Canine Jealousy

green-eyed monster or major motivator? 

 

McCracken sports a rainbow collar

Out and Proud: McCracken in his rainbow collar. 

It was recently Pride Month in Toronto, and McCracken still sports a rainbow collar. He's a proud bisexual. He likes to hump females and to lick junk, though not simultaneously. His pack mate, Notley, is not wearing a Pride collar, because her orientation is 'jealous.' All McCracken has to do is look longingly at a tree, and Notley nose-nudges him to regain his attention. Her jealousy is anti-inclusive, and has no place on the rainbow. I'm not saying jealousy doesn't circulate at Pride, mind you; it flows as freely as does beer in the garden (and the more beer, the less subtle the jealousy). But no rainbow collar for Nots.
 
There's a debate in the dog world about whether dogs feel jealousy, or whether we're anthropomorphizing. As with so much that is contested about canines, I am baffled. All the dogs I've lived with have had jealous moments. And for some, like Notley, it's their primary M.O. But since jealousy has not yet been identified through doggy MRIs, and the jealousy genes remain untagged, we will have to wait for science to catch up with pet people's experience. In the meantime we can observe dogs' behaviour and argue about what it means.
 
Notley the dog
Jealousy is Notley's M.O.
 
Examples of sexual jealousy — the most interesting kind to humans, if Gossip Girl and Greek tragedies are anything to go by — are rare amongst canines in neutered North America (watch for an upcoming post, Humming With Hormones, for my thoughts on this). More run-of-the-mill jealousies lack a sexual frisson, but are potent nonetheless. For example, when Kate, Hazel's human, pats or praises other dogs, Hazel immediately gets between her and the interloper and sometimes starts a brawl. A variety of different terms are used for this: resource guarding, protectiveness, etc. Dog guru Cesar Millan states that this behaviour doesn't indicate dogs' jealousy; rather, humans "allow" themselves to be owned/claimed. A fight might result, he says "when another dog wants what the other dog is getting." In my book, wanting what someone else is getting is jealousy. (Another disagreement with Cesar Millan! Maybe I'm just jealous).
 
Such differences about definitions of jealousy may partially explain why there's a debate at all. Scrounging around in dictionaries, I cobbled together this admittedly dry definition: jealousy is feeling excessively protective of one's relationships or possessions (or rights or achievements); or, feeling excessively covetous of another's. "Excessively" is the key word. It's not just that Hazel scuffles with other dogs over Kate's attention. Many dogs do that. But Hazel's attitude is 'me-first-and-only me' with every human she meets.  It can get particularly awkward when another dog is being greeted by their human and Hazel gets huffy about it. In contrast to more easygoing dogs, Hazel seems like the jealous type.
 
Hazel the dog.
Hazel, also motivated by jealousy.
 
I was intrigued by animal behaviourist Patricia McConnell's discussion of jealousy in her great blog, The Other End of the Leash. She thinks of dog jealousy as a "relatively simple version of the core emotion of anger: 'You've got it, I want it, I don't have it, and I'm not happy about that at all.'" The focus here is on anger-over-not-having. Her view of canine jealousy is more positive (typical, and why I love her blog) than mine. I tend to dwell on the needy, desperate flavour in jealous behaviour. I refer to Notley, affectionately and judgementally, as my GEM (short for green-eyed monster). 
 
Regardless, the "you've got it — I want it" or "I've got it — you can't have it" dynamic is jealousy in action. And there's a variation to this, "Because you've got it, I want it." McCracken could care less about toys, but Notley's passion for them, not to mention her flaunting and taunting routine, has spurred him into many tussles. The you-want-it-so-I-want-it scenario also works with food: Harvey, a picky Portie, takes treats with gusto when he's out with the pack, but the same treat, offered to him home alone, is spit out contemptuously.
 
Parents of human children tell me they see such motivating jealousies in their toddlers and between siblings all the time. This dynamic has a fancy term: mimetic desire, the idea that we borrow our desires (those beyond basic survival needs) from other people. We imitate a 'model,' not just what they do, but what they aspire to, everything they want, the whole enchilada. People are emotional and behavioural copy cats, and dogs are too. Because you want it, I want it. The feeling of jealousy may be deeply embedded in the primal process of imitation.
 
Rene Girard, an intellectual whose work I have studied deeply (only kidding; I've listened to a radio show about his work and read his Wikipedia entry), writes about mimetic desire and how it generates conflict. The 'model' becomes a 'rival' when s/he models desire for an object and then becomes the obstacle to getting it. As the rivalry intensifies, the value of the object grows. This helps to explain why, for instance, McCracken can end up in a heated scuffle over a toy that he had absolutely no interest in to begin with. I used to think the escalation was because someone threw a dirty punch.  Apparently it's more complex than that. 
 
I've been pondering if jealous dogs like Hazel and Notley are more prone to imitation; are the biggest wannabes the biggest copy cats? And how much do pack politics modify their behaviour? On the homefront, I've noticed that since the arrival of Pushkin, the new puppy peon, Notley has stopped copying McCracken's every move, a task now delegated to Pushkin. And that Nots is now (slightly) less jealous, at least about Mack Crack's attention. 
 
 
Pushkin looks at Mack Crack.
McCracken with Pushkin, his current acolyte.
 
Psychologists use the idea of mimetic desire to focus on the role of imitation in the development and evolution of species. In the dog training world, such ideas are coming to the fore with an exploration of how dogs learn through imitation. I know next to nothing about this — another must-read topic to add to the summer list — but living in a multi-dog household has provided its own kind of tutorial. One example: my first dog Mim never cared when I left the apartment, nor did she spare me an acknowledging glance on my return. Until Hill came along. Hillary greeted me with ecstatic dance, much yipping, and attempts to burrow herself into my body, behaviour which I rewarded (bad human!) with excitement and affection of my own.
 
Observing Hillary's antics and my reaction, Mim's behaviour changed.  She would slowly and grudgingly heave herself out of her chair and offer a couple of half-assed tail wags. Hillary's demonstrativeness had pressured her into a token imitation. Not that Mim was jealous...
 
 
 
Using social learning/imitation to train dogs
 
 
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