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Can Dogs Be Pessimists?

Published September 12, 2011 in Love For Earthlings |
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Since the idea that animals are just little biological machines, living unemotional lives run by instinct and base condition alone, has never really sat well with many — we always sensed there was more going on inside their heads than this.

Researchers from the University of Bristol have shown via experiment that dogs can be essentially optimistic or pessimistic by nature. As The Economic Times glibly describes it, there are dogs that see the glass (uh, bowl) half empty and those which see it half full.

The experiment to demonstrate this consisted of training dogs at two UK rehousing centres that when a bowl was placed in one location in the room it contained food and when placed in another location it would be empty. After which, the food bowl was placed in various locations in between the two.

The researchers found that some dogs, classed as “optimistic,” ran quickly to the middle locations, expecting food to be there, expecting a reward. Other dogs were, shall we say, less enthusiastic.

Extrapolating, those that were optimistic in nature were less likely to be anxious when left alone than dogs with a more pessimistic nature. The researchers say that about half the dogs in the UK at some point exhibit “separation-related behaviours — toileting, barking and destroying objects around the home — when they are apart from their parents. Our study suggests that dogs showing these types of behaviour also appear to make more pessimistic judgment generally.”

Perhaps it is being too generous to ascribe optimism and pessimism to these behaviours. After all, we cannot fully know what is going on with these dogs minds, any more than we can directly know the same for humans. But it is fascinating to me nevertheless to learn that, as with people, there well may be underlying emotional states — not just conditioning — influencing the behaviour of dogs.

After all, this is what most dog parents (and pet owners more broadly) intuitively know anyway. But now you can point to a study demonstrating this.

Adapted from an article on Planet Green

Rats Laugh and Turtles Play

Published September 11, 2011 in Love For Earthlings |
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Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp from Washington State University has studied the high-pitched vocalizations of rats and found they have their own form of laughter. Called ultrasonic vocalizations, these noises are heard frequently during rats’ play time. Panksepp wondered if the noises he had been hearing them make could be similar to human laughter. He tried tickling their bellies and observed they made the same vocalizations when tickled, which indicate pleasure.

“Every place in the pathway that we stimulated, we got a chirp.That’s the gold standard that this vocalization is associated with a big reward,” Panksepp said. (Source: the-scientist.com)

This rat laughter could be the first scientific measurement of positive affect, or pleasure, in animals other than humans. Pankseep explained insights from the rat play and laughter research could help improve models for treating human psychiatric disorders.

A psychology professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville Gordon Burghardt says he has observed play in animals as something they need, and is not limited to dogs, cats, and primates. He is one of the first researchers involved with defining play in both humans and animals. The basis of his definition is,”Play is repeated behaviour that is incompletely functional in the context or at the age in which it is performed and is initiated voluntarily when the animal or person is in a relaxed or low-stress setting.” (Source: USnews.com)

He said he had a breakthrough moment observing a fifty-year old Nile soft-shelled turtle playing with a basketball while swimming in a zoo enclosure. According to him, play has benefits such as learning skills, maintaining physical and mental fitness, and improving social relationships. These benefits can be for animals and humans. He believes studying play in animals can yield information that is also relevant and helpful for humans. For example, research focused on rats has provided some insights which are involved in using play for lessening attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children.

In some research contexts, it appears play was overlooked because it stopped once they were tested, “a number of studies did just that — raising rats and monkeys in social isolation so they could not play – fight, or confining young ungulates to small spaces so they could not gallop and frolic,” says behavioural ecologist Lynda Sharpe from South Africa. (Source: the-scientist.com)

It used to be thought animal play was for developing physical skills in juveniles to help them be better hunters and to defend themselves. Currently, the thinking has shifted more toward play as a method of preparing the animal for stressful situations. The notion is called “training for the unexpected,” meaning that play allows an animal to become acquainted with a variety of situations and sensations before the actual event takes place.

Adapted from an article by Jake R.