Reader's dog offers "displacement behavior"

N.H. Sunday News - Dog Tracks Column
By: Gail T. FisherA reader writes: Dear Gail, I read your column in today’s Sunday News and noticed that you invite questions. Mine is this: We have a nine-year old female black Labrador who is just a wonderful pet, very friendly and loveable. From almost her earliest years, she has a “habit,” that I find quite interesting. If any of our family has been away from the house for, say, more than an hour or so (or if a visitor comes to the house), she will greet the person at the door, wait to be patted, and then, with unfailing regularity, go to her water dish for a drink. Do you have any explanation for this behavior? Thank you in advance.

I do. This is called “displacement behavior” – an otherwise normal behavior occurring at what seems like an inappropriate time. Displacement behaviors seem irrelevant or out of place in the circumstances in which they occur, just as the reader describes.

There are basically two types of displacement behaviors: those that are self-directed – something the dog does to himself, and those that are re-directed to something external. A common example of a self-directed displacement behavior in dogs is self-grooming, most often licking the genital area. Another common self-directed behavior is yawning.

Common examples of re-directed displacement behaviors are finding, picking up and carrying a toy, barking, circling, grazing grass and gulping water as the reader describes. In a multi-dog household, re-directed behavior often takes the form of one dog jumping onto and engaging in play with another dog, grabbing, wrestling and the like.

This is what displacement behaviors are; now to the bigger question of why dogs and other animals (including us) engage in them.

Displacement behavior occurs at times of emotional conflict, serving as an outlet to dissipate energy. Using the reader’s question for example, the behaviors that are in conflict have to do with excitement and expression of greeting behavior.

Let’s explore what normal greeting behavior is, and why a dog might have conflicting emotions about it:

For a dog, greeting involves two major areas and behaviors: licking the mouth of the returning pack member (or visitor), and sniffing the genital area. While both these behaviors are normal for dogs, most of us humans discourage such expressions of friendship.

Jumping up on us in greeting is because the dog is trying to lick us around the mouth. Since we are upright rather than on all fours, dogs can’t reach our mouths without jumping up. Most of us don’t want our dogs to jump on us, so we discourage this normal dog behavior. In most cases, such discouragement is a verbal reprimand or scolding, and sometimes involves some form of physical punishment such as applying a knee to the dog’s chest. Embarrassing sniffing behavior, as well, is most often strongly reproached.

Reprimanding or punishing what is normal behavior for a dog (inappropriate though we may consider it) makes the dog feel anxious and stressed. Over time, these feelings become intrinsically associated with the situation that triggers them, so even once the dog has learned to not jump up, he is conditioned to feel anxious in this situation.

Just as importantly, chastising the dog for what is normal does not provide an alternative outlet for the energy of this behavior. For example, teaching the dog to sit or get a toy and carry it around when someone comes to the door creates an alternative behavior outlet for his energy. Displacement behavior occurs in the absence of learning a positively reinforced alternative behavior to replace his normal greeting behavior.

It isn’t just dogs that operate this way. Consider how you would feel if you suddenly find yourself in an unfamiliar culture, with different, unknown greeting rituals. You offer your hand to shake hands and the person looks at you with disgust and turns away. Standing there foolishly with your hand outstretched you might laugh uncomfortably, cough and cover your mouth with your outstretched hand, or reach to pick up something, as if that’s what you intended all along: all displacement behaviors.

Now think of how much better you would feel when you have been forewarned as to proper greeting in this unfamiliar culture. Feeling no anxiety you would offer the appropriate behavior. This is just how we should approach greeting behavior, or any other “normal” dog behavior that we consider inappropriate or unacceptable in our society and culture. Rather than simply expressing our dismay or disgust, the best approach is to teach your dog an alternative, acceptable behavior so his emotions will no longer be in conflict.

While the reader’s dog doesn’t seem too terribly upset, and has found an acceptable displacement behavior, the reader could ask the dog to sit, lie down, or offer another learned behavior during greeting, and see if it doesn’t change her need to drink water.

And finally, I want to thank the reader for noticing that I invite questions. I try to answer all emails I receive, and am most appreciative of getting them. Readers’ questions often trigger column topics I hadn’t thought of, and I’m always grateful for new ideas!

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