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Dogs act jealous even when they don't see their rival

Dogs are one of mankind's most beloved animal friends. They share our home and seem to reciprocate our affection. But could this emotional bond extend to feelings of jealousy? To help answer that question, a team of researchers surveyed the reactions of a group of dogs when their owners appeared to be paying attention to an alleged rival.

Previous studies have shown that over 80% of dog owners report observing jealous behavior in their dogs – vocalizations, agitated behavior, pulling on the leash – when paying attention to other dogs. The new research supports these observations and finds that dogs also exhibit jealous behavior when they merely imagine their owner interacting with a potential rival, in this case a highly realistic artificial dog.

“Research has supported what many dog ​​owners firmly believe:dogs exhibit jealous behavior when their human companion interacts with a potential rival,” said Amalia Bastos of the University of Auckland and lead author of the study. “We wanted to study this behavior more fully to determine whether dogs, like humans, could mentally represent a situation that aroused jealousy.”

Dogs seem to be one of the few species that can display jealous behavior in a manner similar to a child showing jealousy when their mother gives affection to another child. In humans, jealousy is closely linked to self-awareness, which is one of the reasons animal science researchers are so interested in studying jealousy and other secondary emotions in animals.

To test how and when dogs exhibit jealous behavior, the researchers presented 18 canine situations in which they could imagine a social interaction between their human companion and either a realistic fake dog or a fur cylinder. The fake dog served as a potential rival for attention while the cylinder served as a control.

In the experiment, the dogs observed the fake dog rival next to their owner. A barrier was then placed between the dog and the potential rival, hiding them from view. Despite blocking the line of sight, the dogs tried vigorously to reach their owners when they appeared to pet the rival fake dog behind the barrier. In a repeat experiment where a cylinder was used instead of a fake dog, the dogs pulled on the leash with much less force.

Through their study, Bastos and her colleagues found that dogs exhibited three human-like traits of jealous behavior. Jealous behavior only emerged when their owner was interacting with a perceived social rival and not with an inanimate object; happened as a result of that interaction and not merely because of the presence of a potential rival; and even originated for an invisible interaction between their owner and a social rival.

“These results support claims that dogs exhibit jealous behavior. They also provide the first evidence that dogs can mentally represent jealousy-inducing social interactions,” Bastos said. “Previous studies have confused jealous behavior with play, interest, or aggression because they never tested the dogs' responses to the owner and social rival who were in the same room but didn't interact.”

“It's too early to say if dogs experience jealousy like we do, but it's now clear that they react to jealousy-inducing situations, even when they're out of sight.”