By KARLA PETERSON  for the San Diego Union Tribune

It’s not your imagination, dog owners. Fido really is that into you.

A  UC San Diego study shows that dogs are capable of displaying jealous behaviors when their owners are paying too much attention to an interloper. The findings of the study, the first experimental test of jealous behaviors in dogs, suggest that dogs have a more complex emotional life than some skeptical humans would like to admit.

It also supports the idea that jealousy is a primordial emotion that is not for sophisticated adult humans only.

“I think this helps support the argument that jealousy has a hard-wired component,” said UC San Diego psychology professor Christine R. Harris, who wrote the study with former honors student Caroline Prouvost. “I’m not doubting that adult humans’ experience of jealousy is complex. We think about interactions and we think about what those interactions say about us. But at the core, it is likely hard-wired that we pay attention to rivals and we want to disrupt the rival’s interactions with our loved one.”

The inspiration for the study – which was just published in PLOS ONE scientific journal – came when Harris was hanging out with her parents’ three Border collies. She noticed that if she was petting two of them (“Because I only have two hands,” Harris chuckled), it wasn’t just the third dog that acted like the odd guy out. The two dogs getting the attention were also jealous of each other. They didn’t want to share.

“The two dogs were not content to have my love and attention,” Harris said. “They would push their heads between the other dog’s head and my hand. This looked very much like a motivational state to regain exclusive attention and affection, so I wondered, ‘How could we get this in a lab?’”

The research was not paid for by a funding agency but was done as part of Harris’ position at UC San Diego. Adapting a study of infant jealousy by Texas Tech University professor Sybil Hart, Harris and Prouvost recruited 36 volunteer dog owners to test their pets’ affections. The owners were asked to lavish attention on three objects: a realistic-looking stuffed dog that barked, whined and wagged its tail; a jack-o-lantern trick-or-treat bucket; and a pop-up children’s book that played music, which the owners read out loud as though they were reading to the child.

The dogs were twice as likely to push or touch their owners when they were interacting with the stuffed dog (78 percent) as they were when the owners were paying attention to the pail (42 percent). Only 22 percent of the dogs appeared to be jealous of the book.

Perhaps most tellingly, 86 percent of the dogs sniffed the toy dog’s rear end, leading Harris to believe that a majority of the real dogs saw the stuffed dog as a real rival. And they behaved accordingly.

“When you are afraid, your motivation is to avoid the source,” Harris said. “What is unique to jealousy is that you are motivated to break up the liaison between your loved one and the rival. Jealousy is an emotion that involves three – you, the person you are attached to, and your rival.”

Alexandra Horowitz, a Barnard College psychology professor (and UC San Diego graduate) cautions dog-lovers in her 2009 book, “Inside of a Dog,” against viewing their pets’ behaviors through the human lens.

“It might be true that our dog is sad, jealous, inquisitive, depressed – or desiring a peanut butter sandwich for lunch,” she writes. “But we are almost certainly not justified in claiming, say, depression from the evidence before us: the mournful eyes, the loud sigh. Our projections onto animals are often impoverished – or entirely off the mark.”

But the idea that dogs – like people – want their loved ones all to themselves comes as no surprise to Dr. Gary Weitzman, a veterinarian, dog owner and the president of the San Diego Humane Society. In fact, it further confirms what many animal experts have been thinking for years – that humans don’t have the corner on the feelings market.

“It turns out that what we used to call anthropomorphizing is really observation,” Weitzman said. “I firmly believe that animals are capable of the same emotions that we have. They might be at a different level, but those feelings and thoughts are real. We see jealousy all the time. We have 1,700 animals here, and not a single day goes by that we don’t see human emotions coming out of these guys. I’m glad there is science to back this up.”

While Harris’ and Prouvost’s study helps show that there is more to dogs than treat-begging, bath-avoiding and bed-hogging, it also shows that jealousy – the towering human emotion that has fueled everything from Shakespeare plays to crimes of passion – could be even more primal than we thought. Which jealousy goes to the dogs, humans might have an easier time making sense of ourselves.

“I think understanding these emotions and what gives rise to them is important in trying to figure out if we want to try to regulate our emotions and how we should do that,” Harris said. “Saying something is hard-wired doesn’t mean we can’t control it, but we might want to approach it differently.”


Oregon Veterinary Specialty Hospital (OVSH) has been serving the Portland and Beaverton area community since 1979. Dr. Robert T. Franklin (Internal medicine) welcomes referrals from veterinarians all over the Pacific Northwest. Our goal is to help your pet regain health and live a long and happy life.

Oregon Veterinary Specialty Hospital

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Beaverton, OR 97005.

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