A DOG FOR THE FAMILY
CANINE JEALOUSY EXPLAINED
A very common tendency among humans, be they dog fanciers or not, is to anthropomorphize. That means we ascribe human intelligence, motives, and morals to animals. Now, this is perfectly understandable, because there ARE a few things that both people and animals do for the same “reasons” (an odd choice of words, but you know what is meant). However the vast majority of actions by the canine are really reactions rather than acts of conscious, rational volition. One of those reactions is what we call “being jealous.”
Because we communicate so much with dogs, we easily yield to the temptation to think that they also think. However, a dog cannot bring anything to mind at will. His intelligence is a matter of instinct designed by his Creator and modified by environment for purposes of individual and species survival. A dog’s “thinking’ is limited to responses to stimuli, and learned patterns of reaction, however complex. His memory is associative, not willful.
For example, you can consciously decide what to think about, such as what you’ll have for supper next Thursday, but a dog’s “thoughts” are really associations. For example: the shadows lengthen about the way they did yesterday and he begins to look for your kid’s school bus before it’s anywhere near hearing range. He might read in your actions some subtle differences that escape your own notice, but which tell him there will be no bus today, Saturday. His reaction is to not expect the child’s arrival. You can read many accounts of how long such a habit can go on, once established in a non-rational but intelligent animal.
It is convenient, though not semantically or scientifically accurate, to use the same words when speaking about dogs, as about people: mental, thought, memory, and like terms. One of these is “jealous,” but I’m not convinced that jealousy is a valid canine emotion. Perhaps it is linked somehow to the pack instinct which determines hierarchical relationships when combined with other genetic and environmental factors. In the wild dog family, there is a leader or “alpha” dog, then, in a fairly simple chain of command, the others find their positions. Size, order of birth (age), injury, and many other things help determine a dog’s place in the hierarchy.
In the domesticated dog, the picture is often distorted a bit. John and Jane Doe have a puppy who grows up “thinking” he is number-three “person” in the family. Jane gets pregnant. Now what? Do they have cause to worry about the dog not accepting the baby?
Will jealousy cause the dog to nip the baby, the new little member of its family? Not if John and Jane prepare by thinking a little about dog psychology and follow the advice of those who’ve had knowledge and experience in raising both dogs and kids.
The same steps can prevent jealousy over a new puppy as a new human baby, though in the case of a new pup, the younger will almost inevitably remain on a lower rung of the ladder than the older dog. The baby, however, will eventually exercise reasoning and power to advance past the dog’s hierarchical position. By the way, the further down this scale, the less positional differences there are between individuals—the more equal two adjacent members will be.
When our son was in the womb and we started to bring home shower gifts and things to outfit the nursery, we would make a big deal about showing every item to “Harvey,” our dog who didn’t know he was a dog. He would sniff everything we put on the floor for him to examine: front, back, top, bottom, and inside. We used the word “baby” many times during this introduction of each item and then put the booties and caps and shawls into the closet. We held Harvey up to review the things we had put on the shelves earlier. Talking, sharing, using “baby” and “good dog!” and “good boy!” together prepared him for the day we brought the “final” gift home, the baby itself.
Sure, the dog knew the difference between a blanket and the living baby but he had it so fixed in his mind that “baby” meant he’d be deeply involved, praised, and allowed (encouraged) to sniff, that when we put “baby” on the floor of the bedroom, Harvey went through the same procedure, albeit with what appeared to be of much more interest and pleasure.
From that point on, whenever we picked up or fed the baby, Harvey was involved, unless he was more interested in something else, which happened more and more often as he got used to the novelty. He was allowed to sniff and lick the baby, and before long learned that he got extra praise if he held still while we propped the baby up against him for support for photographing. Later, it was no trouble to learn patience while having his nose pinched, tail tugged, or ear gnawed.
Jealousy never raised its green-¬eyed head because Harvey was made to “think” that he was at least equal to the newcomer. Of course, he did not rationalize it, but his position in the pecking order had never been threatened. People can stop themselves from feeling a certain way by saying to themselves “Wait a minute. I don’t have to feel threatened. I’m loved as much as the rest, or as much as before.” People can control their emotions by will power. Dogs cannot do this, so we must manipulate their environment so as to take the place of the reasoning power that we humans can use.
When it comes to being jealous over the new baby or puppy, we simply use our power or reasoning to prevent a potential problem. We must mold our dogs’ emotions and actions by exercising the principles of training—especially positive reinforcement. If correction is ever needed, be sure to follow immediately with expressions of love, and assurance that the dog’s place of value in the family is secure.
More informative articles by Fred Lanting:
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