Study finds dogs can experience a very human emotion

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Sure, Fido is a brown Lab. But inside, he may also be a little green.

New research suggests that dogs can exhibit jealousy, a human emotion usually ascribed to squabbling siblings or the jilted third of a love triangle.

A study by scholars at the University of California, San Diego found that dogs showed jealous behaviors when their owners displayed affection toward an animatronic stuffed dog that barked, whined and wagged its tail. The dogs snapped at and pushed against the stuffed dog and tried to get between it and the human.

This may come as no surprise to any owner of multiple pooches who has seen them jostle for space on someone’s lap. And it’s not unusual for people to assign human feelings to their dogs, whose baleful eyes seem like deep pools of emotion when compared with those of, say, cats.

But animal-behavior experts say the study is a significant step forward in understanding our dogs’ emotional lives.

“This is the first study I know of that directly asks this question: Do dogs get jealous?” said Marc Bekoff, author of “Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation.”

The study by Christine R. Harris and Caroline Prouvost was published Wednesday in PLOS One, a peer-reviewed online scientific journal. For their research, the authors videotaped 36 dogs individually at their homes while their owners ignored them and interacted with a series of three objects: the fake dog, a children’s book and a plastic jack-o’-lantern.

The canines included 14 small breeds such as pugs, dachshunds, corgis and terriers. Researchers chose small breeds so they could more easily control the dogs if they acted out violently.

The dogs acted jealous when their owners petted the stuffed dog and talked sweetly to it as if it was real, although they displayed less such behavior when the owner showered attention on the pumpkin or read aloud from the children’s book, which had pop-up pages and played melodies.

In this way, the study suggests, the dogs’ jealousy was triggered by social interaction and not merely by their owners’ ignoring them for an inanimate object. Eighty-six percent of the dogs sniffed the butt of the toy dog during the experiment, so many of them may have seen it as real.

The findings mirror those of other studies that found human babies as young as 6 months displayed jealous behaviors when their mothers interacted with a realistic-looking doll. The infants did not act jealous, however, when their mothers attended to a nonsocial item such as a book.

“These results lend support to the hypothesis that jealousy has some ‘primordial’ form that exists in human infants and in at least one other social species besides humans,” the study said.

Although most animals clearly demonstrate primal emotions such as anger or fear, studies have been less conclusive in determining whether dogs are capable of more complicated feelings such as guilt or shame, Bekoff said.

Animal behavioral expert Patricia McConnell, author of “For the Love of a Dog” and other books, said she was impressed with the new study’s methodology.

But she’s not surprised by its findings.

“I think we share a tremendous amount of emotional life … with dogs,” she said. “But I have never thought of jealousy as a particularly complex emotion (in animals). Is human jealousy exactly like dog jealousy? I’m sure it’s not.”

Does your dog ever act jealous? Share your experience in the comments section below.

9 comments

  • Kim

    Oh please.. dogs DO get jealous! For example, whenever my cat jumps up to get petted, my dog immediately runs over to me for attention even if I would have just petted him before the cat. I DO believe that animals have similar emotions and feelings as humans although I would not go as far as to say animals are humans. I have seen people make that statement on Facebook before and I disagree with that. Although we love our pets and dote on them like they are our children, animals are still animals.

  • Jay D Belford

    And who said humans are the only animals that have emotions? Didn’t you open any school books before you graduated? ALL mammals have “emotions.” It’s a survival mechanism that all mammalian brains have. Duh ….

  • john van keuren

    pet reptiles have similar emotions. dogs, cats and reptiles are also telepathic. scientists, prove that, if you want to do something useful.

    • Jay D Belford

      Hey John – suggest you look that up yourself. Reptilian brains do NOT produce emotions. Read anything by Robt Plutchik, Ph.D., who spent his career studying emotions, what they are, and why we gott’em. Jeez. If I can find him in a magazine article in a grocery store in Junction City, KS, in 2002, you oughtta be able to google … SOMETHING !!! Or is the internet just a place for lazy, uninquisitive, uninformed, ignorant, and shiftless grade-school dropouts to show how little they know, care, or are interested in. No wonder America has fallen so far …..

  • Heather Painter

    I think the only people surprised by these “new” findings that animals are capable of emotion and abstract thought are people who have never spent an extended period of time around animals.

  • Dog Jealousy

    Every time my hubby and I hug my dog has to get in between the both of us. Jealous, oh yes. Attention hog, ah yes to that too!

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