From The Science Dog: Do dogs have negativity bias?

Sometimes, psychological similarities between dogs and people can be bad for dogs. Linda Case at The Science Dog provides insightful analysis of research on how dogs mirror emotions displayed by humans and other dogs. She writes,

Negativity bias – We all suffer from it.

This is the phenomenon in which we naturally pay more attention to and give more weight to negative information and experiences compared with those that are positive. It is this particular cognitive bias that causes us to be more hurt or discouraged by insults or criticism than we are pleased or encouraged by compliments and shining reviews.

Case points out that human negativity bias is common in training relationships: handlers are more likely to notice and correct unwanted canine behaviours, than they are to notice and praise desirable canine behaviours.

However, the study Case analyzes looks at this issue from a dog’s point of view. Researchers recorded dogs’ responses to positive and negative vocalizations produced by people and by other dogs. They found that when dogs heard negative sounds from either species they

froze in place more often, remained immobile for longer periods, and showed more signs of stress and arousal than when they listened to positive vocalizations from either a human or another dog.

Case points out that dogs may experience negativity bias. This means that our poor pooches get a double whammy–not only are we likely to respond disproportionately to our dogs’ bad behaviour (our negativity bias), but our dogs are likely to respond disproportionately to our negative reactions (their negativity bias).

Case has a clear take-home message:

Knowing that dogs are naturally more sensitive to negative information (and emotions) than to positive and also knowing that dogs react to the negative emotions of others with stress, then it is a no-brainer to conclude that we should avoid aversives when we train and interact with our dogs. There are of course many reasons that we should focus on positive reinforcement and reduce or eliminate the use of aversives in training. This research just adds one more – negative emotions (harsh voice, hard stares, anger) emotionally bleed into our dogs and cause them to be unhappy and stressed. Not only are they aware of these emotions in us, they may be more sensitive to them than we have previously realized.

This motivates me to renew my efforts to notice, be grateful for, and reward my dog’s good behaviour. Milo the AwesomeDog is laying nicely on his bed right now. I’m off to give him a cookie.

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