Tuesday 7 January 2014

Risk Aversion in Dogs 2 - Spotting it and can/should we treat it?

This is the second in a series of posts about risk aversion, or pessimism, in dogs. This instalment deals with how to spot risk aversion in everyday life and whether we should treat it or accept it. 

In the previous instalment we looked at the general traits of risk averse dogs. They are low in persistence, creativity/spontaneity, and resilience, and they don't take many risks and are pessimistic (expect more bad things to happen and less good things).

How might we see risk aversion in dogs in day-to-day life? Think of a dog that stays close to their owner and doesn't run off. They seek safety and don't go out of their way to access rewards. As such, they are not very exploratory. They may sniff around the area, but probably won't go far or very fast. They are likely to react strongly to something bad happening to them, and be surprisingly distressed by quite minor problems they encounter, like a small obstacle they need to find their way around, or being unable to immediately access a reward they can see. They may be easily frustrated and respond by giving up. They may also seem poorly motivated, not willing to put in a lot of effort for rewards, and while it may be easy to teach them to stay still, it may be difficult to teach them to keep doing something without steady reinforcement (e.g. heeling). They may be reluctant to perform a behaviour on cue if they are not confident on how to respond. So we may see them failing to perform a cued behaviour, not because they are being difficult and refusing, but because they are unsure what they are being asked and don't want to risk doing the wrong thing.

Image source

The first question is, do we need to treat risk aversion in dogs? At this point, I think this question can only really be answered subjectively. As I suggested in the previous instalment, there are reasons why we might want a risk averse dog. Certainly there are dogs that are naturally risk averse, and this may make them highly suited to particular jobs or environments where a steady, quiet, predictable dog that only really does what it has learnt to be rewarding is required. On the other hand there are many aspects of being risk averse that may make a dog challenging to train in complex tasks, so if you are looking for a dog that will throw themselves into a task, be easy to train complex behaviours, and persist with low levels of reinforcement, you may want your dog to be less risk averse. Finally, we can and probably should consider this from a welfare perspective as well. Arguably, good wellbeing is characterised by an animal having positive experiences. The more positive experiences they have, the better their wellbeing. We also know that there are a couple of things that mammals generally enjoy. One is playing, another is getting resources like food, and another is exploration, because it's tied to finding resources. So we might wonder about the wellbeing of a dog that does not explore much or try very hard to access resources. Their accumulation of positive experiences may be a little low, and therefore they may be not as happy as they could be, although this is not the same as being unhappy. Furthermore, I think we should consider how they handle adversity. As much as we might like to, we can't create an environment for our dogs where there is no adversity, and nor should we, because there is evidence that a little adversity helps an individual become more resilient to stress later on, thus enhancing their wellbeing. Low level and intermittent stress also results in animals being less emotionally reactive so that they are better able to cope with new situations and are more curious and explore more. It also helps them adapt to changes and solve problems better than individuals who have not been exposed to low level stress. So if our dog is risk averse, they may have difficulties finding solutions to stressful situations and be hesitant to try new things, and in this way their ability to adapt to and cope with stress may be compromised.

The second question is can we treat it? Risk aversion, like much in behaviour, can be considered to be a product of both nature and nurture. Dogs can be born more or less risk averse by nature, and then that potential for risk aversion can be further modified by learning and experience. We can assume that we may be able to adjust a dog's current risk aversion if it falls within their genetic potential. When faced with a dog it may not be clear if they are already as optimistic as their genetic potential allows while still being overall pretty risk averse. So in conclusion, we may be able to treat it, or we may not, and if we can, the extent to which we can may be a lot or a little. The graphic below illustrates this, but be aware it's grossly simplified. This stuff is complicated! In fact, it's argued by academics that optimism and pessimism don't even belong on the same scale.

Imagine a risk aversion/optimism scale. A dog may be born with the potential to fall anywhere in a particular range on that scale (blue line), and their experiences will narrow that range to where they actually fall on the scale.

So if there are arguments for treating risk aversion in dogs, and we probably can treat it at least to some extent, should we go ahead and try? If we are seeing a dog that becomes quite distressed out of proportion to the problem they are facing, or cannot solve problems on their own, or becomes distressed if they can't use a solution they have used before, or even who is emotionally reactive and has difficulty regulating their arousal, I think as humane trainers and owners we should think very hard about whether this is okay. For me, I think if the dog is a pet and in a competent home, there are good arguments for trying to reduce their risk aversion. If the dog is a working dog, or in a home where the owners may not have the skills to adapt to a dog that may be a little more adventurous and possibly naughty, then I think it is at the discretion of the dog's trainers. Just be aware that optimistic dogs have their own problems, and once you have a reward-seeking dog, it becomes necessary to harness that sudden enthusiasm for exploration and finding rewards and use it for the forces of good rather than evil, and that may mean more training.

In the next instalment in this series, we will talk about how to reduce risk aversion through training.

Further reading

  1. . Paul 2010. 
  2. An integrative and functional framework for the study of animal emotion and mood. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 

Seery, Mark D.; Holman, E. Alison; Silver, Roxane Cohen 2010. Whatever does not kill us: Cumulative lifetime adversity, vulnerability, and resilience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 99(6).

D. Lyons,  K. Parker, M. Katz and A. Schatzberg, 2009. Developmental cascades linking stress inoculation, arousal regulation, and resilience. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience 3.

Lyons, David M., Parker, Karen J., Schatzberg, Alan F, 2010. Animal models of early life stress: Implications for understanding resilience. Developmental Psychobiology 52(7)

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