Researchers at the University of California San Diego have just published a study with findings they believe support the presence of jealousy in dogs. The scientists modeled their work on an experiment designed to test for jealousy in preverbal infants. In this experiment owners were asked to pay attention to different objects in the presence of their dogs while offering no attention to their pets. The objects included a book, a jack o lantern and a mechanical stuffed dog. The study showed a significant number of dogs reacted to the stuffed dog with aggressive behaviors (snapping, getting between the owner and the object, pushing/touching the owner or the object, etc.) compared to not exhibiting these behaviors around the book or jack o lantern. According to the researchers this demonstrates “primordial” jealousy.
In the experiment the dogs are believed to be competing for attention with the stuffed dog. While this experiment definitively charts the reactions of each pet dog to the presence of the stuffed dog and the withdrawal of attention from the owner it cannot ever go to the motivation or goal of the behavior. This is one of the basic limitations of the research that we do. We can only count what we can see and suggest from there. The scientists posit that most of the dogs sniffed the anal region of the stuffed dogs and that this sniffing is evidence that the dogs believed the stuff dog to be a real dog. If the stuffed dog is perceived as a real dog than the triangle is complete for a jealousy scenario to play out. Of course, it is also equally plausible and to my mind more likely, that the sniffing was investigatory sniffing of a novel object and the dog was in no way fooled by this foreign object even if it was one worthy of reacting to (introducing the stuffed dog without the owner’s attention being paid to it would give another condition to compare against and solve that question). Let me say that as a dog owner, behaviorist and trainer I firmly believe that jealousy is an emotion that dogs both possess and display. I see it displayed most vividly when competing for equal amounts of food or toys from an owner doling out either.
It is problematic to design a study comparing the needs of preverbal children with adult dogs. A preverbal child’s need for a mother’s attention is far greater and biologically necessary than a dog’s need for an owner’s attention, now when you shift the focus from attention to liver treats; it’s a whole different story.