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Do Dogs Experience Jealousy?

Dominance display

Does your dog get upset when you pay attention to someone else?  Have you ever talked about your dog being jealous or wondered what’s going on in his head?  A recent study on jealousy in dogs may offer some answers.  The study was conducted by scientists at the University of California, San Diego, and published in the journal PLOS One.  It’s generated a lot of interest, for good reason.

Until recently, many scientists have dismissed the possibility of emotions and complex cognitive abilities in non-human animals.  However, in the last few decades there has been an explosion of research in this area. There is mounting evidence that many other species of animals live in a much richer and more complex inner world than previously believed.  This is no surprise to those of us who live with and love dogs.  However, we can only benefit by having scientific evidence to back up (or disprove) our assumptions.  The better we understand dogs (and other animals) and their relationships with humans, the better we can care for them and meet their needs.

Before discussing the study itself, it’s helpful to talk a little bit about jealousy and its function.  When most people think about jealousy, they picture romantic relationships.  However, jealousy can be present in any kind of relationship.  It is an emotional response triggered by a perceived threat to an existing relationship by a third individual.  In social animals, relationships are valuable because they can grant access to things like protection and food.  Because dogs form close social bonds, they are a logical candidate for experiencing jealousy.  This is particularly true of their relationship with their owners, because they are dependent on them for just about everything.

Person and dog - terrier off leash

The researchers used a test similar to one used to test jealousy in 6 month old infants.  Each owner was told to ignore their dog while participating in three different conditions:  1) pet and talk to stuffed mechanical dog (that barked and wagged its tail), 2) pet and talk to a strange object (jack-o-lantern pail) and 3) read a children’s book aloud.  If the dog was just reacting to the lack of attention it should display similar behaviors in all three conditions.  In addition, if the dog’s behavior is motivated by a possible threat to its relationship with the owner, it should react more strongly to the stuffed dog than the jack-o-lantern.  (This presumes that the dog perceives the stuffed dog as real.  Many dogs do seem to respond to stuffed dogs as real dogs, at least initially.  Click here for a video that illustrates this nicely.)

Dogs showed significantly more “jealous” behaviors when the owner directed attention to the stuffed dog (compared to the jack-o-lantern or book).  This included behaviors such as aggression toward the object and trying to get between the owner and object.  Overall, the behaviors shown by dogs were similar to those shown in humans. It’s interesting to note that dogs that did not sniff the stuffed dog’s rear showed far less “jealous” behaviors.  This could indicate that those dogs did not believe the stuffed dog was real.

The researchers conclude that this is strong evidence for the presence of primordial jealousy in dogs.  What do they mean by primordial?  In humans, jealously tends to be accompanied by a lot of speculation about the motivations and feelings of the other individuals.  For example, a man that watches another man speaking to and laughing with his wife, might experience a feeling of jealousy.  This feeling may then be accompanied by a number of thoughts such as “he is interested in her”, “she likes him” or “she is going to leave me”.  He may then go on to think about how he is going to react and how his wife and the other man might respond to his reaction.  Those additional thoughts could trigger additional emotions such as anger or fear.  This is a very complex set of thoughts and emotions and we do not know yet if dogs are capable of this.  This kind of reaction requires a sense of self.  We do not have evidence at this point that dogs are capable of self-awareness (another complicated and important question that I do not have time to fully address here!)  When the researchers talk about primordial jealousy, they are likely referring to the first part of human jealousy – the initial emotional response.  Primordial jealousy would not include the accompanying thoughts and the emotions they trigger.

Worried white dog close up

It’s also important to note that this is the first study of its kind on dogs, so we need to be careful about the conclusions we draw at this time.  It is possible that the dogs’ behavior indicates something other than jealousy – such as fear of an unknown object.  Keep an eye out for additional studies of this kind – we are in a very exciting time for scientific research on the inner lives of dogs!  What kind of things have your dogs done that make you think they are (or are not!) jealous?

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Kristina Spaulding

Kristina Spaulding

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