Displacement Behaviours

When stressed some dogs behave in ways that are often seen as odd or annoying. The reality is your dog may be feeling a little overwhelmed in certain situations.

Displacement behaviours are normal behaviours that seem displaced and are displayed out of context. They occur when a dog is experiencing conflicting emotions and attempting to deflect stress, uncertainty, anxiety or frustration. Some of the possible causes of displacement behaviour could be tiredness, stress, overstimulation or a response to pressure. These behaviours are a reflection of the dog’s inner state rather than conscious communication.

However, depending on the context and interpretation, some dog body language that is classified as displacement behaviour could also be used as direct communication, or could be classified as unconscious communication/response due to stress. Therefore it is vital to observe all body language displayed, circumstances, individuals involved, and environment before offering interpretations.

The particular body language that is used for communication or could potentially be classified as displacement behaviour, depending on interpretation, includes sniffing the ground, a shake off, a lip lick, and a yawn.

Here are three differing interpretations of a lip lick, depending on context: A dog may give a few lip licks as an unconscious stress response if he feels uncomfortable, for instance if he is sitting at a vet’s office. Alternatively, a dog may directly communicate discomfort or try to calm the situation down by offering a lip lick as a calming signal to the person/dog he is interacting with. The lip lick can also be seen as displacement behaviour due to some internal conflict; for example, a dog is given the cue to ‘stay back’, and when asked to do so, he offers a lip lick. He may be offering the lip lick due to feeling conflicted because he would rather move forward. Some may interpret this as displacement and others may interpret it as a slight stress response.

Possible displacement behaviours:

  • biting the lead

  • scratching

  • mouthing (mouthing peoples hands, legs or clothing)

  • mounting/humping

  • picking up things to rag

  • chewing

  • rolling on the ground

  • licking or chewing body parts

  • dog checking his/her uro-genital area

  • hyped-up running/zooming around

  • hyperactivity

  • scratching the ground with back legs

  • sniffing the ground

  • shake off

  • lip lick

  • yawn

Examples of situations where a dog may show displacement behaviour:

  • Two people are chatting on a path in the park. The woman who is chatting to her friend has her dog standing next to her on lead. A jogger runs down the path directly towards them. The dog does a lip lick followed by a head turn. He then turns his whole body away from the approaching jogger. The woman is distracted by her conversation with her friend and does not realize her dog is communicating discomfort through body language. After the jogger passes, the dog suddenly drops to the ground and starts rolling on his back. The woman is not aware that the fast, direct approach of the jogger has caused her dog to displace some anxiety by rolling. She thinks her dog is just being silly.

  • A dog in a shelter picks up his blanket and starts ragging, spinning the blanket around furiously whenever the volunteers pass his kennel with dogs they are taking out for a walk. There is a lot of activity, with dogs passing quickly down the corridors and past the kennels, causing all the dogs to bark. All this noise and frenetic atmosphere affects the stress levels of this shelter dog, causing the dog to show displacement behaviour.

  • A dog that has suffered abuse in the past is taking time to acclimatize and build trust with new people. He is normally introduced to new people by known people. If he is left alone too soon or introduced too fast to strangers, he starts humping their legs and then mouthing people’s arms, showing his anxiety.

  • A person has let her dog off lead in the park. She looks at her watch, realizing she is running late and tries to call her dog quickly in order to leave the park. He takes his time coming over, and she becomes frustrated and calls again, raising her voice in her frustration. Calling the dog’s name more loudly does not seem to help, as he has now stopped and is sniffing the ground. This might be a calming signal offered by the dog because he is not comfortable with the person’s tone of voice and he wishes to calm his guardian. Or it could be displacement behaviour in response to the pressure the dog might be feeling from his guardian.

  • A few people are visiting for a social occasion. The people have just arrived and are gathered in the doorway, exchanging greetings joyfully. The family dog walks off to his toy bucket and picks up a teddy bear. He starts walking around with it in his mouth and shakes it about. The dog may be feeling some unease due to the activity of people arriving and the noise this has caused. He is displacing some of the anxiety/excitement on his toys.

Dogs have many subtle cues that they use to communicate to each other. A dog turning it's head to avoid conflict, or flicking its tongue to calm a dog that it sees as confrontational, yawning and curving of the body during initial greetings are just some examples of the body language of dogs that are so often not seen by humans. Watch your dog at the park during social interactions and you will see an array of these subtle cues and communications.