Is Your Dog Optimistic or Pessimistic?

nbn6When presented with something new or slightly unusual, does your dog respond positively, presuming it to be good (optimism), or negatively, presuming it to be a bad thing (pessimism)?

An optimistic dog is not reactive, is confident and a keen learner. Considering that many of the behaviours Naughty But Nice dogs find themselves doing relate to underlying negative emotional responses to things in their environments, it goes without saying that optimism is 100% necessary for success.

Optimism and pessimism are intrinsic characteristics in animals. Typically those more pessimistic animals, in survival contexts, live longer, reproduce more and protect their young much more effectively, leading to perpetuation of this characteristic. How? Well, these individuals presume the rustling bush, which this time hides a predator, to be something to be worried about and get away from the situation! The optimist may not make the right choices in these survival situations, and, in the wild, is looked on as naivety rather than something good!

However, this characteristic of pessimism, however, is detrimental in the companion and sports dog settings. It creates a mentality of presuming the worst:

  • “I’ve seen a black umbrella before and was fine but that yellow one over there is definitely going to eat me”
  • “I’ve never heard that noise before - it must mean the end of the world”
  • “Mum/Dad dropped his/her shoulders in training, I’m going to go off and sniff to console myself”
  • “New venue = No way!”
  • “I got it wrong, there is just no way I can get it right!”

Of the hundreds of Naughty But Nice dogs that I see for consultations or online teaching each year, for problems ranging from reactivity to abnormal repetitive behaviours to overarousal, building optimism is something that is required in around 98% of them!

Characteristics of optimism and pessimism in dogs (and many other species!) have received attention in research too with a standardised test being created (Mendl et al., 2010). Here’s the cool thing though, whatever your dog is now - optimistic or pessimist - they don’t have to always be that way! In fact, it’s completely fluid! We can create optimists!

So here are my top 3 tips to building an optimist that sees everything and just super - 100% bombproof!

  1. Proximity Zone! If you didn’t catch my previous article, the proximity zone is the high value area you can create around yourself. Think of it like a shield between you, your dog and the outside well. It boosts your dog’s confidence but also your confidence in your dog too as it makes things like loose-leash walking and recall a cinch! We show you two games that we have found to be pivotal in training this here:

  2. Novelty! It’s hard to feel good about new things happening when new things don’t happen and the same old routine is followed. Mixing things up by taking your dog on different routes, driving to a new place to chill or changing their household routines a little and making them positive experiences can have a huge effect on optimism!
  3. Shaping Games! Playing games with your dog where you don’t give them all that much information and they have to offer behaviour that you can reward to reach a final behaviour (shaping) - for example jumping into a cardboard box or putting their front feet on a stool - boosts optimism! Shaping presents your dog with a new and ambiguous situation where the outcome isn’t clear at the start of the learning BUT by trying different things, they reach the positive outcome of the food = optimism!

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Positively Expert: absoluteDogs

Tom is a veterinarian, clinical behaviourist and companion and sports dog trainer, providing a unique perspective on all things dog.


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