Let’s talk about displacement behaviors in dogs.
A lot of displacement behaviors can fall into more than one category of dog behavior so it is important to remember to look at the whole picture.
A displacement behavior is any behavior a dog offers that is out of context. For example, you are trying to clean your dogs’ ear but, in an effort, to not have his ears cleaned he starts to sniff around the room as if he was on the trail of something good but there is nothing there. Your dog could also scratch an itch that isn’t there in an effort to displace some of the stress or emotions he is feeling.
Think of it this way, when you are stressed or maybe even nervous you may chew on your pen or twirl your hair around your fingers. These are displacement behaviors in humans. You are trying to figure something out and to release some of the stress you are feeling you may bounce your leg. Dogs do the same thing.
When you are training your dog or even just trying to enjoy a nice walk with them you may get frustrated because they aren’t sure of what you are asking them to do. If you find that when you are teaching your dog something new and they start to lick their lips or try to wander away take notice of that. Your dog is communicating with you that they are stressed out or struggling. Go back a few steps in your training and make it easier for your dog.
Another displacement behavior I do think it is important to take about is your doing rolling over onto their backs. Most times people think “oh he wants a belly rub!” but that is most likely not the case. A lot of dogs will roll over onto their backs in an attempt to communicate that they mean no threat and please don’t hurt me. They are once again trying to displace the stress they are feeling about the situation. Now please know that this doesn’t mean every time your dog rolls over you can’t rub their belly because this is not an absolute rule. Sometimes they do just want a belly rub. However, if they are meeting someone new for the first time and the roll over, it probably means they are a little uneasy with what is going on.
Displacement behaviors are offered in everyday life. There other day I was trying to take a picture of a new puppy to the facility. Puppies are hard to photograph because they don’t sit still. He was getting more and more stressed because he wasn’t sure what I wanted him to do (no fault on his part! He hadn’t learned what stay means yet!) so he would start to scratch an itch. Now he wasn’t dealing with dry skin or the dreaded fleas, he was trying to displace some of the stress he was feeling. We ended up taking a break and trying again later so he wouldn’t be too stressed out. We did eventually get a great photo!
It gets tricky though because some displacement behaviors like lip licking or shaking as if they were wet can also fall into the category of calming signals. You have to look at the whole picture when it comes to dog body language. It may seem like you need to be fluent in a different language to understand what your dog is trying to tell you but once you learn a couple different dog language signals from your dog you will be able to drastically change the relationship you have with your dog for the better.
Photos are examples of displacement behavior vs. dog who wants a belly rub.
In the first photo you see CJ is a little bit stiffer, his tail is slightly tucked, his mouth is pulled tight, and he has a whale eye (whale eye is when the whites of eyes are visible). He is clearly communicating that he does not want to be moved off the bed.
The second photo his body is looser, his eyes are soft, tail isn’t tucked, and his mouth is not pulled tight. In this photo he is welcoming a belly rub.