Understanding Dog Displacement Behaviors

Updated on March 7, 2018
alexadry profile image

Adrienne is a former veterinary hospital assistant, certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

A sudden itch may be a displacement behavior.
A sudden itch may be a displacement behavior. | Source

What Are Displacement Behaviors?

You may be a dog behavior or training professional that heard about displacement behaviors in dogs, or you may be a dog owner just wishing to learn more about your dog's behaviors and quirks. Whichever the case, learning more about dog displacement behaviors is a big plus for those passionate about dog psychology. So what are dog displacement behaviors and how do they affect your dog? Most of all, how can you and your dog benefit from recognizing these behaviors?

Displacement behaviors, as the term implies, are out-of-context behavior animals engage in when they're typically faced with conflicts. For example, a bird that cannot decide whether to engage in a fight or flight response may decide to peck a tree branch instead. In a similar fashion, you may find yourself scratching your head when you're uncertain about how to proceed in a certain situation. Psychiatrist/primatologist Alfonso Troisi, on the other hand noted how humans may also undergo similar, self-directed behaviors when they aimlessly manipulate objects such as chewing pens, biting nails or twisting rings.

I have observed this behavior personally when my hen was broody. When I prevented her from repeatedly going to her nest, she started repeatedly scraping the ground with her beak. I am guessing she was very frustrated and since she couldn't go to her box and couldn't attack me, she engaged in this displacement, sort of out-of-context behavior.

We must thank Julian Huxley for describing displacement activity for the first time in 1914. Subsequently, Konrad Lorenz conducted further research on this. Further mentions of this phenomenon were offered by Dutch researchers Nikolaas Tinbergen and Adriaan Kortlandt.. It was Tinbergen in particular, who adopted the term ‘displacement behavior' for the very first time.

Displacement behavior or calming signal?
Displacement behavior or calming signal? | Source

Displacement Behaviors in Dogs

I saw my first case of displacement behaviors when I was learning my ropes in dog training under the instruction of a reputable trainer. Twice a week I came to attend and assist his classes so I could complete the over 200 hours required for my certification. Every Friday, this young Labrador was attending advanced classes to learn how to heel and do search and rescue work. Every time this dog was asked to heel he would get these sneezing fits.

Per the owner, these sneezing fits only happened in class, and when the dog was asked this particular command. To an untrained eye, this looked like a normal case of sneezing, but at a closer look, you could see other signs of stress and frustration. He used to take treats very quickly and nervously often biting the owner's hands. The owner used to also get frustrated when the dog didn't comply the first time. While the dog was eager to get the treats, he must have felt frustrated and stressed as well so he used to get these out-of-context sneezing fits almost so to metaphorically manifest an "allergy to heeling exercises".

I have since then learned how to recognize many other out-of-context behaviors in dogs and other animals. Recognizing them takes an understanding that the dog is doing them out of context. Therefore, a dog who yawns when it's bedtime is normal, and so is a dog shaking his fur after rolling on the grass. Here are some examples of displaced behaviors in dogs;

  • Scratching -when there's not an itch
  • Self-grooming- when there's not a need
  • Yawning- when the dog is not tired
  • Licking lips- when there is no food around
  • Sniffing the ground-when there's nothing to sniff
  • Shaking the fur-when the dog is not wet

Circumstances where you may see displacement behaviors include situations where a dog has a conflict or feels anxious. The dog basically has a desire to do something but suppresses this desire. For example a dog may have a desire to approach a stimuli, but at the same time may be fearful of it. In a similar cases, a dog may be frustrated by a child who removes his toy, he therefore may feel compelled to bite, but chooses to suddenly lick his paw.

How does a dog select which displacement behaviors to use? This will vary depending on several factors such as the circumstance, the dog's personality, and the success in using such displacement behavior in the past.

How to Deal

For starters, identify what triggers them so you can prevent exposure to those situations until you can allow him to gain enough confidence so to face them in the future. If you are training a behavior, take an errorless approach and help your dog succeed by splitting the exercise in easier to attain steps that are reinforceable.

Never punish a dog for exhibiting a displacement behavior, doing so will only add to the anxiety. Remember: these behaviors are triggered by anxiety, uneasiness and uncertainty. In some cases, the dog is buying time to decide his next move. Also, consider that if your dog engages in a displacement behavior instead of biting, you definitely don't want to punish it or next time he may skip the displacement behavior and go straight to a bite!

At the same time though, you don't want to reinforce such behaviors up to an extent that the dog may repeat them and transform them into an obsession. You want to manage the situation and then proactively work on it, so the displacement behavior no longer has a need to surface because you have changed the dog's emotional response towards the trigger or situation. This is ultimately a win-win situation for all!

Questions & Answers

    © 2013 Adrienne Janet Farricelli

    Comments

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      • profile image

        Kel Ertl 17 months ago

        How do you distinguish between displacement behaviors and calming sigals as explained by Turid Rugaas? You have a few like lip licking, yawning, and sniffing at the ground which are classic calming signals.

      • alexadry profile image
        Author

        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 5 years ago from USA

        Jenincognito, thanks for the votes up! It's a very interesting topic.

      • JenIncognito profile image

        JenIncognito 5 years ago

        This hub is very helpful to dog owners. I had never heard of dog displacement behaviors but thank you for this useful information. I will use it with my dog. Voted up, useful and interesting.

      • alexadry profile image
        Author

        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 5 years ago from USA

        It could be he is simply buying some time as he's still not completely sure and needs to figure things out. It could be he's a bit worried of not performing the command correctly. Some dogs do this to create a pause, and then a few seconds later they perform the behavior.

      • alexadry profile image
        Author

        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 5 years ago from USA

        ClaireDixon, glad you found the article interesting and that it helped explain some behavior your newly adopted dog is exhibiting. thanks for stopping by to comment!

      • alexadry profile image
        Author

        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 5 years ago from USA

        ArF that's a great example! Indeed, when we teach stay in class, we do get these displaced yawns quite so often. Thanks for stopping by!

      • alexadry profile image
        Author

        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 5 years ago from USA

        Thanks for the sharing and votes up sid76!

      • Millionaire Tips profile image

        Shasta Matova 5 years ago from USA

        We've been trying to teach Zeus to speak. It apparently makes him very nervous because he will do a lot of yawning, and eventually make a very small barking sound. He does bark (loudly) in the house when he is excited to go for a walk so I am not sure why it makes him nervous to speak on command.

      • ClaireDixon profile image

        Claire Dixon 5 years ago from Billingham, Cleveland. UK

        Interesting, something I had not thought about before, but it does explain some of the behaviour that our recently adopted dog is displaying. Thank you.

      • A r F profile image

        Allison 5 years ago

        My dog does the yawning thing ALL the time. And it's not just a little yawn, it's an exaggerated and vocalized yawn. She usually does it when she wants to go play but has to stay still. Luckily it's not destructive, just cute and funny.

      • profile image

        sid76 5 years ago

        Wow fantastic article alexadry. I will definitely share it. Voted up!

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, pethelpful.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: "https://pethelpful.com/privacy-policy#gdpr"

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)