Displacement Behavior in Dogs: Causes & Common Signs to Watch Out For


They may look like normal doggie demeanor but when they happen out of place, your pup may need some stress relief!

Last week, I sat in a lesson with a first-time client and her five-month-old pit bull named Chloe.

I was looking for clues to figure out what was going on.

Chloe was referred to me after displaying some concerning behavior in one of our puppy kindergarten classes the week before. During the class, Chloe barked, lunged, and growled at the other puppies on leash. And when the assistant instructor went over in an attempt to help her, Chloe growled at her and snapped at her hand.

Chloe’s owner was surprised and overwhelmed by her behavior. She had never had an issue with the puppy before. So why did she present these issues in that circumstance? Why did her dog try to attack a person and other dogs out of the blue?

Or did she?

Any time I perform an initial consultation for a client, I take a full behavioral and training history. And while I’m talking and writing notes, I keep a peripheral eye on the dog’s behavior while it is sitting in the room with me.

Many times, owners don’t see the subtle stress signals that their dog has been giving for days or weeks that could have eluded to the explosion of behavior that brought them to my office. A casual owner will interpret their dog’s behavior based on their human emotions and feelings. While their dog will tell you how they feel through an escalating series of body language cues. My job, as a dog trainer, is to serve as a liaison between the owner and their dog, in order to put them both on a path for success.

In Chloe’s case, I watched her bounce around my office unable to settle down. And while seeing a puppy that had a high energy level and inquisitive personality is normal, what I saw in Chloe was not.

As the minutes ticked by, Chloe wasn’t becoming more relaxed. Instead, she was becoming more frenetic and overstimulated. She bounced around the room, she chewed things. I tried to redirect her, and when she mouthed my hand. I gave her a bully stick. She ate it quickly and continued sniffing parts of the room that she had already investigated.

Suddenly, Chloe stopped moving. She sat down and scratched like she had a bad case of fleas. Then she got up, yawned, and continued bouncing off of the walls.

It was then that I realized how stressed Chloe actually was. It clicked that she was performing dog displacement behavior because her stress levels were through the roof.

Common Displacement Behaviors in Dogs

Dog displacement behaviors are behaviors that occur naturally in your dog’s repertoire, but present out of context in times of stress to make the dog feel better about a stressful situation. Displacement behaviors include:

1. Shaking off (like when they come out of the water)

2. Yawning

3. Scratching

4. Stretching

5. Taking sniff breaks

On the other hand, if the behaviors are presented in context, i.e. the dog just woke up from a nap and took a stretch and yawned, it probably doesn’t count. But if the dog is fully awake and aware and you see one of these behaviors, you can likely chalk it up to stress.

When Chloe scratched and yawned, she was essentially doing whatever she could do to give herself something to feel good about at that moment. When I asked Chloe’s mom if she ever saw common dog displacement behavior at home, she rattled off multiple times in her daily life that Chloe exhibited them.

So what happened in puppy class?

Chloe reacted to a phenomenon called trigger stacking. Think of an already bad day getting worse... Trigger stacking is essentially the cumulative effects of stress. For example, every time a dog is triggered by something stressful, his level of stress rises a little (or a lot) from his normal baseline personality depending on how stressful the event was. If the event was only slightly stressful, the dog’s stress might go back down to baseline pretty quickly. But if the event was very stressful, it may take some time to get back to normal levels. However, if a dog experiences multiple stressful events in succession without allowing appropriate time for the dog’s stress level to return to baseline, the dog will crest their behavior threshold, and the dog may shift into an out-of-control emotional state. This is when we see that displacement behavior in dogs.

Behavior threshold is the point when your dog crosses from one emotional state to another. If you spend time with a dog who is concerned about other dogs, you have probably witnessed the moment when he or she moves from seemingly okay into out-of-control behavior. That is going over threshold.

Every dog, like every human, has a unique level of baseline stress. Some can seemingly let things roll right off of their backs (low baseline), while others are fussed by the tiniest of things (high baseline).

In Chloe’s case, we have a dog who began with a very high level of baseline stress.

My goal then became to pull her back under that baseline.

The method I used for Chloe is helpful for most stressed dogs. If you’ve identified the signs, it’s time to get your dog back under the threshold.

How to Reduce Displacement Behavior in Dogs

Here are some practical ideas for relieving the stress that causes dog displacement behavior:

1. Go for a walk (exercise is great for stress)

2. Snuggle

3. Ask her to perform some of her more solid tricks

    Typically, when a dog is under the stress threshold, they’re able to focus and eat. Once they stop eating and can’t focus, they’re usually over the line and it’s time for the fun, easy stuff.

    Backtrack a bit and work back up to that moment of hesitation. For example, if the dog is stressed because you’re working on wireless fence training, it’s possible you went too fast and they got too stressed. Back up, go back to the house, work there, then work on the back porch, then the back steps, then, finally, the yard.

    Dogs still have to work through stress. It can be a good thing in proper doses.

    We took Chloe for a run around our horse arena. After getting the energy out, we worked through a few exercises in the lesson. Then she stayed at Farmcamp for a week. And after that, she was back in class, able to handle the stress.

    Chloe wasn’t an aggressive dog. She was stressed out.

    Chloe is an extreme case. But all dogs display stress at times. The thing is, we humans don’t seem to recognize that a dog is stressed until it crosses the threshold from being mildly to moderately stressed to being completely unable to function and acting out fearfully or aggressively. So instead of trying to eliminate stress from your dog’s life altogether (for more on that, check out this article on helicopter dog parenting), start teaching your dog to work through manageable stress, and then come back to baseline quickly.  You’ll be glad you worked through!

    By: Nicole Skeehan, founder of PhillyUnleashed

    Leave a comment

    Please note, comments must be approved before they are published