Saturday 4 January 2014

Risk Aversion or Pessimism in Dogs 1 - General tendencies

This is the first in a series of posts about risk aversion or pessimism in dogs, welfare and training implications, and what can be done about it. To be absolutely clear and up front, this is the 'fuzzy' side of my research. At this stage, the observations and interpretations I bring up here are not supported by data. This is the 'experience' side of spending 3 1/2 years watching different dogs in the same situation over and over. I will update this series as more information comes to light. 

Dogs, like people, can also see the
glass as half empty or half full.
I did my PhD on optimism and pessimism in dogs. I was looking at how they interpret signals and whether they tend to think good things or bad things are going to happen to them. The assumption is that pessimism is associated with a negative emotional state and optimism with a positive emotional state. By the time I finished my data collection, I'd had some 50 dogs go through the study and had a pretty good idea of how a wildly optimistic or a profoundly pessimistic dog tended to behave. The balanced dogs weren't so easy to typify. In this post, I'm going to ignore the wild optimists, given we assume that they are probably happy dogs, and concentrate on the pessimists.

I'll start by saying I don't really like "pessimistic" to describe these dogs. I prefer "risk averse", because I'm not so sure they expect bad things to happen to them so much as they don't like to find out if they don't have to. They would rather not take chances. We see their risk aversion in a variety of ways. They are usually not very persistent. If they try something that has worked in the past a couple of times, and it doesn't work, they are liable to give up. This tendency has advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, it is dead easy to discourage unwanted behaviour. If it's not immediately and consistently rewarding they will give up on it. On the downside, it is difficult to shape these dogs using successive approximations of a behaviour because they give up so easily. They may need a lot of help and encouragement to keep them engaged.

Risk averse dogs are easily discouraged. Image source

Risk averse dogs are also not very creative or spontaneous. They are reluctant to try new things. Not necessarily because they have been punished a lot, although this could be implicated in risk aversion, but because they are comfortable. They don't want to risk upsetting anything by trying something new. Basically, if it's not broke, don't fix it is their motto. Again, this is good if we want a dog that is not likely to come up with new ways to perplex us. If we want a steady dog who just does what they have been taught to do and not much else, we would probably do well with a naturally risk averse dog. However, if we want a dog that is easy to shape because they come up with lots of new behaviours to try out and are happy to throw them at us just in case they work, then a risk averse dog may try our patience and test our own training creativity as we try to find ways to get them doing new behaviours.

Risk averse dogs are also not particularly resilient. If they feel like they have got something wrong, they will take this quite hard. I used to think descriptions of dogs as being "hard on themselves" were weird and meaningless, but it's actually a good way to describe how the risk averse dog behaves in a training scenario. They are quite sensitive to signals that they may have done the 'wrong' thing - as in, they won't get rewarded. They may respond by whining or pacing or with lots of displacement behaviour like yawning or looking away or licking their lips. You may see them sniff the ground as if to say "Well, anyway, I was just going over here to do something really important." It may be difficult to coax them into giving it another go. There is some evidence from rat literature that individuals in a negative emotional state are very sensitive to reward loss. So in some cases sensitivity in training may suggest a negative emotional state, which is in turn associated with pessimism.
This dog is looking away and lip licking, a displacement
behaviour signalling stress.

And finally, these dogs are pessimistic. They seem to expect more negative outcomes and fewer positive outcomes. We assume that their unwillingness to take risks is at least in part because they are more inclined to expect it will go poorly for them. In contrast, the wildly optimistic dogs seem to think anything is worth a shot. If it doesn't turn out great after all, they are not very bothered, whereas a risk averse dog is very bothered. There is plenty of literature (latest here) that suggests this could mean risk averse dogs are experiencing a negative emotional state.

Tune in for the next instalment discussing how risk aversion may appear in everyday life, how it may impact welfare, and whether we should do anything about it.

Further reading

Sensitivity to reward loss as an indicator of animal emotion and welfare

O. Burman, R. Parker, E. Paul, and M. Mendl, 2008. Sensitivity to reward loss as an indicator of animal emotion and welfare. Biology Letters 4(4). 

  • A. Destrez,
  • V. Deiss, 
  • F. Lévy, L.
  •  Calandreau, 
  • C. Lee, 
  • E. Chaillou-Sagon, 
  • A. Boissy, 2013. Chronic stress induces pessimistic-like judgment and learning deficits in sheep. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 148(1-2).
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