86% of Dogs Studied Were Jealous of This 'Life-Like' Object

jealous dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • University of California, San Diego researchers have published a study examining the emotion of jealousy in dogs
  • The researchers evaluated the behavior of 36 small breed dogs while their owners interacted with an animatronic stuffed dog, a plastic jack-o-lantern, and a pop-up, musical children’s book
  • The majority of dogs showed jealousy when their owner interacted with the fake dog. Less than half reacted when their owner handled the pumpkin, and only 22 percent were triggered by their owner reading the children’s book aloud
  • Most of the dogs (86 percent) sniffed the backside of the robotic dog, indicating they thought it was real
  • The researchers concluded the dogs in the study were motivated to protect their relationship with their owners in the face of a threat from an interloper (the fake dog)

By Dr. Becker

As many of us who share our lives with a canine companion or several have long known, dogs suffer from the “green eyed monster” in much the same way we do. And now there’s scientific evidence to confirm our suspicions.

Dogs React Jealously When Owners Pay Attention to Faux Dog

Two researchers at the University of California, San Diego conducted a jealousy study with 36 small dogs.1 The dogs were all under 35 pounds and/or shorter than 15 inches. This was so the researchers could more easily control undesirable behaviors. In the group of 36 were 14 mixed breed dogs and a variety of purebred toy and small breeds.

Each dog was videotaped in his or her own home while the owner interacted with a barking, whining, tail-wagging animatronic dog, a children's book, and a plastic jack-o-lantern. The owners were told to ignore their dogs while interacting with the other objects. The videos were then evaluated for aggressive, disruptive, and attention-seeking behaviors from the dogs.

The dogs barked at -- and a quarter of them snapped at -- the robotic dog when their owners petted or praised it. About a third tried to get in between their owner and the stuffed dog. The dogs displayed less of this type of behavior when their owners paid attention to the jack-o-lantern or read aloud from the children’s book.

About 78 percent of the dogs tried to push or touch their owner when the owner was interacting with the fake dog, compared to 42 percent that interfered when the owner was handling the jack-o-lantern. And only 22 percent displayed the behavior when the owner read the children’s book.

Dogs Are Motivated to Protect Important Relationships

According to the researchers, the dogs’ jealousy was triggered by social interaction and not just because their owners were ignoring them to focus on the pumpkin or the book. Also, most of the dogs (86 percent) sniffed the butt of the robotic dog, indicating they viewed it as real.

According to study co-author Christine Harris, a UC San Diego psychology professor:

“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.

“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.”

These findings are similar to results of human studies in which babies as young as 6 months showed jealousy when their mothers paid attention to realistic-looking dolls, but did not show jealousy when mom read a book.

“We share a tremendous amount of emotional life with dogs.”

Patricia McConnell, an animal behavior expert and best-selling author of several books about dog behavior, while impressed with the UC San Diego study, was 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.”

The UC San Diego researchers theorize that social animals like dogs and humans might be driven by nature to feel jealous in the face of threats to important relationships.

What we do know for certain is that the emotion of jealousy, when acted upon, can have significant psychological and social consequences. The researchers hope future studies will further explore the triggers and internal drivers of jealousy.