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Canine Pessimism May Lead to Pets' Bad Behavior, Study Finds

Oct. 11 (Bloomberg) -- As with people, some dogs always expect the worst, according to research suggesting that pessimistic pups are also more likely to have behavior problems.

The study of 24 dogs was reported today in the journal Current Biology. The animals were trained to expect an empty food bowl at one position in a room, and one with food at another. When the vittles were placed elsewhere, some dogs ran to the bowls and others ignored them, the researchers said.

That suggests the dogs had different expectations, the researchers said. Those who didn’t go quickly to the bowls, the pessimists, were also found to have behavior problems when left alone. This included tearing up furniture or relieving themselves indoors. While about a third of dogs have separation anxiety, only the worst cases are treated, said Emily Blackwell, an animal behaviorist at the University of Bristol in the U.K.

“We tried to come up with a way of measuring the dog’s attitude,” said Blackwell, a study author, in a telephone interview. Many owners “think the dog is trying to get revenge by chewing up their slippers -- they don’t understand the dog is anxious.”

There isn’t a connection between breed and misbehavior in Blackwell’s previous research, she said. Instead, the dogs are misbehaving because they weren’t trained at any early age to know that being alone isn’t something to be concerned about. The process of training a dog to know how to behave, called socialization, is best done during puppyhood, Blackwell said.

Although later training can undo bad behavior, it requires a great deal of work and effort, she said.

Training a puppy is important for dogs, said Adam Goldfarb, the director of the Pets at Risk program for the Humane Society of the United States, based in Washington. Today’s study shows that dogs who aren’t socialized well have a negative attitude about life, he said. Goldfarb wasn’t involved in the study.

“This tells us something that isn’t reflected in the way every dog is cared for,” Goldfarb said in a telephone interview. “A dog who is being destructive is a dog whose needs aren’t being met.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Elizabeth Lopatto in New York at elopatto@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net.

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