Dogs Get Jealous, Too

Dog owners were right all along. Our pups really do get jealous when we direct our affection elsewhere—but mostly when their rival for attention appears to threaten their social life.

Once thought to be too complex an emotion for nonhumans, jealousy in canines—and the “pay attention to me” behaviors that arise from it—probably evolved to protect important social bonds in the pack, according to a new paper.

An older dog looks out the window at the new member of the household. Photograph by Laura Humes, National Geographic Your Shot

Study leader Christine Harris, a psychologist at the University of California at San Diego, was playing with her parents’ border collies when she got the idea to study jealousy in dogs. (Read “Animal Minds” in National Geographic magazine.)

“I noticed that when I was paying attention to two of them at the same time, petting them and talking to them, they weren’t content to share that attention,” she said.

“One would push the other’s head out from underneath my hand so that both hands were on him. The other did the same. They each wanted exclusive affection.”

Sniffing Out Rivals

Adapting a jealousy study used on 6-month-old human babies, Harris and colleague Caroline Prouvost set up experiments with 36 dogs in their homes. The team videotaped the dogs’ reactions while their owners ignored them and instead paid attention to a stuffed animal (a realistic-looking dog that whined, barked, and wagged its tail), a jack-o-lantern pail, and a pop-up book that they read aloud.

The resulting behaviors suggest the dogs assessed each “rival” and decided whether it warranted action. If it did, they did their best to break the bond that left them out, according to the new study published July 23 in the journal PLOS ONE.

More specifically, of the 36 dogs observed—a varied lot including a Boston terrier, Yorkshire terriers, chihuahuas, a pug, and mutts—78 percent would push or touch the owner when that person was petting and sweet-talking the fake dog; 42 percent were upset over attention toward the pumpkin pail, and just 22 percent were bothered when the book was the focus. (See National Geographic’s dog pictures.)

Also telling, nearly a third of the dogs tried to place their bodies between the owner and the stuffed dog, and 25 percent snapped at the toy. (Only one dog snapped at the pail and book.) And 86 percent of the dogs sniffed the stuffed animal’s rear end as they would a real dog. It appeared, the scientists say, that the dogs saw the doglike interloper as a true threat.

That was a bit of a surprise. “We weren’t sure we would get such behaviors over a stuffed animal,” since it lacked the animation and smells of a real dog, Harris said. (Watch video: “Reading a Dog’s Signals.”)

“I think their reactions would have been even stronger had the rival been real.” (Including real rival dogs in the experiment would have muddied the findings, as it would be difficult to control the situation and collect data evenly.)

“Our research suggests that when confronted with a rival for a loved one’s attention, dogs engage in behaviors aimed at regaining the rival’s affection and getting rid of the rival.

“These behaviors would seem to be motivated from a jealous emotional state”—though of course, she pointed out, the findings don’t speak to the subjective state of the dog’s mind.

Dogs: Just Like Us?

So do dogs go green with envy in the same way we do? Probably not.

“Humans and dogs are different in a number of ways,” Harris said. “For example, I would doubt that the dog ruminates on the transgression after the fact, whereas humans do. Humans also ask themselves all kinds of questions about the meaning of an infidelity (am I boring? unlovable?) and about the relationship (will this be the end of my relationship?). These types of thoughts are obviously going to impact the experience and feelings of jealousy.”

Instead, what she imagines is shared across both species “is the urge to stop the interaction, to engage in behaviors that reestablish the loved one’s attention. The appraisal that a loved one is interacting with a rival seems sufficient to motivate this state.” (Take National Geographic’s dog quiz.)

The findings “are another step in dispelling myths about what dogs supposedly cannot do,” said Marc Bekoff, a fellow at the Animal Behavior Society and an expert in dog behavior.

There are compelling reasons based on solid evolutionary theory that even complex emotions like envy and guilt aren’t exclusive to human beings, said Bekoff, who wasn’t involved in the study.

“And there is no reason to assume that what animals experience is any less real or deep for them than our emotions are for us.”

It’s perhaps not surprising that in the study of human infants this dog study emulated, the babies, like the dogs, were much more likely to exhibit jealous behaviors when their mothers were attending to a realistic doll than when reading a book—a nonsocial activity.

