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Stress Displacement Behaviors

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

I recently took a break from social media. I get a lot of business and referrals from my Facebook pages, so I tend to be very active on my accounts, but it's been a stressful couple weeks and I've found myself reaching for the Facebook icon on my phone again and again - mid-conversation, mid-activity. It was becoming so it wasn't even a conscious behavior and it was becoming detrimental to my mental well-being. This constant reaching for a mental escape is known in the dog world as a stress displacement behavior.

Stress displacement behaviors are coping mechanisms alternate outlets for stress that don't involve facing the stressor head on. For me personally, these are things like burying my head in a book, reaching for Facebook or silly cellphone games, blogging/writing in general, and with in-personl interactions I look down or away when I'm stressed, run my hand through my hair, or chewing my finger nails.

Stress displacement behaviors, often called calming signals because use them to calm both themselves and other dogs, are very common in dogs as well but often we don't recognize them for what they are.

Common stress displacement behaviors are:

Anubi a little stressed at a dog show, Photo: Tain Marie
  • Licking their lips - this is a pretty subtle sign which is very easy to miss but is super common

  • Yawning - dogs yawn more often because they are stressed than tired

  • Turning away - because this is physically obvious, more people tend to notice this

  • Sitting - this is generally a less threatening position than standing, it's also a position that indicates the dog is less engaged with the interaction.

  • Stretching - stretching can slow down the interaction and your dog's racing mind.

Kona sniffing next to a scary Halloween decoration

Sniffing - this allows the dog to engage in an alternate activity as opposed to what is causing them stress.

  • Scratching - similar to sniffing, this gives the dog something else to focus on and typically makes whatever is pressuring them to pause and wait for the dog to finish scratching.

  • Freezing - this can be a miniscule freeze during play to give themselves a short mental break or a giant, poignant freeze before a dog bites.

  • Slow movement - typically moving slowly encourages other dogs and people to move slowly.

Anubi play bowing after working 12 hours
  • Play bow - the play bow is one of the best indicators that a dog would like to play and it's a great way to diffuse a tense situation. Dogs that are good at play bowing tend to be very socially savvy, those that don't give play bow often tend to be either overly pushy or insecure.

  • Submissive smiling - sometimes will tell me that their dog is smiling because they're happy (this can seem true typically because the owners thought the smile was cute and reinforced it frequently, so the dog offers it other times, not just when they are stressed). Far, far more commonly this a sign that a dog is trying to clearly indicate they are no threat. It can be unsettling to look at because some dogs will pull back all their lips away from their teeth and it almost looks like snarling.

Wolfhound self-handicapping while Pharaoh Hound says no thanks
  • Laying belly down - this is sometimes utilized by large dogs as self-handicapping with playing with small dogs. It is also common in insecure dogs who are indicating they are no threat to others.

  • Turning belly up - this is the stereotypical submissive puppy position and dogs recognize it as such, even most humans recognize this position.

  • Low, tight tail wag - this is known as a submissive tail wag in my household. Ami will do this when trying to suck up to Ash to get him to play with her. Puppies will do it when an older dog is telling them they're too much. Not all tail wagging is good, the height and speed of the dog's tail tells you their emotional state (but canine body language is a post of another day).

  • Shaking off - this is where the dog shakes off as if shaking off water. Typically, this is a bit of a mental reset for your dog. So, if they had been really stiff and licking their lips a lot and then shake off generally after they shake off you will see fewer stress displacement signals.

Have you ever asked your dog to sit and suddenly your dog starts scratching instead? Have you ever called your dog in from the yard and had them industriously start sniffing the grass instead? Stress displacement behaviors aren't just used in dog to dog interactions. Dogs use them with us humans all the time. It's fairly likely that your dog isn't actually suddenly itchy or they need to sniff that blade of grass that second. It's far more likely that your dog doesn't want to sit right then and they know if they scratch you'll likely give them a second before giving up or asking them to sit again. Or in the case of the dog in the yard, your dog likely doesn't want to come in from the yard and is acting busy so they don't have to. I've worked with some dogs where stress displacement behaviors are the dog's default behavior so every single time you ask them to sit, the dog scratches. Often this means that the scratching as become part of the sit behavior because they've been paired together so often, so your dog does not in fact know how to sit on cue without also scratching.

Stress displacement behaviors aren't inherently a bad thing. There are some trainers and owners I've talked to who get very concerned that their dog licked their lips once during a session - they don't want to put stress on their dog. But, here's the thing. The world is made up of pressures and stressors. We want to prepare our dogs as best as we can to be comfortable and at ease in the world, but we always want to help them deal with stressors. And that's why stress displacement behaviors are so important for dogs (and honestly people) - they give the dogs a way to self soothe and they communicate to anyone who knows to watch that the dog is feeling stressed. The savvy dog person can keep their dog happier and help them manage stress better if they know what signs they're looking for.

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