Quick review of a research paper on dogs and jealousy (Harris & Prouvost, 2014)
By Laure-Anne Visele, Sep 2014.
About the author
I graduated in Zoology, certified in dog training, then got a postgrad specialization in applied animal behaviour.
Until recently, you would be accused of anthropomorphism if you dared call a dog ‘jealous’.
Good little skeptic that I am, I steered clear of the jealous label no matter how close to jealousy the dog’s behaviour really seemed. There just wasn’t enough peer-reviewed experimental research backing up their ability for such a cognitive feat.
So even if it looked and felt like jealousy, I wouldn’t allow myself to definitively interpret it as jealousy. A typical question I got from clients was this: “Is my dog being jealous when he squeezes in between me and my kid?” And my only answer was: up till now, there’s not been very good evidence that they can feel jealousy. It may just be that he’s coming in for a ‘group hug’ or be motivated by some other reason we can’t fathom.
But in July 2014, Christine Harris and Caroline Prouvost published a paper that’s changed my answer to: “You know what? It’s quite possible.”
Harris and Prouvost see jealousy as an evolutionary adaptation to secure a valued relationship spanning beyond just romantic bonds. As most dogs rely on just one human care-giver, it would make sense if they evolved jealous feelings (and the associated behaviour) towards that human.
Prouvost and Harris tested this by borrowing a classic child psychology set-up: have the prized person interact with a ‘rival’ child or doll and see if the kid protests, tries to restore contact with their person and/or to block the doll’s access to that prized person.
The July 2014 dog study tried to find differences between dogs in two different groups:
- Usurper conditions: The owners interact with a fake dog;
- No-usurper-conditions: The owners interact with a random (non dog-like) object.
That design seemed reasonable in capturing the simplest components of jealousy. I was still on board.
Two big trends came out: in the usurper set-up, the dogs displayed a lot of more of this:
- Attention-seeking behaviour: nose pushing, squeezing themselves between their owner and the usurper; and
- Aggression towards the object.
They concluded that dogs could show some primitive form of jealousy.
The anthropomorphism paranoia was still nagging me so I tried to think of alternative explanations, one more twisted than another. But in doing so, I was breaking the Occam’s razor rule: the simplest explanation is, if not the most plausible, at least the most elegant. In other words, I was bending over backwards to try to find an elusive alternative explanation when perhaps, just perhaps, things were just as they seemed. Perhaps dogs who appear to behave jealous are being jealous
After careful consideration, I am going to accept Harris and Prouvost’s conclusions as the best reasonable explanation to date. If convincing research comes out in support of another explanation, I’ll evaluate that one on its own merits too. The beauty of the scientific method: go where the evidence is and review your opinion to fit the latest facts.
In other words, Harris and Prouvost may definitely be onto something.
Experimental set-ups can always be improved upon, and this one is no exception. The sample size was quite small, and their body language interpretations were a little speculative (e.g. raised tail was logged as aggression).
Still, it didn’t change the basic fact that dogs behaved differently when their owners interacted with a (plush) dog. That fated plush dog was in fact my biggest problem with their design. Using real dogs would have been a lot more representative of a real-life situation. They addressed that point openly in their paper, though, so kudos to them for their intellectual integrity and let’s see that point addressed in future research. That’s science for ya: a bunch of delightfully pedantic kids keeping each other in line.
But putting all criticism aside, my money is on Harris’ and Prouvost’s conclusion: I think other papers will confirm their findings. Anyone want to bet?
One last little nugget for y’all: that same set-up (mom is engaged with a doll, rather than with any other object) was done on six month-old human babies to make them jealous. So, if you have a baby at home and fancy feeling sciencey, try it out. Just don’t blame me if you get social services at your door: blame Harris and Prouvost.
The original paper is free, short and jargon-free. Even if you’re not sciencey, give it a go and see what it feels like to read from the original research paper.
- The original paper: Harris, C.R. & Prouvost, C. (2014) – Jealousy in dogs – PLOS ONE 10.1371/journal.pone.0094597
- A nice review: McGrath, M. (2014) – Jealous wags: Dogs show envy is ‘primordial’ emotion – BBC News