For reasons that defy logic, many people continue to be surprised at the idea that dogs experience complex emotions and to suggest that such emotions, including jealousy, only occur in humans. Whenever I see a psychological study that claims to provide evidence that a complex emotion is present in dogs, refuting the idea that it is only present in humans, I shudder. Animal research to explore the emotional complexities in animals other than humans went beyond this “uniquely human” idea decades ago, but this is still discussed as news in some research circles.
In 2005, For the Love of a Dog: Understanding the Emotions in You and Your Best Friend, writer and behaviorist Patricia B. McConnell, PhD writes: “Jealousy doesn’t seem like a particularly complicated emotion to me. I see tension and aggression between dogs on a weekly basis that is little different from what we would not hesitate to call jealousy in young, preverbal children. It all seems to mean that you have it, I don’t, and I’m not happy about it. It is inconceivable to me that they don’t feel like they’re missing out on something good. Surely, when you pet another dog, your dog knows that he will not be petted himself. “
In a research report “Jealousy in Dogs” published in 2014, the authors write:[F]From a functional point of view, one might expect an emotion that evolved to protect social bonds from intruders to exist in other social species, especially one that is as cognitively as sophisticated as the dog. “In this study, they found strong evidence that dogs act like jealous. They documented and measured a number of relevant behaviors that dogs exhibited more frequently when their owners were loving another dog than when they exhibited the same behaviors towards an inanimate object.
But here we are 16 and 7 years later with a recent study – dogs represent mentally jealous social interactions – where psychologists who claim they have additional evidence that dogs experience jealousy discuss the idea that this is often unique human emotions are considered. The researchers also discuss their claim that dogs are able to form a mental representation of the type of interaction between their owner and another dog that would make them feel jealous and act.
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They 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. A barrier was then put in place to block the dog’s view of the wrong dog. At this point the owner started petting the wrong dog behind the barrier. (The dogs examined could still be seen by their owners.) The dogs were also observers when the experiment was repeated this time. The owners sat on a fleece tube and stroked this tube after the barrier went up.
In the experiments with the tube, the wrong dog was also present and next to the owner, but the owner ignored it. The researchers used the presence of the wrong dog to distinguish the influence of the presence of the wrong dog and the interaction between it and the owner.
To do this, they measured the force with which the dogs pulled towards their owners in every situation. Pulling harder towards the owner was seen as a sign of jealousy. (Studies of jealousy in young children also measure the efforts these children make to get closer to their parents when the parents’ attention is focused on another activity.)
Because of the increased strength to pull on their owners when they petted the wrong dog compared to other situations, the researchers claim they have found evidence of jealous behavior in dogs. The dogs pulled the hardest when owners interacted with a perceived social rival (another dog), with an average force more than double that exerted in response to their owners petting a fleece cylinder in the presence of the wrong dog. In addition, the dogs reacted with great force when their owner interacted with another (wrong) dog, even if they could not see this interaction.
As a result, the researchers concluded that dogs acted jealous when their owners paid attention to another dog, even when that other dog was not visible. They also concluded that the dogs were not jealous if their owners were watching an inanimate object or if their owners were around another dog but paying no attention to that dog. Eventually, they found that the dogs could mentally represent an interaction without actually seeing it.
In my opinion, this study has problems that raise questions about the conclusions. The only behavioral measure was the force of pulling, which can also signal that the dogs simply want to participate in the interaction. Many dogs love to interact with people and dogs, and these dogs are likely to move in with their owner if another dog engages with that person. It’s also possible that the pull simply reflected the attention-getting behavior, which doesn’t necessarily mean the dog was feeling jealous.
I have two problems with this research report. One is portraying jealousy in dogs as a groundbreaking idea and the other is this paper’s failure to demonstrate jealousy in dogs. I don’t think this study (or any of the earlier work on the same subject) provides convincing evidence of jealousy in dogs. However, as noted above, 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 examines dog jealousy, which is great, but doesn’t adequately eliminate other explanations for the behavior seen in the study. (It is reasonable, however, that dogs can make mental representations of interactions between their owner and a dog that is out of sight.)
Have you seen your dog act in ways that might make them jealous if you give your attention to another dog?