positive outcome, rather than a negative one.

On its own, that wasn’t enough for me. It makes for an interesting concept, but it felt like flimsy reasoning to assume that dogs are feeling happy or sad or positive or negative based on how readily they run to check bowls for snacks. Maybe some dogs are just lazy, or confused by the bowl-misplacement.  But wait – there’s more.

The researchers found that the dogs which were more enthusiastic about the unknown bowls were also less likely to cause trouble when left alone for short periods of time. The “pessimistic” dogs were more likely to engage in chewing, barking, and other anxiety-behaviors when left to their own devices.

 But you don't want to get carried away by assuming that every twinge of your dog's face is the sign of some emotional state.  Another study carried out in July of 2009 found that, much like in many areas of perception, we see what we want to see in our dogs.  

This earlier study, which came out of Barnard College in New York, sought to determine whether the guilty face owners "recognize" on their dogs when they have done something wrong is a real phenomenon indicating remorse.  Dogs were placed in rooms where it looked like they'd done something wrong - knocked over a vase or eaten something that they weren't allowed to eat, without the owner knowing whether the dog had committed an offense or not.  The owners regularly attributed guilt to the dog, despite the dog often being innocent.  The expression on the dog's face, if it was there at all, was a reaction to cues from the owner, not from actual feelings of regret.

But what do you think? Is are dog "emotions" simply reactions to human cues and no different from the Nao robot’s ability to mimic postures that we interpret as feelings? Or do dogs have emotional states that are independent of conditioned responses?  

images to come!

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