Dog Behaving Badly? It Could Be Jealousy

A girl plays with one puppy while another chews her shoeAnyone who’s ever been endlessly pawed by a dog who’s not getting what it wants knows that dogs experience a range of emotions. Science sometimes moves more slowly than popular wisdom, though, and a new study reveals what many dog owners already knew. When you pet another dog, your dog really does get jealous.

Dogs and Jealousy

Christine Harris, a University of California, San Diego, psychologist, wanted to see how dogs reacted to watching their humans pet another dog. She compared dogs’ reactions when their owners played with a realistic-looking stuffed dog, a children’s book, and a jack-o-lantern. The dogs reacted most strongly when their people played with the stuffed dog, with most dogs raising their tales, touching or pushing their owners, or pushing the stuffed dog out of the way. Other common reactions included inserting themselves between the stuffed dog and their owner, biting the stuffed dog, barking, and whining.

Some dogs also reacted when their owners played with the jack-o-lantern or children’s book, but all dogs were much more likely to react when a realistic-looking stuffed dog was involved. Harris refers to this type of jealousy as “primordial,” arguing that while it’s not as complex as human jealousy, it is undeniably there. 

The Challenge of Understanding Dog Emotions

Not all researchers agree with Harris’s conclusions. Alexandra Horowitz, a cognitive scientist and author of Inside of a Dog, has argued that Harris’s study does not show jealousy. Instead, the study shows that dogs seek attention when they see that attention is available.

Because we can’t ask dogs what they’re feeling, proving that they experience any specific emotion will always be challenging. We do know that dogs are highly social animals, and the authors of The Social Dog: Behaviour and Cognition argue that dogs need excellent social skills and a constant awareness of their relationships with other members of their pack to survive. No dog experts deny that dogs feel emotions; instead, the question is which emotions they feel and when they feel them.

In some cases, it can be harmful to attribute to dogs emotions they do not feel. When a dog looks guilty after destroying a book or pair of shoes, for example, the dog’s not likely feeling guilt. After all, there’s nothing in the dog’s evolutionary history that would suggest to him or her that chewing a new object is immoral. Instead, dogs who show guilt are likely fearful of their owners’ reactions. Similarly, owners who believe that their dogs are angry because they growl or become aggressive might not notice that the aggression is the product of fear or inadequate socialization.

Concerns about properly interpreting dogs’ behavior and emotions have led some owners to turn to a behaviorist approach. Reward-based training methods focus on the dog’s behavior rather than trying to discern the dog’s feelings.

References:

  1. Gorman, J. (2014, July 23). Inside man’s best friend, study says, may lurk a green-eyed monster. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/24/science/entering-gray-area-study-says-dogs-can-be-green-with-envy.html
  2. Kaminski, J., & Marshall-Pescini, S. (2014). The social dog: Behaviour and cognition. Amsterdam: Academic Press.
  3. Miller, P. (2001). The power of positive dog training. New York: Hungry Minds.

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  • Josie

    Josie

    August 2nd, 2014 at 1:25 PM

    My dog is very jealous any time that I show any affection to my husband. We hug and she expects that she has to be a part of that!

  • elena p

    elena p

    August 2nd, 2014 at 4:35 PM

    We as humans have to teach our pooches the appropriate ways to act in every situation that we can think of.

    If we show them love and affection then they are going to know when it is time to love them and time when you need to love someone else.

    I think that they are way more likely to show that little jealous streak if they are not otherwise getting the affection that they deserve.

  • Louisa

    Louisa

    August 4th, 2014 at 4:03 PM

    Any one who thinks that dogs don’t have feelings is just plain nutso! Of course they feel some of the same things that we do, and if they are not getting the attention that they want at that moment and someone else is, then it could be likely that they feel a little twinge of jealousy or could even become very poorly behaved just because they know that this will elicit a response. I don’t know how deeply this all runs because I don’t know animal psychology, but my dog is very in tune with my feelings and so I know that she has feelings that also are there and make her have the personality that she does.

  • deidre

    deidre

    August 5th, 2014 at 10:42 AM

    We had to dog sit for my in laws once and our dog did not like that one little bit!
    She acted out terribly so much so that even though we wnat to help out more with their dog for them it seems like an impossible situation given how badly our dog behaved when she has been with us.
    She has been an “only dog” for a long time and I think that the idea of sharing her people and her space with another four legged creature was too much for her to handle gracefully.

  • Shanna

    Shanna

    August 6th, 2014 at 3:24 PM

    I do think that a large part of this is about our buddies just wanting the extra attention. It’s not that they are jealous per se, just that they perceive that they want a little more love and affection than what they are getting. This could seem like jealousy to us as humans but we can’t always project onto our dogs human emotions because they don’t process things the same way that we do. That’s just my thought anyway.

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