Canine Corner

The human-animal bond

Do Dogs Feel Jealousy and Envy?

Dogs have a sense of fairness and do react when they feel this is violated.

dog puppy jealousy envy emotion bone conflict fairness equity
Jealousy and envy are common emotions in social settings. You might say it's the art of counting the other person's blessings instead of your own. Some people believe that dogs don't feel such emotions. A different view came from a dog sled racer I met outside of Dawson City. He was getting ready to harness his team and they were milling around in a friendly excited manner. I reached over to pet a handsome blue-eyed Siberian Husky, but he warned me off saying "If you pet one you have to pet them all. They get really jealous. If they think that one of them is getting more of anything, affection, food, or whatever, they turn into green eyed monsters."

 In all social situations there are inequities, and some individuals come out better than others when it comes to rewards. Scientists tend to separate emotions into two categories: primary and secondary. Primary emotions, such as fear, anger, disgust, joy, and surprise, are considered to be universal. Secondary emotions such as guilt, shame, jealousy, and envy, are thought to require more complex cognitive processes. For example, in the case of envy you have to actively pay attention to what the other individual is getting and compare it to what you are getting for your efforts. Although there are observations of clear cases of jealousy and envy in primates, such as chimpanzees and baboons, the argument has been made that it would be unlikely to find it in an animal like the dog, because it involves self awareness at a level which, until recently, was doubted in dogs. However, people who live around dogs often observe it in their pets.

 One commonly observed manifestation of jealousy in dogs results because of the complex relationship between a mother dog, her puppies, and her owner. Unlike humans, a canine mother does not maintain the maternal instinct for her children for the remainder of her life. As soon as the puppies are able to survive on their own her maternal instinct for the current litter wanes and is certainly lost by the time she next goes into heat. Young puppies are, of course, very cute and cuddly, so it is natural for them to receive a lot of affection from the people in the house. More knowledgeable owners may try to treat all of the dogs with equal care and attention, but usually this is to no avail. The mother dog sees her owner's attention being diverted away from her toward the puppies, and becomes jealous. She may begin ignoring the pups and trying to exclude them from the maternal nest. This can escalate to the point where she might actually become aggressive toward the pups or even toward her owner.

 It is strange that behavioral scientists often ignore such common observations. It is well accepted that dogs have a broad range of emotions. Dogs are certainly social animals, and jealousy and envy are triggered by social interactions. Dogs also have the same hormone, oxytocin, which has been shown to be involved in both expressions of love and jealousy in experiments involving humans.

 Friederike Range of the University of Vienna, decided to see if dogs do showed jealousy in an experimental situations where two dogs perform the same task, but one gets rewarded while the other does not. Each dog had learned the simple trick of "shaking hands" by extending their paw and putting it in a person's hand. For the test, the dogs were arranged in pairs, seated beside one another. Both dogs in each pair were individually commanded to "shake hands", but only one dog received a reward. It was expected that if dogs experience jealousy or envy the unrewarded dog might respond to this unfair distribution of rewards by refusing to continue to obey the command. That is exactly what happened. The dog that was not getting treats for performing soon stopped doing the task. Furthermore the dog that was not rewarded showed clear signs of stress or annoyance when its partner got the reward.

 Some people might protest that this does not really show jealousy. It might well be the case that the dog who was not being rewarded stopped responding simply due to the fact that all unrewarded behaviors eventually tend to disappear because of the process learning theorists call "extinction." To make sure that it was the interaction between the dogs that was important, rather than just the frustration of not being rewarded, a similar experiment was conducted where the dogs performed the task without a partner, but also without any rewards for his exertions. Under these circumstances the dog continued to present its paw for a much longer time, and did not show the same signs of frustration and annoyance.

One thing which emerged from these studies was the fact that jealousy and envy in dogs is not quite as complex as it is in human beings. When human beings are involved in competitive social situations, every aspect of the reward is carefully scrutinized to try to determine who is getting the best outcome. Dogs do not view this situation under the same kind of microscope. This can be seen when the experimenters changed the situation in a subtle way.

 Now, again, we have two dogs sitting in front of the experimenter, each being asked in turn to place their paws in her hand. Both dogs are being rewarded for this activity, however one dog gets a very desirable treat (a piece of sausage) while the other dog gets a less desirable treat (a piece of bread). In human beings this might be the equivalent of two corporate employees who work equally well and are both given promotions. However one was rewarded with a new posh corner office, while the other gets a smaller, more austere one down the hall. Under such circumstances it is reasonable to expect that the less favored individual might feel jealous and envious. However, although one dog is receiving a better reward, however, both dogs continue to work, and seem to be quite happy with the situation. This means that dogs are sensitive to "fairness" (whether everyone is being rewarded for their efforts) but not "equity" (whether all of the rewards are equal).

 Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark; Do Dogs Dream? The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C., is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

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