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Your dog gets jealous just imagining you petting another dog, new research suggests

Golden labrador dog enjoying being stroked by his owner
(Image credit: Getty Images)

You probably already know that your dog gets jealous when you dish out the love to another canine, but even simply imagining you showering a potential rival with affection can be enough to invoke a serious case of envy in your canine companion.

According to a recent study carried out by psychologists at the University of Auckland, while dogs will bark and whine when their owners attempt to interact with other canines, they’ll also exhibit that same kind of jealous behavior when they’re only imagining the interaction.

"Research has supported what many dog owners firmly believe – dogs exhibit jealous behavior when their human companion interacts with a potential rival," says psychologist Amalia Bastos from the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

In the study, researchers set up an experiment with 18 dogs and their owners, using a realistic-looking stuffed dog and a fleece-covered cylinder that looked nothing like a dog. To begin with, each dog watched as the stuffed dog was placed next to their owner. A barrier was then placed between the dog and its owner so that it could no longer see what was happening. 

“We developed a novel methodology whereby we could directly measure the amount of force a dog used to pull on its lead,” Bastos explains. “This provided the first easily quantifiable, objective measure of how strongly dogs attempt to approach a jealousy-inducing interaction between their owner and a social rival.”

All of the dogs in the experiment pulled strongly on their lead when it looked like their owner was petting the stuffed impersonator. When the exercise was repeated again with the fleece-covered cylinder, all of the dogs pulled on their lead with far less force. 

Through data gathered from the study, Bastos and her colleagues were able to identify in the dogs three human-like signatures of jealous behavior:

  1. That it emerges only when an owner interacts with a perceived social rival and not an inanimate object
  2. That it occurs as a consequence of the interaction and not due to a potential rivals mere presence
  3. And that it arises even when the interaction is taking place out of sight

“These results support claims that dogs display jealous behavior. They also provide the first evidence that dogs can mentally represent jealousy-inducing social interactions,” said Bastos. 

The study is one of the first to clearly link the jealousy felt by dogs with the jealousy felt by humans in similar situations, revealing that just like us, dogs react strongly to the people they love interacting closely with perceived rivals. 

“There is still plenty of work to do to establish the extent of the similarities between the minds of humans and other animals, especially in terms of understanding the nature of nonhuman animals’ emotional experiences,” said Bastos. “It is too early to say whether dogs experience jealousy as we do, but it is now clear that they react to jealousy-inducing situations, even if these occur out-of-sight.”