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Dog Waving Paw

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  • Writer's pictureBecki Gude

Understanding Displacement Behaviour in Dogs: A Dog Owner's Guide

Updated: May 5

Have you ever witnessed your dog doing curious things—like scratching non-stop in certain scenarios or yawning even when they're wide awake? How about mouthing at your arm when you visit a new place? And remember those puppy play sessions that escalated into a frenzy of humping? Well, these actions could be your dog's unique way of expressing uncertainty or stress, indicating that they could use some extra care and support.

Displacement behaviour in dogs is a fascinating and essential aspect of canine communication. However, it can often be a sign that your dog is finding it difficult to cope with something. Understanding these behaviours can help dog owners and professionals develop a deeper and more empathetic bond with their furry friends. In this guide, we will explore displacement behaviour in dogs, what it looks like and how we can respond to it.

What is displacement behaviour in dogs?

Displacement behaviour refers to actions or behaviours that our dogs display completely out of context, in response to mixed feelings or stress. These actions are normal in less tense situations, but they appear in odd moments when a dog feels conflicted or worried. Experts think these behaviours help dogs handle their emotions, ease tense situations or let others know they are overwhelmed or uncomfortable.

displacement behaviour in dogs

Not sure whether to laugh or cry! Inner conflict and feeling overwhelmed can drive displacement behaviours.

Common types of displacement behaviour

Displacement behaviours can vary depending on the dog and the specific situation they are facing. Here are ten common examples of displacement behaviours in dogs:

  1. Yawning: Dogs may yawn excessively, even after a good night's sleep.

  2. Lip Licking: Excessive lip licking, even when there is no food around.

  3. Scratching or Itching: Dogs may scratch themselves even when they don't have any itchiness.

  4. Humping: Both male and female dogs, regardless of being neutered, may engage in mounting or humping behaviours.

  5. Sniffing the Ground: Dogs may start sniffing excessively the same bit of floor that they have been stood in for the last ten minutes.

  6. Shaking Off: Dogs may shake their bodies as if they are wet, even when they are dry.

  7. Heavy mouthing or lead biting: Heavy mouthing of your arms, legs or clothes after puppyhood when teething is no longer an issue. Mouthing or ragging on a lead during walkies, for no apparent reason.

  8. Avoidance: Dogs may walk away or turn their head away from a situation, even if the situation may otherwise seem enticing.

  9. Excessive Grooming: Grooming behaviour, like licking paws or fur over and over in a repetitive way.

  10. Excessive Panting: Panting in cooler temperatures when there has been no physical exercise.

yawning as a displacement behaviour

An out of context yawn when a dog is well rested is a common displacement behaviour. It may be a sign that your dog is overwhelmed or stressed.

Causes and triggers of displacement behaviour

It is believed that displacement behaviours have emotional, sociological and in some cases physiological functions. However, experts are not 100% sure why all displacement behaviours occur and research is ongoing.

Emotional Triggers:

Displacement behaviour can be triggered by a dog's emotions in several different ways. These include being an outlet for conflicting feelings, a direct response to stress or for releasing tension.

For example: When a new guest arrives at your home, your dog might feel both excitement due to their love for people, but also uncertainty since they have never met this person before. These conflicting emotions can lead to your dog feeling overwhelmed, prompting behaviours like mouthing the guest's arm or attempting to hump them throughout the visit.

Emotionally driven displacement behaviour can also arise from frustration or even physical discomfort and pain.

nose licking dog

Out of context lip licking when there is no food around can be a displacement behaviour

Social Triggers:

Studies suggest that certain displacement behaviours may help to calm tense situations in the dog world (Pedretti et al). If a dog starts scratching or yawning when they are feeling uneasy, it can help diffuse tense situations between dogs or calm down over-excitement if play becomes too intense. (Anna E. Hoff)

In some cases, odd behaviours can also be displayed in an effort to delay the unavoidable or ease any social pressure put on the dog. Particularly if your dog is asked to do something that makes them uncomfortable. For instance, imagine recalling your dog at the end of a walk. They might not want the walk to end, but they understand it is time to leave. They might slow down and meticulously sniff every patch of ground on their way back to you, to stall the end of the walk. This displacement behaviour helps ease the social pressure that the dog may be feeling and is clear display of unease.

Physiological Triggers

It is believed that some displacement behaviours have a solely physiological function. Some studies suggest that yawning might play a role in stimulation of the nervous system. Robert Provine suggested in his research that yawning increases blood flow to the parts of the brain that increase alertness, which can help decision making when experiencing inner conflict (Provine R, 1986) Another example of a physiological triggers are some self directed behaviours, such as excessive scratching and overgrooming. These actions can release calming hormones like endorphins which can help an overwhelmed dog relax. Behaviours like these can become painful habits if they are regularly used to self soothe. If a dog grooms themself to the point of injury they should always be assessed by a vet.

dog scratching displacement behaviour

Excessive scratching is a common displacement behaviour in dogs

"I think my dog is displaying displacement behaviours often, what can I do?"

Understanding the triggers of displacement behaviour is crucial for helping your dog. By identifying the root cause of their worries and providing a supportive environment, you can help your dog cope with their emotions in a healthier way. Here are some steps you can take to support your dog in stressful situations and reduce displacement behaviours:

  1. Identify Triggers: Observe your dog closely to identify the situations or events that trigger the displacement behaviour. Common triggers may include meeting new people or animals, encountering unfamiliar environments, loud noises or other stressful events. Avoid too much exposure to these triggers and allow your dog to move away if they need to.

  2. Create a Safe Space: Provide your dog with a designated safe space where they can retreat to when they feel stressed or overwhelmed. This could be a quiet corner of a room with their bed or crate, where they can feel secure and comfortable.

  3. Positive Reinforcement: Use positive reinforcement techniques to build your dog's confidence and reward them for their efforts. Whenever they exhibit calm behaviours in stressful situations, offer praise, treats or affection.

  4. Avoid Punishment: Punishment or scolding can increase anxiety and worsen displacement behaviours. Instead, focus on rewarding positive behaviours, reassuring your dog and creating a supportive environment.

  5. Consistency and Routine: Dogs thrive on routine, so try to maintain a consistent schedule for feeding, playtime, walks and training. A predictable environment can help reduce anxiety and help them feel safe.

  6. Calming Tools: Some dogs benefit from using calming aids, such as a Thundershirt (a snug-fitting garment), calming pheromone diffusers, or even calming music specifically designed for dogs. These tools may help to alleviate anxiety in certain situations.

Don't forget, it's all about context!

Keep in mind that the situation matters a lot when understanding displacement behaviours. What is seen as a displacement behaviour in one scenario might not be in another. If you notice your dog often showing these behaviours in certain situations, it's vital to think about the context and figure out if there is something causing stress underneath the surface.

Creating a secure and encouraging setting for your dog, along with using positive training techniques, can really help them feel secure in their environment. If you are uncertain about your dog's behaviour, it is recommended that you seek advice from a qualified dog trainer or behaviourist.

Becki Gude Ba(hons), PACT, ABTC - ATI



Anna E Hoff (2001) "Mouths Wide Open: Yawning as a Communicative Behaviour in Dogs"

Rovert R Provine (1986) "Yawning as a Stereotyped Action Pattern and Releasing Stimulus"

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