In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin noted that ‘everyone has seen how jealous a dog is of his master’s affection, if lavished on any other creature.’ But since the evolutionary biologist made the observation in 1871, scientists have debated whether animals can actually feel jealousy, with many arguing it is an emotion that only humans exhibit. Human jealousy is viewed as a complicated emotion, requiring a “social triangle” and usually arising when an interloper threatens an important relationship.
Now experts believe they have proven that dogs do get jealous when their owners give too much attention to a rival. Scientists found that canines succumbed to the green eyed monster when their owners showed affection to a stuffed dog in tests.
A University of California study used an adapted test for six-month-old babies to monitor the reaction of 36 dogs in their own homes when their owners ignored them in favour of the stuffed dog, or a bucket with a Halloween design. In a third scenario, owners were asked to read aloud a pop-up book that played tunes. The dogs were filmed and the video rated for a variety of aggressive, disruptive and attention-seeking behaviour.
The research involved 14 breeds of dogs, including daschunds, chihuahuas, pomeranians and Yorkshire terriers, with the rest being mixed breeds. As a precaution, Harris only used small dogs in case they got overly aggressive and had to be subdued.
Researchers found that while most were indifferent when their owners ignored them and read aloud from the pop-up book, when the owners showered their attention on a stuffed dog the dogs’ behaviour changed dramatically.
The video footage showed that when owners petted the stuffed toy, which barked and wagged its tail for effect, their dogs growled more and sometimes snapped and forced their way between the toy and their owner. Over three quarters of the dogs were likely to push or touch the owner when they interacted with the decoy. The envious mutts were more than three times as likely to do this for interactions with the stuffed dog compared to when their owners gave their attention to the other objects.
Professor Christine Harris, who led the study said the dogs’ reactions might betray a simple form of jealousy that arises from lack of attention and affection being poured on a rival. “It was striking how much more they tried to do things like get between the owner and the stuffed object,” Harris said. “Jealousy was very rare with the other two things.”
Prof Harris said the majority of research so far has been on jealousy between human beings and showed that a great deal of the emotion existed in relationships between siblings, friends and even close colleagues. The first signs of human jealousy can be seen in babies and young children, she said, suggesting that the emotion may have evolved from siblings competing for family resources and that it is “hard wired” into our consciousness.
“Many people have assumed that jealousy is a social construction of human beings – or that it’s an emotion specifically tied to sexual and romantic relationships,” said Prof Harris. “Our results challenge these ideas, showing that animals besides ourselves display strong distress whenever a rival usurps a loved one’s affection.” “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,” Prof Harris said. Both researchers said the study would help further understanding of jealousy, an emotion with far-reaching psychological and social consequences.
These findings probably won’t be a major surprise to anyone who’s ever owned a dog, but the team say this is the first experimental test of jealous behaviours in man’s best friend.
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