Canine envy: Quantifying emotions in dogs
If you know dogs this news will come as no surprise: Dogs are jealous creatures. Toy envy, treat coveting and kibble greed are no strangers to us dog-watchers. But now, researchers in Vienna have confirmed the not-so-surprising phenomenon:
Yes, dogs will fail to obey commands when distracted by the “emotion” conferred by observing another dog get a better deal.
Sausage and bread…you get one, your buddy gets the other. Which dog is likely to be annoyed by his brethren’s haul? Good guess. When the no-treat and sausage inequity was attempted, the well-trained dogs who lost out were even less likely to obey commands.
Though the findings seem obvious to us, the results are not as straightforward as you might suppose. Until now, the only non-humans shown to act on the same primal human notion of “envy” have been some chimpanzees and other (though by no means all) monkeys.
Learning the term used to denote this kind of behavior is enough to have made this New York Times blurb (from Tuesday’s edition) worth reading all by itself. How does “inequity aversion” grab you?
Sometimes I think researchers should take up poetry…I can think of no more descriptive—and hysterical—a term for what many of us see our pets do daily.
My own male Frenchie, a young and rambunctious thing named Vincent, is quite "averse" to the "inequity" posed by the minutest possibility that he might like something his “sister” Sophie Sue receives even better than he likes his. No matter that his dish contains chunks of stewed beef hearts…he’s gotta “swap” with his sister before coming back to his own teeming bowl.
Yes, “inequity aversion” is apropos.
But does such a clinical term ultimately do some disservice to our dogs? After all, those of us who observe dogs all day long are also clued in to a conclusion these researchers are not yet willing to apply to their findings:
Emotions are well within the grasp of our pets. They are capable of a range of feeling, much though its quantification may elude us.
That’s why examining a seemingly automatic negative behavior inherent to pack mechanics—among the ugliest and most senseless of human emotions—seems like an unfair place to start looking for evidence of true feeling in our pets. But then, I guess you could argue that jealousy is as valid a starting place as any other.
What say you?
Dr. Patty Khuly