Dog-cheating is not a laughing matter.
Come home smelling like another dog and you may just wind up in the dog house. Your own pooch may know you’ve been two-timing and may show you in no uncertain terms that she doesn’t approve. My dog Bella, for instance, will stop short in the middle of an excited greeting ritual, sniff the offending scent on my pant leg or hand and immediately call off the greeting. She’ll turn her head and trot off, refusing the usual petting and behind-ear scratches. She knows.
Do dogs experience jealousy? Most people who live with a dog will answer with a resounding yes and will have a whole collection of stories about what makes their dog itch with envy and what sorts of behaviors jealousy seems to provoke. Indeed, the term “dog-cheating”—when you come home with the scent of another dog on you—has a firm place in the lexicon of dog owners. Science seems to confirm the intuition of dog owners, though much work remains to be done before scientists have a thorough understanding of canine jealousy.
What does the science say? There is accumulating evidence that dogs do experience jealousy, but we still know relatively little about the how, why, and when of canine jealousy and ascribing the emotion “jealousy” to a certain behavior is inexact and fraught with complications.
A 2014 study by Christine Harris and Caroline Prouvost suggests that the emotion of jealousy may have evolved in a wide range of social species, as a mechanism to protect social bonds from third-party interlopers (Harris and Prouvost 2014, p. 1). The functional role of jealousy extends beyond the potential loss of sexual or romantic relationships and the fitness consequences of such losses (e.g., cuckoldry) to encompass the protection of emotional bonds in a wide range of valued relationships, including friendships. Charles Darwin himself suggested that jealousy may exist in other species, and he made particular note of dogs.
Harris and Prouvost sought to provide empirical evidence to back up the evolutionary theory. They used an experimental design developed to assess jealousy in 6-month old infants. A group of dogs was observed as their owners ignored them and interacted with one of three different objects—a “social” object (a stuffed dog), and two “nonsocial” objects (a toy pail and a pop-up book). “The dogs,” write Harris and Prouvost, “exhibited significantly more jealous behaviors (e.g., snapping, getting between the owner and object, pushing/touching the object/owner) when their owners displayed affectionate behaviors towards what appeared to be another dog as compared to nonsocial objects.” (p. 1)
A 2018 study by Peter Cook and colleagues used noninvasive brain imaging (fMRI) to measure activity in the canine amygdala—an area of the brain involved in aggression—while dogs watched their owners give food to a fake dog (Cook et al. 2018). The dogs showed activation in the amygdala while watching the food give-away, and more aggressive dogs showed greater activation. “This may have some similarity to human jealousy,” they suggest, as differences in specific brain activities correlate with differences in temperament (p. 1). In other words, like people, some dogs are much more prone to jealous feelings than others. Cook et al.’s study were quite small, and they acknowledge that although amygdala activation can be interpreted as a neurobiological indicator of high arousal, it is difficult to pin down whether this high arousal state is one of jealousy or some other affective state (e.g., anger, fear, anxiety). Nevertheless, they believe their work confirms that dogs likely experience the emotion of jealousy. (For more on dog jealousy, see Psychology Today contributor Marc Bekoff’s essay on the Cook study.)
The science is there. But what should we do with the knowledge? Are there ethical implications? I think so.
Is it wrong or cruel to make your dog jealous?
In a commentary on Cook et al.’s study, philosopher Peter Singer writes, “For all practical purposes, we should assume that jealousy is typically a distressing subjective experience in dogs, as it is in humans.” (Singer p. 1) In which case, we should avoid putting in dogs in situations where they are likely to feel jealous since it is wrong to impose negative affective (feeling) states on our dogs if we can avoid it.
Of course, we will likely be unable to completely protect our own canine companions from feelings of jealousy. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t and wouldn’t want to avoid all interactions with other dogs. Nor can we be certain exactly which situations may make our individual dog feel jealous, or whether a reaction, like Bella avoiding my greeting when I’m caught with another dog’s scent on my hands, has anything to do with her being jealous as opposed to feeling some other emotion(s). But we can nevertheless take the issue of dog jealousy more seriously. In particular, we can avoid deliberately trying to provoke a jealous reaction—something I’ve seen many dog owners do, all the while laughing at their dog’s “silly” antics.
Do we know that dogs are feeling jealous when they give their two-timing owner the sniff-down? No. They may just be curious about the new smells. But they may very well be experiencing the canine version of the green-eyed monster.
As in the realm of human-human relationships, jealousy is ubiquitous and unavoidable. In dog-human relationships, jealousy is also probably unavoidable and is a natural consequence of individual dogs forming close bonds with individual people. The tendency to become jealous likely varies widely from one dog to another and will be highly dependent upon context. Each person who lives with a dog, or with several dogs, can seek to better understand what seems to provoke jealousy in their individual companion.
Jealousy is an area of canine behavior we will hopefully come to better understand because it is ethically important. A greater understanding of the emotional lives of our companion animals can guide us toward greater sensitivity to their needs.
Author’s Books on Amazon
Harris CR, Prouvost C (2014) Jealousy in Dogs. PLoS ONE 9(7): e94597. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0094597. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0094597
Peter Cook, Ashley Prichard, Mark Spivak, & Gregory S. Berns. Jealousy in dogs? Evidence from brain imaging . Animal Sentience 2018.117.
Singer, Peter. Finding the green-eyed monster in the brain of a dog. Animal Sentience 2018:124.