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Understanding Dog Displacement Behavior

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Nail biting, hair twirling, and pacing are examples of nervous behavior in humans. In the world of canines, behaviors dogs use to cope, relieve stress, or stave off trouble (rather than deal with it directly) is called displacement behavior.  Called so because the behavior is out of place, or displaced. The behaviors themselves are normal but happen out of context – such as a dog shaking off as wet when dry. 

Displacement behaviorAs a certified professional dog trainer and behavior consultant, I know how subtle these behaviors can be, and I can’t emphasize enough the importance of  trying to understand what your dog’s body language is communicating. That’s why regular interaction between dog and human is so crucial, so you can tell if a behavior is out of context. When you notice something’s out of the norm, you may be able to prevent unwanted behavior between your dog and other beings.

I’ve seen my fair share of displacement behaviors, which happen because of frustration or conflicting impulses to behave in a manner that is impeded. The displacement behavior also manifests when a dog has conflicting emotions and does not know what to do. Here’s an example: a dog is “caught” sleeping on the couch when its humans come home. She’s happy to see them but fears being punished so she “looks guilty” and kind of slinks to greet them.

Please note that displacement behavior is a personal issue the dog is having. It’s about an individual dog and not about canine social hierarchy, pack mentality, or deference.

The following behaviors can signal an internal conflict in an inquisitive canine:

  • Nose licking, the tongue spitting out snake-like
  • Rapid eye blinking
  • Chattering teeth when not cold
  • Scratching
  • Shaking off as if wet, but the dog is dry
  • Being clingy with owner or other humans
  • Drooling (when not related to food)
  • Moist or sweaty paws
  • Whining
  • Panting when not overheated or not after exercise
  • Lowered body or slinking
  • Over the top licking, chewing, or “grooming” that can cause bodily harm
  • Stretching to relax

Displacement behavior often serves as a warning  – “Careful, I’m feeling real uncomfortable right now and I just might start lunging.” Should you notice your inquisitive canine exhibiting displacement behavior, change the environment to make your dog feel safe and comfortable.

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