By Emily Reynolds
Jealousy is a fairly common human emotion – and for a long time it was thought to be really just human. Some have argued that jealousy, with its focus on social threat, requires a concept of “self” and a theory of mind – being jealous of someone who is flirting with your partner, for example, requires a certain level of threat (real or imaginary) to them You relationship. This element of jealousy has been used to argue that animals without such a sense of self cannot experience it.
A new study published in Psychological sciencesuggests that it may not. Amalia PM Bastos and the University of Auckland team are finding evidence that dogs are indeed capable of mentally depicting the threatening social interactions that create jealousy.
Some previous research has shown dogs get jealous – for example, a 2018 study found that dogs would move around or discourage owners between interactions with the wrong dogs. However, this investigation did not provide conclusive evidence that the dogs were actually jealous.
In the new study, the team recruited 18 dogs and their owners: all of the dogs had been in the household for at least six months, were not aggressive, and showed no signs of discomfort within the experimental setting, eliminating the possibility of them moving around a wrong dog out of aggression or fear.
The owner was sitting behind a large barrier, wearing a blindfold and noise-canceling headphones. The dogs were placed about five meters away and tied to a door frame attached to a dynamometer to measure how hard they pulled on their leash.
In a fake dog condition, a realistic looking fake dog was placed next to the owner behind the barrier. The barrier was then moved across the room for five seconds to show the wrong dog to the real dog. When the barrier was moved back and blocked the view of the wrong dog, the owner was instructed to pet it and talk to it like it was real.
In the cylinder state, however, the owners were shown how to stroke and talk with a fleece cylinder behind the barrier. However, the realistic looking fake dog was still in the room but was placed behind a separate, smaller barrier and revealed to the real dog.
Dogs in the fake dog condition pulled significantly more on the leash than dogs in the fleece cylinder condition, suggesting that the dogs were trying to disrupt the interaction between their owner and a perceived rival. The fact that the wrong dog was present during the cylinder experiments is important, which shows that this is mere presence one rival wasn’t enough to provoke jealous behavior: it was the actual interaction with the dog’s owner that led to heightened jealous behavior. When the dogs were later allowed to reach the wrong dog, the team also found that the dogs were involved in genital and face sniffing – which suggested they believed the wrong dogs were real throughout the study.
Overall, the dogs appeared to show “signatures” of jealous behavior similar to those in humans: They responded to a social partner who was dealing with a social rival (the wrong dog) but not another object (the fleece cylinder), and did not react when the rival was in the room but did not deal with its owner. And what was most noticeable was that they reacted strongly, despite not being able to directly see the interaction between the owner and the rival. Taken together, this suggests that dogs can indeed experience some form of jealousy and even mentally display the social interactions that create jealous feelings.
This finding is important for several reasons not only to confirm previous research on jealousy in dogs, but also to suggest that dogs may have more complex cognitive abilities than we might assume. This could indicate the ability to conjure up other mental representations in different situations – and a much richer inner workings than we currently understand.
– Dogs represent mentally jealous social interactions
Emily Reynolds is an associate at BPS Biomedarticles