Displacement behaviour

From Aunty Kaye’s Doggy Dictionary of Training and Behaviour.

Displacement behaviour is the doggy equivalent of nail-biting. It is behaviour which helps to relieve stress or deflect trouble, without dealing with it directly. Some dogs scratch themselves, urinate, jump up on you, attack the dog next to them, or pick up a toy when they feel stressed. These can all be displacement behaviours. Displacement behaviours are all normal  behaviours (in their proper place) but they occur out of context.

The one I see most often in training is that a dog will stop and scratch itself when somewhat confused.

Dog on the left may be unsure about whether to join in rough play of litter mates.

Displaced aggression occurs when a dog is highly excited or agitated but frustrated, for example by the presence of a fence (which is known as “barrier frustration”). If the dog is unable to express the aggression directly, he may “take it out” on someone else, such as a dog standing nearby. If a dog is inhibited by the presence of a person who will punish an aggressive display, he might direct his aggression towards another person such as a child or family member seen as having less authority.

From Handelman, Barbara, Canine Behavior – a photo illustrated handbook.

Displacement Behavior:

Displacement behaviors get their name from the fact that they appear displaced, or out of context when they occur. Displacement behaviors occur because of conflicting or frustrated impulses to perform behaviors that are impeded. Displacement behaviors also occur when the animal experiences simultaneous conflicting emotional states and cannot figure out what else to do.

Displacement behaviors arise from situations of either conflict or frustration. When an animal may be motivated to perform two or more behaviors that are in conflict with each other (e.g. approach-withdrawal, greeting but fear of being punished).

The inability to perform both of the strongly motivated behaviors can lead to conflict resulting in the performance of a displacement behavior. Similarly, when an animal is prevented or frustrated from performing a highly motivated behavior (e.g. territorial aggression but dog is behind a barricade), a displacement behavior can also be observed. Displacement behaviors are usually normal behaviors that are shown at an inappropriate time, appearing out of context for the occasion (Overall & Landsberg, 2002).

Dogs use displacement behaviors when they are feeling stressed or uncertain. By engaging in a familiar behavior (usually one not stimulated by or relevant to the immediate environmental context), the dog can distract himself from and avoid responding to whatever caused his stress.

Displacement behaviors are a reflection of the dog’s internal emotional state, rather than a deliberate attempt to signal information to others.

“Most, if not all, displacement behaviors are ‘voluntary’ behaviors, e.g. sniffing or scratching” (Lore I. Haug, letter to author, August 2007).

Dog checking his uro-genital area.

Some dogs will interrupt play, or other types of interactions with humans or other dogs, to take a quick “inventory” of their own uro-genital body parts. This is a form of displacement behavior that appears most in stressful situations.


A research study on Displacement Behaviours found that dogs kept under most austere conditions in shelters had high levels of locomotor activity, nosing, urinating, and paw lifting.

Behaviours associated with acute stress: body shaking, yawning, ambivalent postures and displacement behaviours.

Chronic stress: increased paw lifting when not disturbed; expressions of arousal when mildly stimulated;

Because behaviour can occur in other contexts, behavioural data easily misinterpreted.


An article on Dog Body Language by Sherry Woodard says:

Displacement activities

Involve behaviours that would otherwise be normal action patterns for dogs except that they are performed out of context (O’Heare 2007). They are used to create a break in the current situation and are indicative of a stress response. Used to increase distance between the dog and the stressful situation. The behaviours include :

  • Shaking
  • Yawning

A big yawn – displacement behaviour or calming signal?

  • Sniffing
  • Scratching
  • Looking away.

From an article by Doggonesafe…

Displacement Behaviors

Displacement behaviors are normal behaviors displayed out of context. They indicate conflict and anxiety. The dog wants to do something, but he is suppressing the urge to do it. He displaces the suppressed behavior with something else such as a lick or a yawn. For example, you are getting ready to go out and the dog hopes to go too. He is not sure what will happen next. He wants to jump on you or run out the door, but instead he yawns. The uncertainty of the situation causes conflict for the dog and the displacement behaviors are a manifestation of that conflict. The dog may want to bite a child who takes his bone, but instead he bites furiously at his own foot.

Some examples of displacement behaviors include:

  • yawning when not tired
  • licking chops without the presence of food – Watch the video below to see why this is important
  • sudden scratching when not itchy
  • sudden biting at paws or other body part
  • sudden sniffing the ground or other object
  • wet dog shake when not wet or dirty

These are all things that dogs do anyway. It is important to look at the context to determine whether the dog is feeling anxious. For example: if it is bedtime and the dog gets up, stretches, yawns and goes to her bed, then that yawn was not a displacement behavior. If the kids are hugging the dog or lying on him and he yawns or starts licking at them over and over then this is displacement. He wants to get up and leave or even to bite, but he displaces that with yawning or licking them or himself. In this context the licking or yawning behavior tells you that the dog is uncomfortable with whatever the kids are doing and it is time for you to intervene. You must then either prevent the kids from doing this in the future or use positive training techniques to teach the dog to enjoy (not just tolerate) these actions from the kids. Visit the dog owner information page for advice on how to do this.

Listen to a terrific interview with Doggone Safe cofounder and dog behavior specialist Teresa Lewin about displacement behavior.


4 comments on “Displacement behaviour

  1. […] bostezo canino suele ser entendido como un signo de fatiga, estrés, o una señal comunicativa de “desplazamiento” apaciguamiento o “calma”. Pero para distinguir su significado necesitamos saber cómo funciona y […]

  2. […] on Google. Doggone Safe – Signs of Anxiety http://www.eastbayspca.org/document.doc?id=348 Displacement behaviour | Kaye's Dog Training Courses __________________ Jeanie and Tibbe One must do the best one can. You may get some marks for a […]

  3. The reference is not cited by me, but by Barbara Handelman, who I am quoting. I have had a look at her book, and she appears not to have given a citation. Karen Overall has many publications. Landsberg is Gary M. Landsberg, who is also a vet who publishes in the area of canine behaviour. I think to track it down, you would have to look for a list of their publications. Or maybe write to Barbara Handelman and ask her if she has the reference.

    Do you mind if I ask what you are interested in?

  4. Can you please expand on the details of this reference that you cite: Overall & Landsberg, 2002. Thanks.

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