Is my dog jealous?

March 18, 2021

You’re enjoying a lovely cuddle with your children when your dog demands your attention. If you don’t respond, he barks and won’t leave you alone. If this sounds familiar, you might think your dog is jealous. But are dogs capable of feeling this way? Debby Lucken, from Kids Around Dogs, explains what’s going on.

Do dogs experience jealousy? 

There is a lot of research on this topic and, while more needs to be done, the consensus is that dogs don’t experience jealousy the way humans do. To feel jealous, people need to have a sense of who they are, to know what they might be losing. 

Research has shown that dogs have a sense of self-awareness but only through scent. They can recognise their own smell; but they can’t, for example, recognise their own image in a mirror. This shows, if we did not know that already, that dogs noses are extremely powerful. 

Another amazing skill of dogs is that they are good at reading body language. It is understood that dogs can recognise when an event is happening and decide whether they want to join in or not. It’s their desire to join in that we often interpret as jealousy. 

How your dog may tell you they want to join in

Your dog may tell you by being a little bit more pushy than usual. ,They may bark at the person getting the attention, for example, or jump up. 

Every dog is different; so owners may not see the same behaviour, even in two dogs from the same household.

Here’s a list of possible behaviours. They may:

  • Push the dog or person who is getting the attention out of the way
  • Appear to go in a strop, by turning their back at the owner/situation
  • Bark at the owner and at the other dog or person to stop the interaction
  • Physically move the owner (or owner’s hand) away from the other dog or person

Bear in mind that some things may overstimulate your dog. For example, if you are tickling the children, and there’s lots of laughing and screaming, your dog may get very excited and want to join in. Therefore, high energy games with the children may be better for everyone to play when your dog’s not around. 

How to create harmony in the household 

The first thing to do is make sure that your dog doesn’t feel left out when something is happening; or when there is a new puppy or a new baby in the house. Make sure the attention is share and food is given at the same time. Plan for the times when you need to keep your dog out of the way, for example to concentrate on your baby or child.

For this, playpens or stair gates are useful. Make sure your dog has something better to do. Give them a doggy-puzzle, a filled Kong, a bone to chew on, or a ruffle rug to discover treats.  

You can also train your dog to go to their bed or mat when you need them to. To do this, place a small treat in your hand, let your dog smell it, then throw the treat onto their bed and encourage them to follow. When your dog puts his paws on the bed, say the words ‘to your bed’.

Give them some more treats in their bed – to reinforce how amazing their bed is – then ask your dog to lie down and give them another reward when they do. 

It’s best to place the treats on the bed, rather than feed your dog directly. This will help to make their bed more interesting and inviting. 

Repeat these steps – using praise and reward – until your dog has learned the cue words. And don’t forget to give them something to do while in their bed. 

Can my dog tell me how they’re feeling?

Not only are dogs amazing at recognising our body language but they try their very best to tell us how they feel by using their body too. Having a dog in the family can be a rich and rewarding experience for everyone but it can easily go wrong if you don’t understand and respond to the signs that your dog is feeling unhappy.

Here are some signs that your dog is feeling happy: 

  • They have a high and waggy tail
  • Their ears are floppy and relaxed
  • Their body is relaxed, not tense and upright
  • They may come to you for attention and lean into you

Here are some signals they use to tell us when they are stressed, or when they don’t like what’s happening around them. Keep an eye out for these.

Lip licking Dogs may lick their lips when worried.

Rubbing their body on you. This is a way of spreading their scent on you, to make sure you smell more of them than anything else.

Head turning/body turning. If you see your dog turning their head or whole body away from you, for example when you are cuddling the kids, it’s their way of avoiding looking at the situation they’re not happy about.

Ears pulled back. When a dog’s ears are almost pinned to the back of their head, they are saying they’re stressed and unhappy.

Closed/tight lips. If your dog’s mouth is tense when closed, it my be a sign that they are unhappy or in discomfort.

If your dog displays any of these signs, the first thing to do is stop what you were doing and address the situation that is making them unhappy. Make sure your dog has a place they can go to in a quiet room to enjoy some time with a nice toy or a doggy puzzle.

Teaching children how to behave around dogs

It’s really important to teach children how to behave around dogs. This includes never approaching dogs when they are eating, sleeping or playing with a toy; and not climbing on dogs or pulling their ears. It’s always best to supervise children around dogs, and make sure they have a safe and quiet place where they can easily escape to if they are feeling stressed. 

Here’s some final tips for creating harmony in the household:

  • Make sure your dog has a nice quiet place to escape to
  • Give your dog something to enjoy, like a Kong or puzzle feeder, away from the children
  • Teach your children – or child visitors to your home – how to behave safely around your dog
  • Avoid giving more attention to one pet at the expense of the other. The same goes for another member of the family
  • Crate train your dog before the arrival of your baby or new pet so that your dog is ready for times when you may need to focus on your baby. Read more about how to prepare your dog for the arrival of a baby
  • Include children in training your dog (age appropriate), using praise and reward

By getting to know your dog and what they are telling you, and following these steps for how to deal with them, it will help you to all live together in harmony.

Debby Lucken is a dog trainer and behaviourist; and founder of Kids Around Dogs, an association of trainers and behaviourists who specialise in working with families and dogs to live happily together.