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A new study conducted by the University of Bristol headed by Professor Mike Mendi, has discovered dogs that are anxious when left alone also tend to demonstrate “pessimistic” like behaviour.
The study which was funded by the RSPCA provides insight into dogs’ emotions and helps our understanding of why behavioural responses to separation occur. While many owners tend to humanise their dog’s behaviour, believing they experience emotions similar to ours, Professor Mendi says: “We have no way of knowing directly because emotions are essentially private. However, we can use findings from human psychology research to develop new ways of measuring animal emotion…People’s emotional states affect their judgements and happy people are more likely to judge an ambiguous situation positively. What the study has shown is that this applies similarly to dogs – that a ‘glass half-full’ dog is less likely to be anxious when left alone than one with a more ‘pessimistic’ nature.”
The study conducted by the Animal Welfare and Behaviour research group worked with dogs from two animal rehoming centres here in the UK. The dogs were trained that when a bowl was placed in one location of a room (the ‘positive position’) the bowl contained food. But when the bowl was placed at another location (the ‘negative position’) it would be empty. Then the bowl was placed in various ‘ambiguous’ locations between the positive and negative and the behaviours of the dogs were monitored. The dogs that ran to the ambiguous locations, as if expecting the positive food reward, were classed as making relatively ‘optimistic’ decisions. These dogs also tended to be the ones that demonstrated the least anxiety-like behaviours when left alone for a short time.
Separation anxiety is a problem I deal with regularly in my role as a dog listener, separation-related behaviours include toileting indoors, barking and destroying objects around the home when dogs are apart from their owners. According to Professor Mendi, around half of the dogs in the UK may at some point perform separation-related behaviours.
Dr Samantha Gaines, Deputy Head of the Companion Animals Department from RSPCA, said of the University’s study: “Many dogs are relinquished each year because they show separation-related behaviour. Some owners think that dogs showing anxious behaviour in response to separation are fine, and do not seek treatment for their pets. This research suggests that at least some of these dogs may have underlying negative emotional states and owners are encouraged to seek treatment to enhance the welfare of their dogs and minimise the need to relinquish their pet. Some dogs may also be more prone to develop these behaviours, and should be re-homed with appropriate owners.”
If you’re experiencing problems with separation anxiety and would like the help of a certified professional, then contact Hanne Grice at [email protected]
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