©Maki Naro

Cognitive bias is a relatively new area of research in dogs, but its applications are important to further research. Dr. Melissa Starling, from the Faculty of Veterinary Science is studying just that. “Finding out as accurately as possible whether a particular dog is optimistic or pessimistic is particularly helpful in the context of working and service dogs and has important implications for animal welfare.”

In the study, dogs were given either milk or water depending on a tone that was played. Once they had learned which tone came with the “treat,” the experimenters began playing ambiguous tones. If the dogs responded to the ambiguous tones, they were rated as optimistic—they expected good things to happen. While those that did not were more pessimistic. Dr. Starling’s research could help in selecting which dogs make better bomb sniffers (risk-taking, optimistic) versus service dogs (risk-averse, pessimistic).

“This research has the potential to completely remodel how animal welfare is assessed. If we know how optimistic or pessimistic an animal usually is, it’s possible to track changes in that optimism that will indicate when it is in a more positive or negative emotional state than usual,” said Dr Starling.

“The remarkable power of this is the opportunity to essentially ask a dog ‘How are you feeling?’ and get an answer. It could be used to monitor their welfare in any environment, to assess how effective enrichment activities might be in improving welfare, and pinpoint exactly what a dog finds emotionally distressing.”