Jealousy in dogs is real

Dogs can act jealous (is this really news to most dog owners?).  Well, researchers have taken steps to scientifically prove that jealousy exists.  They undertook this research because researchers studying emotion have argued for years whether jealousy requires complex cognition or that jealousy is a social construct not linked to physiology and psychology the way emotions like fear and anger are…

Emotion researcher Christine Harris, professor of psychology at UC San Diego, with Samwise, one of three border collies to inspire the study on dog jealousy. Photo by Steve Harris.

Emotion researcher Christine Harris, professor of psychology at UC San Diego, with Samwise, one of three border collies to inspire the study on dog jealousy. Photo by Steve Harris.

The research, published in the journal PLoS ONE, by University of California San Diego psychology professor Christine Harris and former honors student Caroline Prouvost is the first experimental test of jealous behaviors in dogs.

The findings support the view that there may be a more basic form of jealousy, which evolved to protect social bonds from interlopers.

Harris and Prouvost show that dogs exhibit more jealous behaviors, like snapping and pushing at their owner or the rival, when the owner showed affection to what appeared to be another dog (actually a stuffed dog that barked, whined and wagged its tail). Dogs exhibited these behaviors more than if the same affection was showered on a novel object and much more than when the owner’s attention was simply diverted by reading a book.

“Our study suggests not only that dogs do engage in what appear to be jealous behaviors but also that they were seeking to break up the connection between the owner and a seeming rival,” Harris said. “We can’t really speak to the dogs’ subjective experiences, of course, but it looks as though they were motivated to protect an important social relationship.”

Since there had been no prior experiments on dog jealousy, the researchers adapted a test used with 6-month-old human infants. They worked with 36 dogs in their own homes and videotaped the owners ignoring them in favor of a stuffed, animated dog or a jack-o-lantern pail. In both these conditions, the owners were instructed to treat the objects as though they were real dogs – petting them, talking to them sweetly, etc. In the third scenario, the owners were asked to read aloud a pop-up book that played melodies. Two independent raters then coded the videos for a variety of aggressive, disruptive and attention-seeking behaviors.

Dogs were about twice as likely to push or touch the owner when the owner was interacting with the faux dog (78 percent) as when the owner was attending to the pail (42 percent). Even fewer (22 percent) did this in the book condition. About 30 percent of the dogs also tried to get between their owner and the stuffed animal. And while 25 percent snapped at the “other dog,” only one did so at the pail and book.

The “other dog” – the stuffed, animated pooch used in the experiment. Photo by Caroline Prouvost.

The “other dog” – the stuffed, animated pooch used in the experiment. Photo by Caroline Prouvost.

Did the dogs believe the stuffed animal was a real rival? Harris and Prouvost write that their aggression suggests they did. They also cite as additional evidence that 86 percent of the dogs sniffed the toy dog’s rear end during the experiment or post-experiment phase.

“Many people have assumed that jealousy is a social construction of human beings – or that it’s an emotion specifically tied to sexual and romantic relationships,” Harris said. “Our results challenge these ideas, showing that animals besides ourselves display strong distress whenever a rival usurps a loved one’s affection.”

Source:  UCSD media release

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