Whether it's a new baby or the cute little terrier next door, there's a good chance your dog doesn't want to share your affections with anyone else. And it's not your imagination that he gets jealous when you do. We often wonder if dogs feel complex emotions, but it's a tricky question.
The father of evolution, Charles Darwin, suggested that jealousy might exist in other species besides humans, particularly dogs. "Everyone has seen how jealous a dog is of his master's affection, if lavished on any other creature," he wrote in "The Descent of Man," first published in 1871.
Since Darwin made that observation nearly 150 years ago, scientists have been debating whether he was correct. Some argue that jealousy is a human-only emotion that we apply to our pets.
But if you have a dog, you likely think that dogs can get jealous. Have you ever played with another dog around your pup? Or pet a different dog when you we're taking a walk? Heaven forbid you brought home a new puppy or a new baby. Many dogs don't like it when they're not the center of their owner's attention.
What science finds
A few years ago, researchers at the University of California, San Diego found that dogs exhibited jealous behaviors when their owners showed affection toward a stuffed dog that barked, whined and wagged its tail. The dogs snapped and pushed at the robotic dog and sometimes their owners, trying to get between the two.
"Our study suggests not only that dogs do engage in what appear to be jealous behaviors but also that they were seeking to break up the connection between the owner and a seeming rival," said study co-author and psychology professor Christine Harris, in a statement. "We can't really speak to the dogs' subjective experiences, of course, but it looks as though they were motivated to protect an important social relationship."
For the study, which was published in the journal PLOS One, researchers watched videotaped interactions of 36 owners and their dogs in their homes. They had the owners ignore their dogs in favor of a stuffed, animated dog or a jack-o'-lantern pail, both of which they treated as if they were real dogs — petting them and talking to them sweetly. In a third situation, owners read aloud from a pop-up book that played melodies.
The dogs were about twice as likely to touch or push their owners when they were interacting with the fake dog (78%) as when they were talking to the pail (42%). Few dogs (22%) responded like this when the book was involved. About one-third of the dogs tried to get between the owner and the stuffed animal and about 25% snapped at the "other dog."
Researchers say the aggressive response suggests the dogs believe the stuffed animal was real and an actual rival for their owner's affection.
"Many people have assumed that jealousy is a social construction of human beings – or that it's an emotion specifically tied to sexual and romantic relationships," Harris said. "Our results challenge these ideas, showing that animals besides ourselves display strong distress whenever a rival usurps a loved one's affection."
Signs your dog is jealous
Your dog might act out when he's trying to get your attention and may be experiencing feelings of jealousy. Keep an eye out for behaviors like these, suggests PetMD.
Aggression — From slight nibbling to biting, growling to barking, your dog could act more aggressively toward you or the pets that he perceives as rivals.
Attention — Pets may show more attention to their owners by licking them, cuddling with them or just trying to get more petting.
Accidents — Potty-trained pets may suddenly go to the bathroom indoors to get attention or even to show displeasure.
Tricks — "Look at me!" your pet is saying, as he shows off by doing tricks to get your focus on him.
Leaving — If your pet is miffed, she may just leave the room.
If you have more than one pet, be sure to give them equal attention so that one pet doesn't feel slighted. If you feel any behaviors are getting out of control, see a trainer or behaviorist for help.