Displacement Behavior in Dogs. What it is and What you Can do About it

Kaylee Ferreira

Published by Dr. Kaylee Ferreira

Updated on

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What is Displacement Behavior in Dogs?

Displacement behavior in dogs occurs when normal behavior is expressed in an out-of-context situation. These behaviors are used as coping mechanisms, stress relief, or conflict avoidance. 

Displacement behavior is an individual animal’s reaction to a specific issue. This behavior can occur due to frustration or contradictory impulses which cannot be expressed due to conflicting emotions. It can serve as a warning, so it is best to acknowledge when your dog may be uncomfortable and expressing displacement behavior. 

Pug dog was punished and left alone

Signs That Your Dog is in Distress

Abnormal behavior is an indicator that your dog is experiencing circumstances that are causing conflict or anxiety. Your pet will seek your attention when in distress or suppressing a specific desire.

As an owner, you are quite familiar with your dog’s personality. We often get frustrated when our dog is acting strangely and make excuses for their out-of-character behavior. 

Sometimes these bouts of “misbehavior” are indicators of distress or anxiety. It is important to take note of these behaviors because they could help you identify your pet’s distress.

Some signs of distress may include:

  • Out of character attention-seeking. 
  • Increased vocalization, whining, or whimpering.
  • Displaced fear, expressed as aggression. 
  • Urgent flight response, leash, or halter tugging. 

Examples of Displacement Behavior in Dogs

Below are two classic examples of dogs displaying displacement behavior:

Example 1

A small child hugs a dog around the neck and the dog turns its head away from the child and has an increased amount of visible sclera whilst licking its lips fervently. The dog is suppressing their flight response and substituting it with displaced behavior.  

This means the situation can escalate quickly as the dog is uncomfortable, wants to flee but is conflicted by the attention from the child. This may lead to a sudden or unpredictable reaction such as fleeing and making the child fall or get bitten.

Example 2

A new boisterous dog enters your dog’s personal space, and your dog cowers down into a submissive posture but jumps up quickly and licks their lip repeatedly. The other dog may continue to approach your dog, your dog may unexpectedly try to hide and run away, or it could snap at the other dog.

The following signals can indicate internal conflict and displacement behavior:

  • Dry dog shaking off as if it were wet.
  • Teeth chattering in ambient temperatures.
  • Increased nose and lip licking or rapid tongue flicking.
  • Wide eyes showing increased white of the eye or rapid blinking.
  • Constant or increased incidence of scratching.
  • Increased attention-seeking.
  • Increased salivation or panting.
  • Submissive body language, slinking, or low body posture.
  • Over-grooming, paw chewing, joint licking, or self-mutilation.
  • Excessive yawning.

Avoidance Behavior and Signs Thereof

Certain circumstances will evoke extreme avoidance behavior in dogs, especially when they experience high anxiety levels. Therefore, it is essential to remove a dog from a situation when they are anxious. Anxiety can make a dog’s behavior unpredictable, especially if they are also fearful. 

Children and boisterous dogs often do not respect an anxious dog’s boundaries. This can cause them to react defensively out of fear. Some signs to keep an eye out for include:

  • Eye contact avoidance and turning the head away.
  • Hiding behind an object or a person. 
  • High-pitched barking and retreating steps.
  • Submissive posture, growling, or a rapid spring up from submissive posture.
Dog with Bad Behavior

Canine Body Language Indicators of Anxiety

Dogs cannot express themselves as overtly as we may need them to identify anxiety. That is why it is crucial to monitor your dog’s body language to pick up on early indicators that they are uncomfortable in a situation. The ears and the tail are the easiest areas to identify anxiety.

Some of these body language indicators include:

  • Placing their tail between legs and dropping their haunches.
  • Lowering the tail and wagging only the tip.
  • Placing their tail between their legs and slowly wagging it.
  • Curly-tail breeds, such as huskies, pugs, chows, or malamutes, will put their tail down and allow it to straighten.
  • Some dog breeds with straight ears will drop them sideways. 
  • Another ear indicator is when a dog flattens their ears and pants rapidly. 
  • Abnormal elimination behavior such as urine spotting or stools indoors. 

How to Deal with Displacement Behavior in Dogs

Dealing with displacement behavior in dogs will require you first to acknowledge the signs. If you are confident that your dog is displaying these symptoms, it will be easier to address them productively. 

It is essential to identify the triggers of the behavior and then try to control exposure to the situation. Once you have control over the trigger, you can try to ease your dog into the situation. This allows them to become more confident and have positive experiences instead of fear or anxiety. 

Try to take small steps to achieve the desired outcome and provide positive reinforcement to motivate progress. 

Never use negative reinforcement or punishment when a dog exhibits displacement behavior. Punishment will only foster anxiety. Displacement behavior in dogs is triggered by anxiety, uncertainty, or insecurity. It is a coping mechanism to allow your dog time to avoid undesirable behavior.

When a dog displays displacement behavior, it is often an alternative to a fear-based or aggressive reaction. Your dog must choose not to bite or react from fear, so do not punish them when they display displacement behavior.

Owner Punishing His Dog

Key Takeaways

An anxious dog is an unpredictable dog. Fear-based, unpredictable behavior can lead to severe consequences if not acknowledged. 

Every pet owner knows their pet’s personality, and when your pet shows signs of displacement behavior, it is important to act sooner rather than later. Knowing when your dog is uncomfortable in a situation helps you as an owner cope better with their displacement behavior. It can also help prevent your pet from hurting themselves or hurting a child or other pet.    

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Kaylee Ferreira


Dr. Kaylee Ferreira, a South African vet from Johannesburg, excels in diverse veterinary roles. Founder of Kubuntu Veterinary Services, she's a dedicated animal lover and adventurer.


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