More Green-Eyed Monsters?

Not only does the study show more broadly that jealousy is not a human construct, it also suggests the emotion does not have to be based on sexual rivalry—which is the way people often think about it.

Instead, it may have its roots in the need to secure resources in all kinds of valued social relationships, be they sexual, parental, sibling, or just friendly. (See “Q&A: What Can Dog Brains Tell Us About Humans?“)

Dogs seem like the perfect species in which to look for something like envy: They are cognitively sophisticated, form bonds with humans and with each other, and will try to manipulate the way we give them attention (as the collies did). But what about other animals?

The official studies still need to be done, but Bekoff said to expect a lot more evidence showing how sophisticated the emotional lives of nonhuman creatures can be.

“We need to keep the door open on the cognitive and moral capacities of other animals.”

 Follow Jennifer Holland on Twitter.

Degrees in English and Conservation Biology Contributing Writer, National Geographic magazine Regular Contributor, NG News Author of bestselling books Unlikely Friendships (2011) and Unlikely Loves (2013)
  • Randolph

    Err yes, those that have a dog and then get a cat certainly know! Any affection towards the cat elicits an immediate response from the dog, normally putting himself between yourself and the fluff ball, demanding the same attention. Its hilarious!

  • Miriam Stone

    This study reminds me of behavior I’ve observed in cats I have had. Whenever I was reading -books,magazines etc. ; my cat would, without fail, attempt to place himself literally on top of whatever I was reading (if I had my book flat on a table) or place himself between me and the book or magazine to prevent me from seeing the print if I had my reading material held on my lap. While this is not the same thing as jealousy; it certainly seems related. He always noted that my attention was deeply absorbed and he always wanted to block the intrusive object in order to reclaim it. This happened with computers also in later years; he would sit on the keys and block the screen to prevent me from interacting with it. I noticed identical behavior with another cat I had later on, as well.

  • kevin l olson

    They sure do!

    We had two Siberian Huskies for several years before our son was born. They wanted nothing to do with him. One even nipped at him. Vet told us to give it some time and keep and eye on them. Then our son started to talk and it was like they recognized, “Oh, it is another one of those things”. After that he could do anything he wanted to them and they didn’t care. Our son had a great relationship with Sheazu Shadows Black Toe and Sasha Copper Twilight.

  • It certainly does seem clear that our social animals don’t want us to socialize with others as much as with them! I have three dogs (the third one is recent) and so far they seem to be okay with shared love, but I’m keeping an eye out for those behaviors…I’m sure there are complex contextual issues that also play into this.

  • jj

    Why did someone study something that is so blatantly obvious to anyone who owns dogs?

  • leilani

    @jj because not everyone owns or has owned a dog, and there are many many people who wrongly believe that animals are not emotional sentient beings, which hopefully research will dispel.

  • Nannie

    Well, duh. I have to pet my cat in secret. If the dog sees, he pushes the cat out of reach & insinuates himself between us. And I didn’t even do a study!!

  • I get why many readers think this is obvious, but scientists can’t assume that because something seems right, it actually is. Think about the fact that chimpanzees grin but that doesn’t mean they’re happy…it’s important to actually do controlled studies to show that what we believe to be true actually is (or isn’t). With animal emotion, there is lots of disagreement over what’s really going on. These kinds of studies help to put the puzzle pieces of animals’ brains into place. And finding good evidence for jealousy, in particular, is also evidence for more advanced cognitive processes than some people believed was possible in other animals. So, the studies are important, even when they show something we all though was true! Thanks for the comments–keep ’em coming!

  • Shane C

    I too have 3 dogs 2 females and a male. The larger younger female who happens to be Havanese wants to be the alpha dog. There is at times competition except when we take them for walks then they are more fixated on smells and everything else around them. The Shitzu male and the larger female are competitive when it comes to toys. But, they do try to snatch it away from each other and if one drops it the other puts ownership to it immediately. They all get along well, but the large female has to be the first to go downstairs and will use her body to block the other two from getting pass her. The two younger ones compete for affection more and the older shitzu female who quietly comes for the attention when the younger ones are not around. Think she is too old to care not sure. Of course we try to maintain no favoritism.

