Jealous Behavior In Dogs

Do other dogs in the household bring out the green-eyed monster?
By Karen B. London PhD, August 2018

Social relationships are adaptive because they are necessary—or at least helpful—as a source of benefits. Those benefits range from basic needs such as food and shelter to other needs such as support, alleviation of stress and mates. Threats to those social relationships may result in jealousy and a behavioral response to that emotion. The purpose of jealous behaviors is to restore or maintain relationships of value that are being challenged.

Dogs rely on humans to meet their physical and emotional needs, so it makes sense to predict that they would respond with jealous behaviors in situations with rivals for that relationship. The most likely rivals for a dog are the other dogs in the household, which is why scientists recently studied dogs’ behavior when guardians paid attention to their other dogs.

The resulting paper, “Do dogs exhibit jealous behaviors when their owner attends to their companion dog?” recently appeared in the journal Animal Cognition. They did not find compelling evidence that dogs exhibited jealous behaviors when another dog in the household is receiving attention from the guardian, but small sample sizes and high individual variability may have masked any effects that do exist.

To conduct the study, researchers recruited 21 pairs of dogs that were healthy, not aggressive and had lived with each other and their guardian for at least a year. The study took place in a room in their lab. The guardian began by letting both dogs the explore the room while paying no attention to either dog. Then, the guardian sat in the chair provided and read a magazine that had been left on the adjacent table. The next step was to pet one of the dogs while ignoring the other, followed by another interlude in which both dogs were ignored again while the person read the magazine. Finally, the guardian began to pet the dog who had been ignored while the first dog had been receiving attention.

The experimental design allowed the behavior of the dogs to be observed in two contexts. The dogs’ behavior was observed when both dogs were being ignored and compared to the behavior of dogs when their buddy was getting attention. A number of behaviors that could be caused by jealousy were of interest to the researchers. These included interactions between both dogs, interactions with the guardian, gazing at the guardian, being in close proximity to the guardian, stress behaviors, vocalizations, and any interruptions of the interaction between the guardian and the other dog.

The scientists predicted that the dog who was being ignored while his companion was receiving attention from their shared guardian would exhibit more jealous behaviors than when both dogs were being ignored. They expected the dog being ignored to perform behaviors aimed at regaining the attention of the guardian. However the only behavior that was statistically more frequent when a dog was the only one being ignored compared to the times when both dogs were being ignored was looking at the guardian.

The results do not support signs of jealousy in dogs. Many of the potentially jealous behaviors appeared in both contexts—when the guardian read a magazine while ignoring both dogs, and when the guardian pet one dog but ignored the other. Seeing the same behaviors in both contexts means that the dogs could be performing those behaviors as a form of attention-seeking as well as because of jealousy.

If the function of jealous behaviors is to defend relationships and the resources that are derived through those relationships, it stands to reason that dogs would display jealous behaviors to protect their relationships with humans. This study does not rule out the possibility of jealous behaviors occurring in realistic situations. Future research is necessary to determine if there are everyday situations that lead to jealous behaviors in dogs, and exactly which contexts could trigger it.

Does the lack of jealous behaviors in this study surprise you based on your experiences with your own dogs?

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.

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