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Jealousy

Is It Possible for a Dog to Actually Experience Jealousy?

Dogs are capable of jealousy much like that seen in young children.

Key points

  • Dogs are capable of experiencing the same basic emotions as a 2- to 3-year-old child, research suggests—including fear, disgust, and joy.
  • Jealousy is a more complex emotion, which is why some scientists believe that only humans can experience it.
  • New data, however, suggest that dogs may feel jealousy when they believe that a rival dog is the object of their owner's affections.
Image by Lanfear's Bane on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Source: Image by Lanfear's Bane on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Science has established that dogs experience the same basic emotions as does a 2- to 3-year-old child. That means to say that a dog can feel happy, sad, angry, fearful, disgusted, and surprised. The question of whether they feel the more complex social emotions, including guilt, pride, shame, envy, and jealousy is still open to investigation. Jealousy, for example, is an emotion that involves three individuals. It is the unhappy feeling of being replaced in someone else's affections or the suspicion that the object of your affection has been unfaithful in your relationship.

Some researchers feel that this involves some pretty complex reasoning processes, which perhaps only humans are capable of. However, in a new report, a team of researchers from the School of Psychology at the University of Auckland in New Zealand suggests that dogs are capable of this emotion. "Research has supported what many dog owners firmly believe, dogs exhibit jealous behavior when their human companions interact with the potential rival," said Amelia Bastos, the lead author on this paper.

In 1871, Charles Darwin anticipated these results when he noted that "everyone has seen how jealous a dog is of his master's affection if lavished on any other creature." However, science requires actual data, rather than casual observation, to raise a concept to the status of "a fact" rather than "a supposition."

To determine if and when dogs display jealous behavior these investigators used 18 pairs of dogs and owners. They set up a testing condition where the dogs could imagine that social interaction between their owner was taking place with another dog or just an inanimate object. For safety's sake, they didn't use another real dog, but rather a realistic model of a dog that might be viewed as a potential rival for attention. As a control comparison, they used a cylinder that was wrapped in fleece.

The test started out with the dogs tethered on one side of the room. The dogs observed the "fake dog rival" sitting next to their owner. While the dog watched, a barrier was rolled into place between the dog and its potential "rival" so that they could only see their owner from the waist up. Although the dogs could not see what their owner was doing with his hands, they could see him or her bending over and repeating some generic affectionate phrases (e.g. "What a good boy!" "You are such a good dog!" "What a clever girl!") several times for the duration of the trial.

The leash that the dog was tethered to was attached to an apparatus that could record how forcefully the dog was pulling on it. Thus the measure of the degree of jealousy was how vigorously dogs attempted to reach their owners when they appeared to be petting the rival fake dog behind the barrier. It was determined that this pulling really was based on jealousy because, in the condition where the owners were petting a fleece-covered cylinder rather than the model dog, the dogs pulled on the lead with far less force. Remember that all of these activities were triggered by the dog's mental imagery as to what was going on since everything below the owner's waist was obscured by the barrier.

The authors concluded, "Dogs’ ability to connect the dots and infer that their owners’ actions were directed toward a hidden rival suggests that dogs not only are capable of mentally representing social interactions but also specifically do so when interpreting interactions that might threaten the social bond they have with their owners." In other words, the dogs were showing jealousy based on their conclusion that some rival dog was stealing their owner's affections away from them. This means that dogs, like people, can feel the strong negative emotion that Shakespeare called "the green-eyed monster."

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

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Francesco83/Shutterstock

References

Bastos, A. P. M., Neilands, P. D., Hassal, R. S., Lim, B. C., & Taylor A. H. (2021). Dogs mentally represent jealousy-inducing social interactions. Psychological Science. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797620979149

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