Does My Dog Really Get Jealous?

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Originally posted on September 2, 2014.

Graduation brings few guarantees. Jobs are scarce, job security is even more difficult to find, and many people earn less and receive fewer employee benefits than they anticipated. But graduation often brings at least two things: pomp and presents. When I finished graduate school, my parents bought me a dog. I knew he had basic emotions, such as happiness and fear. Now I know he also gets jealous.

Finnegan, an English golden retriever, is one of my best friends. Early in my professor job, I would bring him to the office with me. He slept while I wrote papers. He even participated in some of my research studies. [Not to worry, a graduate student ran the experimental sessions. When we discussed the studies in front of Finn, I covered his ears to keep him blind to condition. Smiley Wink ] We would take walks around campus. Students would pop in and pet him. When I left the office to teach, he would yelp a little before settling down and falling asleep.

Then something happened. I got engaged. My fiancée Alice (now wife of more than six years) moved to Kentucky and started sleeping on Finnegan’s side of the bed. Suddenly, he wasn’t top dog anymore. I was happy. Finnegan wasn’t. 

But then another major event occurred. We purchased another dog, Finnegan’s half-brother, and named him Atticus. We wanted Finnegan to have a playmate. Things went well. Finnegan and Atticus played and wrestled and did all of the cute things that make YouTube videos go viral. Finnegan did show a curious new behavior, however. He seemed to get jealous when I petted Atticus.

Was Finnegan’s jealousy an illusion? It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking that animals can do more than they can. For examples, dogs don’t know they are dogs. They don’t have that kind of self-awareness. Dogs also don’t have strong belief systems. Sure, they might like to eat my pizza, pretzels, and shoes. But it would never occur for one dog to ask another, “Do you avoid eating meat pizza for health or ethical reasons?” They just gobble and go.

According to a recent study, dog jealousy is real. The researchers tested 36 dogs. Just how might you evoke dog jealousy? Have a dog’s owner interact with a stuffed dog that barks, whines, and wags its tail. The owners also were instructed to ignore their own dogs while they played with the stuffed dog. To provide comparison conditions, owners also ignored their dogs to interact with a jack-o-lantern or a book.

Boy, the dogs got jealous when their owners ignored them! The dogs acted needy and tried to “shoo the rival [dog] away.” They fixed their gaze on the interloper. They even got a little nippy.

The dogs only got jealous when their owners paid attention to another dog. They didn’t mind their owners playing with the jack-o-lantern or a book. Just like my Finnegan, the dogs only started to show pangs of jealousy when they felt they were being replaced.

The moral of the story is that dogs experience complex emotions. Jealousy can sour relationships. Fortunately, humans and dogs can overcome their jealousy and learn to include others in their lives. Finnegan loves Alice, and Atticus is his best friend. Finn got over his jealousy. In that way, old dogs might be able to teach us some new tricks.

About the Author
C. Nathan DeWall is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social Psychology Lab at the University of Kentucky. He received his Bachelor’s Degree from St. Olaf College, a Master’s Degree in Social Science from the University of Chicago, and a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Florida State University. DeWall received the 2011 College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teaching Award, which recognizes excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching. In 2011, the Association for Psychological Science identified DeWall as a “Rising Star” for “making significant contributions to the field of psychological science.”