Can dogs be jealous? Nudge those preconceptions away

When we are on a walk with all three of our dogs and someone stops to pet them, Harper, our 7-year-old cavalier, pushes forward to be first. When they move on to one of the other dogs, she nudges them, as if to say, “No, pet me, pet me.”

Is Harper jealous or envious of the attention received by the other dogs?

The answer used to be no – that jealousy is a complex emotion not experienced by dogs. Then University of California, San Diego, psychology professor Christine Harris, working with former honors student Caroline Prouvost, decided to test whether that was actually true. Their study, published last July in the journal PLOS ONE, found that dogs may well experience a basic form of jealousy.

One of the definitions of the word “jealous” is one who is solicitous or vigilant in maintaining or guarding something. In this case, dogs may have evolved to protect social bonds from interlopers (or in Harper’s case, protecting her share of attention from people and making sure other dogs don’t get any).

When their owners showed affection toward another dog, the dogs in the study snapped and pushed at their owners or the rival dog, which for experimental purposes was a stuffed dog that barked, whined and wagged its tail. In contrast, they were less likely to display jealous behaviors when the owner showed interest in a novel object, such as a jack-o’-lantern bucket, or when the owner read aloud a children’s book that had pop-up pages and played melodies.

Dogs were about twice as likely to push or touch owners when they interacted with the stuffed dog (78 percent) as when the owner paid attention to the bucket (42 percent). Thirty percent of the dogs tested tried to get between their owner and the stuffed dog.

“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,” Harris said. “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.”

Your response might be, “So what?” If you’re a dog owner, you’ve probably seen your dog exhibit jealous behaviors. The research is important, though, because it adds to our knowledge of the canine brain and helps to support the growing body of research indicating that dogs have sophisticated social and cognitive abilities. You probably know as well that pets can be jealous of more than just other dogs. Sometimes they are a roadblock in the path to true love.

It’s not unusual for pets to resent attention given to a new person in the owner’s life, whether that’s a boyfriend or a baby. They may seek more attention for themselves or even try to insert themselves between the owner and the new person. That’s especially common when the pet is used to getting all the owner’s attention. It’s no surprise he doesn’t want to compete with anyone else for it.

If your pet is jealous of the new love of your life, seek to create a love triangle – the good kind. Have your significant other become the giver of all good things: walks, meals, treats, toys. If the new kid on the block is a baby, provide those things to the dog (or cat) in the baby’s presence. In both cases, you’ll be helping your pet develop a positive association with the newcomer, joining best friend to best friend. What could be better than that?

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton, author of many pet-care books. The two are affiliated with