Do dogs feel jealousy?
Updated: Aug 7
You are sitting on your sofa and your husband or wife comes over to give you a hug. At that very moment your dog comes over to squeeze in between you and your partner. "Aw, look who is jealous!", we think to ourselves. So, in response, we spread the joy and give our dog's plenty of affection.
But was the motivation behind this act really founded in the emotion of jealousy? Or was it something else?
First, we must remember that all dogs are individuals. And as such, some dogs are capable of higher forms of emotional intelligence than others. There is real evidence that dogs are capable of compassion and empathy. We see it when they risk their lives to save others -- often doing so at the risk of their own safety. The dogs that engage in such heroic acts are not formally trained by humans to do so. These are real, spontaneous acts of true caring. Empathetic dogs respond to situations using innovative tactics to solve life-threatening problems.
Knowing that dogs are individuals adds a layer of complexity to the question, "Do dogs get jealous?" However, for most dogs the answer is clear -- no, they are not motivated by what humans feel as jealousy. Instead their motives are about control.
When humans interact with one another, dogs have an innate desire to intervene to maintain the continuity of the family. What looks to us to be jealousy is a really a form of parenting and management behavior designed to set boundaries within the family. The dogs say to themselves, "Wait a second, I did not authorize this hug. The pack structure around here is me, mom, then dad." Or vise versa. It is a rare moment when we get to see a dog attempt to realign the command-and-control structure of our family in a literal, physical way. Once our behavior has been regulated, the apparent jealousy often subsides and they might walk away.
This boundary-setting behavior contains overtones of possessiveness as it intends to dictate our social interactions and take control of us -- what we do, when we do it, and how we do it. Dogs can be very self-interested and want to compete for anything they feel is a resource. One of the greatest resources a dog will ever cherish is a family. Setting boundaries to construct a family is among their top concerns in life. If this behavior goes completely unregulated, dogs can begin to feel they own us. Over time, this can develop into other problems such as aggression where our dog will defend us, but for all the wrong reasons -- because they feel they own us.
When dogs step in to control situations, this is a called a blocking behavior. We can see this most frequently when dogs play with one another. Blocking is seen throughout the family construction process as boundaries build families. When two dogs interact, a third party will feel compelled to control and regulate the situation. This mutual form of control helps to add stability to the pack. Under these circumstances we rarely call it jealousy. Instead we often call it play. In other words, we only tend to ascribe this label when it happens to us.
As soon as stability and control in the family are reestablished, these "jealous" dogs often walk away unconcerned. It would seem this apparent jealousy is short-lived.
Even when dogs are given equal attention, they still compete for control of one other. When I pet my two dogs, they attempt to block each other anyway. If they are given equal treatment shouldn't the jealous feelings subside? But they do not. This strongly refutes the belief that dogs feel a sense of injustice through the lack of equal treatment.
Jealousy itself requires an understanding of injustice; a belief they have been wronged in some way. In order for dogs to experience injustice, they must have a certain amount of self-awareness. They must be able to project a sense of self into a potential situation and imagine new a situation that is more equitable.
Even when "jealous" dogs win control over the situation, this never seems to be enough. When the other dog approaches from a new direction, she is still blocked from interaction. Again, this lends evidence that this about control of resources, not feelings of injustice.
How should we respond?
Since jealousy is actually about control, it is appropriate for dog parents to regulate this behavior. We should not reward the offending dog by praising them at this time. Any dog that attempts to step into our space should be repelled back by a block or push of our own. This will prevent the dog from taking possession of us and attempting to control situations. Leashes can also be used to set boundaries and discipline unwanted decisions. This will help to maintain the continuity of our family structure. Blocking dogs for intervening is also completely natural as this is the natural response of dogs within their own relationships. Doing so is also healthy as it helps maintain emotional health and feelings of security.
To learn more about this topic and canine cognition order Three Dimensional Dog, A Unified Theory of Canine Behavior, and learn to see dog behavior in a new way.
Aaron McDonald is a canine cognitive behaviorist, cognitive theorist, and author. He can be reached at www.ThreeDimensionalDog.com or 205-563-8383.