Do Dogs Get Jealous?
Turns out, they can experience complex emotions.
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As an animal behaviorist and dog trainer, I’ve long felt comfortable with the idea that dogs experience jealousy. Over the years, research has provided ample evidence in support of this claim. Recently, a new study in the journal Psychological Science investigated jealousy in dogs in situations in which the dogs can’t see their rival.
Researchers studied 18 dogs and their reactions to their owners’ interactions. The dogs in the study observed their owners in close proximity to a realistic fake dog. Then, a barrier was placed to block the dog’s view of the fake dog, at which point the owner began to pet the fake dog behind the barrier. (The dogs being studied could still see the owners.) The dogs were also observers when the experiment was repeated, this time, with the owners sitting by a fleece tube and petting that tube after the barrier went up.
In the trials with the tube, the fake dog was also present and next to the owner, but the owner did not pay any attention to it. Researchers used the presence of the fake dog to tease apart the influence of the presence of the fake dog and the interaction between it and the owner.
To do this, they measured the force with which the dogs pulled toward their owners in each situation. Pulling harder in the direction of the owner was considered a sign of jealousy. (Studies of jealousy in young children also measure the effort these children make to approach their parents when the parent’s attention is on another activity.)
Based on the increased force of pulling toward their owners when they were petting the fake dog compared to other situations, the researchers claim to have found evidence of jealous behavior in dogs. The dogs pulled hardest when the owners interacted with a perceived social rival (another dog), with an average force of more than twice that exerted in response to their owners petting a fleece cylinder while in the presence of the fake dog. Additionally, the dogs reacted with strong force when their owner was interacting with another (fake) dog, even if they couldn’t see that interaction.
Consequently, the researchers concluded that dogs acted jealously when their owners gave attention to another dog, even if that other dog was not visible. They also concluded that the dogs did not act jealous when their owners gave attention to an inanimate object, nor when their owners were near another dog but not paying any attention to that dog. Finally, they determined that the dogs could mentally represent an interaction without actually seeing it.
In my opinion, this study has issues that raise questions about the conclusions. The only behavioral measure taken was the force of the pulling, which can also signal that the dogs simply want to join the interaction. Many dogs enjoy socializing with both people and dogs, and those dogs are likely to pull toward their owner when another dog is engaging with that person. It’s also possible that the pulling simply reflected attention-seeking behavior, which does not necessarily mean the dog was experiencing jealousy.
I have two issues with this research paper. One is the presentation of jealousy in dogs as a ground-breaking idea, and the other is the failure of this paper to demonstrate jealousy in dogs. I don’t think this study (or some of the earlier work on the same subject) provides compelling evidence of jealousy in dogs. However, there are studies that have been more convincing, and I certainly don’t think it makes sense to view jealousy as uniquely human.
This study investigates canine jealousy, which is great, but it does not adequately eliminate other explanations for the behavior observed in the study. (It does, however, make a reasonable case that dogs can form mental representations of interactions between their owner and a dog who is out of sight.)
The bottom line: Dogs do experience jealousy. As author and behaviorist Patricia B. McConnell, PhD writes in the book For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend: “Jealousy doesn’t strike me as a particularly complicated emotion. I see tension and aggression between dogs on a weekly basis that seem little different from behavior that we wouldn’t hesitate to call jealousy in young, preverbal children. It all seems to come down to ‘You’ve got it, I don’t, and I’m not happy about that.’… It’s unimaginable to me that they don’t have some sense of missing out on something good. Surely your dog knows when you’re petting another dog that he’s not being petted himself.”
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Karen B. London, PhD
Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.