Understanding Dog Jealousy: A Non-Conclusive Emotional Reaction

By Gaby Dufresne-Cyr, CBT-FLE

Jealousy is a complex emotion, often characterized by envious resentment or possessiveness. In humans, it can range from a mild envy to a deep suspicion. But what about dogs? Recent research provides intriguing insights into how dogs might experience jealousy, yet the evidence remains non-conclusive. 

Brogolmer dog sleeping on a faux fur blanket

Definitions of Jealousy

  • Feeling or showing an envious resentment of someone or their achievements, possessions, or perceived advantages.
  • Feeling or showing a resentful suspicion that one's partner is attracted to or involved with someone else.
  • Fiercely protective of one's rights or possessions.

In humans, jealousy involves feelings of envy, possessiveness, and protective behaviour. It's often triggered by perceived threats to important relationships. Similar descriptors include terms like envious, covetous, and distrustful. However, while jealousy in humans is widely accepted as a nuanced emotion, its presence in dogs prompts questions.

The first definition suggests that a dog may feel jealous if it perceives a threat to its relationship, indicating an insecure attachment. This would imply the dog resents another dog or human's achievements, possessions, or advantages.

In the second definition, jealousy would arise if a dog experienced a situation where its caregiver showed affection to another dog while rejecting it. The dog might see this as hurtful and anticipate similar outcomes in future interactions, a complex emotion even for a human child.

Lastly, when a dog protects its possessions, this is termed possession aggression, not jealousy. To attribute jealousy to dogs, we must differentiate it from behaviours like resource guarding or possession aggression. Recognizing that self-preservation and jealousy are distinct is crucial. I haven't yet found studies that prove jealous behaviours in canids.

Research on Dog Jealousy

1. Cognitive Representation:
The study Dogs Mentally Represent Jealousy-Inducing Social Interactions (2021) suggests that dogs may anticipate situations that could provoke jealousy, indicating a cognitive component. However, whether this represents true jealousy or a learned response remains unclear.

2. Behavioral Responses:
Research on dogs' reactions to their caregivers interacting with others Pet dogs' Behavioural Reaction to Their Caregiver's Interactions with a Third Party (2022) shows that dogs often interrupt or seek attention. This behaviour suggests possessiveness but may also be a simple desire for social interaction.

3. Neural and Autonomic Responses:
fMRI studies and physiological measurements indicate that dogs exhibit specific brain activations and autonomic responses when witnessing their owners engage with others. These findings imply an emotional response, but whether it equates to human-like jealousy is debatable.

Comparing Research and Definitions

While definitions of jealousy include deep emotional and cognitive aspects, research on dogs presents a mixed picture. Dogs display behaviours and physiological responses that suggest jealousy, but these could also be attributed to other motivations, such as seeking attention, companionship, or avoiding conflict by employing the splitting behaviour, a distance-increasing behaviour which modulates aggression.

The notion of dog jealousy as a non-conclusive emotional reaction highlights the complexity of interpreting canine emotions. While studies suggest parallels between human and dog jealousy, the exact nature of this emotion in dogs is still not fully understood. Owners should be aware of these behaviours but also recognize that they may stem from multiple emotional sources. Understanding and addressing these responses can improve the relationship between humans and their canine companions.

Sources:

- Abdai, J., Baño Terencio, C., Pérez Fraga, P. et al. Investigating jealous behaviour in dogs. Sci Rep 8, 8911 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-27251-1

- Abdai, J., & Miklósi, Á. (2018). Displaying jealous behavior versus experiencing jealousy. Animal Sentience, 3(22), 21.

- Bastos, A. P., Neilands, P. D., Hassall, R. S., Lim, B. C., & Taylor, A. H. (2021). Dogs Mentally Represent Jealousy-Inducing Social Interactions. Psychological Science, 32(5), 646-654.

- Bräuer, J., & Amici, F. (2018). Fake or not: Two prerequisites for jealousy. Animal sentience: an interdisciplinary journal on animal feeling, 3.

- Cook, P., Prichard, A., Spivak, M., & Berns, G. S. (2018). Jealousy in dogs? Evidence from brain imaging. Animal Sentience, 3(22), 1.

- Karl, S., Anderle, K., Völter, C. J., & Virányi, Z. (2022). Pet Dogs’ Behavioural Reaction to Their Caregiver’s Interactions with a Third Party: Join in or Interrupt? Animals, 12(12), 1574.

- Karl, S., Sladky, R., Lamm, C., & Huber, L. (2021). Neural responses of pet dogs witnessing their caregiver’s positive interactions with a conspecific: an fMRI study. Cerebral Cortex Communications, 2(3), tgab047.

- Matsushita, S., Nagasawa, M., & Kikusui, T. (2022). Autonomic nervous system responses of dogs to human-dog interaction videos. Plos one, 17(11), e0257788.

- Vékony, K., & Pongrácz, P. (2024). Many faces of dominance: the manifestation of cohabiting companion dogs’ rank in competitive and non-competitive scenarios. Animal Cognition, 27(1), 12.

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