So more than specifically jealousy (though I want to get a lil nerdy about that too), I wanted to have a chat about anthropomorphism in the dog world. Its rife, its risky, and it rarely works in ours or our dog’s favour.
Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics or behaviours to animals. We do it all the time, to non-human animals and even to objects. Its a subconscious mental process, its 100% normal, and we often can’t help it - but we can become more aware of it and take it with a hefty grain of salt.
Dogs get the brunt of our anthropomorphism because they have to live with how we behave as a result of our labelling obsession. We label dogs as defiant, as rude, as worried, as proud, as serious, as *insert any other emotion/human characteristic here* … the list goes on indefinitely.
Let’s take for example the ‘guilty look’ in dogs. Your dog destroyed your cushion, and when you entered the room he pulled a guilty face because he KNEW he was not supposed to do that. This is a classic anthropomorphism. In reality, we now know that your dog is not guilty at all. They are fearful of your potential behaviour in response to the cushion being in 100000 pieces on the carpet. This fear response is based on their previous experiences of your behaviour.
Your dog is unable to adequately pair up your anger with their act of destroying the cushion because of the time delay, and so rather than your telling off resulting in them not repeating the behaviour in future, all it actually does it make you seem unpredictable and scary.
So in the case of anthropomorphising guilt onto dogs, it really is a lose lose situation. Cushions still get destroyed, dogs learn you’re scary. Whoops!
So what about jealous dogs? Can our dogs feel jealousy towards other dogs? Can your dog recognise that their sibling is getting more pats or treats and get jealous as a result?
Short answer, kind of… maybe… let me explain.
Again, we need to be REALLY careful with anthropomorphisms, because already by using the word jealousy we are attributing a specific emotion, and the way WE feel it, onto our dogs; which we will never actually know, and assuming it is the case never seems to go well.
There is a scientific term for a behavioural pattern that looks similar to how we expect jealousy to look. It’s called ‘inequity aversion’. It’s not quite the same, but its the closest we have so far (as far as I’m aware! Feel free to enlighten me if I’ve missed something 🙃).
Inequity aversion is essentially the preference for fairness. The animal protests when it gets a lesser reward than its buddy.
For example. If you take a dog who knows how to give a paw as a trick, and you repeat this exercise over again, the dog will often happily keep performing the behaviour for little to no reward - drawing much of their reinforcement from the interaction itself.
However, if you put 2 dogs next to each other, and get them both to repetitively perform the behaviour, but you feed 1 of them a high value food reward every time, and the other no reward; the no reward dog will quickly stop performing the behaviour, even though they would previously perform it happily for nothing.
They would rather go on strike all together, than see their buddy get rewards that they aren’t getting.
Researchers suggest that this sensitivity to inequity indicates a biological and evolutionary sense of social ‘fair play’, crucial for success in cooperative social systems.
However the degree of inequity aversion that dogs experience is primitive in comparison to humans and other apes. And this is where we get caught up in anthropomorphising them. Capuchin monkeys will go on strike when they receive boring cucumber while their buddy receives a delicious grape - being able to differentiate between the value of 2 different food rewards. But dogs are not nearly this sensitive, and as long as they are both receiving something, they will happily play along.
So dogs DO get jealous???
None of that is enough to say ‘dogs experience jealousy’. All that says is that a significant number of dogs will stop working if their friend gets paid when they don’t, in that exact situation.
It doesn’t tell us whether they experience what we feel as jealously when we pat their friend more than them. It doesn’t tell us whether they experience jealousy while we teach one dog a trick while the other is crated. It doesn’t tell us if they experience jealousy if one dog is allowed on the bed and the others aren’t, or if you walk one and leave the other behind.
It doesn’t really tell us much at all.
There aren’t enough studies on the topic yet to be able to fully understand the breadth of it, so we have to be careful how we apply the information into our management of our dogs.
The moral of the story is that emotions are insanely complex and difficult to study, and often what we see on the outside is not a true representation of what is on the inside. We barely understand our own emotions let alone those of a completely different non-verbal species! So we need to back up the train a little bit and stop drawing enormous conclusions from teeny pieces of behaviour or not-very-robust information, or worse, mere opinions.
The safest and kindest thing we can for our dogs is to assume we have no idea why they’re doing what they’re doing, or at least look at their behaviour objectively, attempt to abstain from anthropomorphising their every move, and give them the benefit of the doubt. That way if we are wrong about their motives (which we are all the time) at least there will be minimal fallout.