  • Sandra

    I think they do .. our dog Molly is so jealous if I give my husband a hug .. she jumps up for attention and is known to start yowling too … and she’s jealous so of our cat she smartly interrupts by standing in the way if too much petting of the cat goes on

  • jj

    Mammals all have the same number of bones, muscle groups and peripheral nerve structures, although shaped differently between species. These structures predate our own on the evolutionary progression; we inherited then from animals. Our palate of emotions was similarly inherited from animals, although it is unique to our species in the same was out anatomy is. Jealousy, hate, fear, love, empathy, loyalty, spitefullness – we didn’t “invent” these emotions, they are very evident to anyone who has spent any time around other social animals, dogs in particular.

  • Siyabonga Mtshwelo

    I think that jealousy is one with territoriality and it also suggests ranking in the pack. Same way that a pack won’t let outsiders into their territory because of the risk of being displaced and ultimately having to compete or loose their prey; this is how dogs look unto us. Since we’re their providers and “pack leaders”; rank is extremely important to them as it means something. It means that they get favor over the lower ranking members of the pack. This is expressed as jealousy. Dogs can be socialized properly though and taught to earn their rank by “behaving” accordingly.

  • Julian

    Not to discredit the findings, but how much money was wasted finding out water is wet?

  • Jayne

    I am shocked at the level of anthropomophisation. Who knows what dogs feel but dogs? The report indicates
    A tiny study sample, different dogs with varied Physiology, upbringing, states of mind, etc, etc. different Relationships and value structures, learned Behaviours, etc, etc and does not talk about Any control group? Doesn’t seem very
    Scientific to me…

  • JeNai Markland

    My Beagle mix gets jealous when l’m on
    the phone or on Facebook. He wants affection all the time.

  • Denise

    My dog kofy was very jealous abiut my twibs when he was a puppy, he was bating my kids feet till I put them down so I can carry him. Now I alsohave kuky and she is very very jealous more then kofy sge doesnt like when I give love to anyone around me.

  • Dina Baxter

    I recently got another dog operatng under the misguided notion that she would keep my older dog company, since her best friend, another of my dogs died 5 months earlier. The end result of that debacle was that the new dog constantly interfered when I would show attention for my older dog, and I’m convinced that she, the older dog, felt she was being replaced, and in four week’s time her health rapidly declined and I feel she died of a broken heart. That guilt will haunt me to the end of my days.

  • Joshua Bublitz

    I have two dogs, half Huskie, half Wheaton Terrier. They are from the same litter, both males, have known me since birth and raised by me.
    If I pet Sam, no matter where in the house I am and once his brother Gordo becomes aware that I am petting him, will rush to wherever we are and force himself in on the attention. Even pushing Sam out of the way.
    However, when petting Gordon, even if we are two feet away Sam won’t budge. He seems to not care.
    Even stranger, when separating the two, Sam has almost gone into a full blown panic (pacing back and forth, whining at the door, restlessness) while Gordo seems unphased.

  • z

    I think most social animals can be jealous. I have personally experienced it in not only dogs & cats but in horses as well.
    With companion animals it seems to be fairly easy to reconigize when we view the circumstances from their agendas & needs.

  • Nonae Temujinn

    I understand why ‘scientific’ studies are required; however, any of us whom have had multiple animal species live in our homes at the same time know, animals are weird! They all do varied a specific things when they feel threatened, everything from snarling, biting, threatening, and—- believe it or not—- from what I have personally witnessed, overt OVER ATTENTION to the new arrival.

  • EJY

    My family and I have had dogs for companions for all of my thirty years. I’ve had two Standard Poodles and a Golden Retriever in between. All have shown different emotions much similar to human children. When I was a kid my first standard got jealous or mad at someone else she would punish me, I was a child then, but imagine the dog taking a crap on your bed because your mom and dad fed the raccoons outside and let them hang out on the porch. A second example would be my second dog the golden retriever, when she was sick and had horrible malignant cancer the year before she died the vet had us boiling chicken and rice for her dinner. During this time my mother cooked more often than she had in years, the dog sat in the dark in the hallway glaring at us so you could only see her eyes, she pouted and whimpered because my mom fed me a raspberry desert bar she made, the dog was jealous of hand to mouth contact, and jealous of the attention. My dog now is again another standard poodle she will be 9 in November and I turned 30 recently. She is partial to most female humans and treats my sister’s cats as if they were her own babies. She disapproves of and barks when you tease the cats or provoke them to react a certain way. But when you play with them and not her she gets jealous. When either I or my sister sit with our boyfriends on the couch my standard barks and sits right in between, sometimes on the other person. She will stare him down and try to get him to show her affection in return for her finally showing hers. In the end the dog is ultimately begging for the guys approval more than being jealous. It does most defiantly seem dogs get over jealousy much easier than humans do. But dogs do hold onto things such as embarrassment, discomfort, and hurt feelings. If you yell at the dog too much, or frighten the dog, the dog throws up from anxiety and cowers until they are forgiven by you. These are real facts. And jealousy is I think a normal mammalian emotion. Animals punish humans back, not only have all my dogs been jealous but they have all punished and stolen items off the counter, from my purse or opened the closet to help themselves. I’m so tired of every human out there who doesn’t care to understand the intelligence of the dog. The older my dog gets the more she thinks she doesn’t have to listen to me but always sits beside me. I have a dog whose breed is known for having a larger brain. My dog ponders all day. For the people think that poodles are a bunch of wusses, you are all sorely mistaken! I’ve never seen any other dog in my life think the way they do before they act. I’ve never had to train any of my standards to be a watch dog or to protect me, they’ve all done on their own! I do t know what I would do without my most thoughtful friend.

  • Patti

    For a number of reasons, I have always found both my dogs and cats “plugged in” to me. Many years ago cats remaine with me day and night as I recovered from surgery, sleeping as close as possible to the incision. Recently my partner died and both dog and cat were affected. Dog had experience death when her owner died year earlier but the cat was heartbroken and spent weeks sleeping with the rose on his pillow. I felt so sorry for the little cat. Our pets are amazing

  • diane

    M’y teckel, Lola is very jealous. I had a canary, Romeo, while I was at work, Lola got to the cage, opened it and killed the canary.
    I got another canary, Gaston, she is just waiting for the opportunity…..
    If I have her my arms and somebody gets too close she jups in their face. I am her property, but I adore her.

  • Peter Lood

    For more than 25 years, we have been involved with training elite dogs for a variety of purposes. Based on our own empirical observations and anecdotal evidence, we have come to appreciate that canines are capable of cognitive processes and emotions, including jealousy and affection, far beyond their commonly accepted capacities; as any experienced dog trainer will tell you, dogs are not mere Simpletons, but display complex social behavior, intelligence and emotions. Adding to a growing number of scientific studies, this research into canine jealousy further supports a changing perception of canine cognitive processes and emotions. We hope that this growing body of research also results in better training methods and treatment of dogs, as the U.S. dog population has significantly increased in the last decade.

    Peter Lood
    Principal Partner
    In Canis Speramus

  • Marcus

    I had an Australian Shepard when I was a teenager named Tara that I raised from birth. She was my little girl and I was here daddy, and she made sure everyone new that. she hated when I gave anything more attention than her…. especially when I started to date. I swear she ran off three girls before I found someone that I could with stand her. She was a possessive girl.

    She died last spring at 8 years old. No man, woman or child could ask for a better dog. I miss my little girl.

  • Thomas Musselman

    Brain scans show dogs indeed feel the same emotion humans do, using the same parts of the brain we do.

  • El Stone

    Any dog owner could tell you this.

    No “scientific” study necessary.

  • Deirdre Smith

    I have a golden retriever that is about a year and a half. then about two weeks ago we got a kitten, and of course the kitten is getting a little more attention. I defiantly detected some jealousy and there is still a little but now there the best of friends 🙂

  • Emilia

    I think the only reason this needed to be studied is so scientists can convince other scientists. Most of the rest of the world already knows this.

  • rya hannkock

    that is amazing!!!!!!!! How can dogs have feelings.

  • Hannah

    L.O.L These stories are hilarious. I never had a dog, but am really good with dogs, and my friend’s dog is really happy when he gets attention.

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