Recognizing Displacement Behavior in Dogs

Displacement behaviors occur when your dog is experiencing conflicting desires and isn’t sure what to do. These behaviors can be perfectly normal, or may be a sign of distress.


Dogs sometimes do things that seem out of place. Maybe your dog runs to get a drink of water whenever company arrives at your house, or he whines and yawns when approaching a friendly dog. These out-of-context moments are examples of displacement behavior in dogs.

What is Displacement Behavior?

Displacement behavior is when your dog does something normal, but at a weird time that feels out of context. This occurs when your dog is experiencing conflict or frustration.

Conflict is when your dog feels pulled between reactions to a situation. The pressure can result from two different things that are positive to the dog but can’t be done at once, or one option could come with fear or anxiety. Some examples include if your dog:

  • Wants to visit you when you get home, but also wants to chase cars.
  • Wants to approach another dog, but is nervous.
  • Wants to pull on the leash, but knows he isn’t supposed to.
  • Wants to go to the person calling him, but is scared of an obstacle, such as a shiny floor.

Frustration is when your dog wants to do something, but is blocked or otherwise prevented from doing it. For example, she:

  • Wants to visit a person, but on a leash.
  • Wants to approach another dog, but is behind a fence.

Examples of Displacement Behavior

There are many things that a dog might do as a displacement behavior. These include:

  • excessive licking
  • yawning
  • circling
  • whining
  • barking
  • sniffing
  • tongue flick
  • grabbing a toy
  • drinking
  • eating
  • scratching
  • mounting

Which behavior the dog does can vary by the situation and the individual dog.

Here are three examples of displacement behaviors in action:

  1. Many dogs want to greet other dogs but are unsure about how the other dog will respond. They respond to this conflict between wanting to play and wanting to maintain a safe distance by licking excessively, eating grass, or yawning.
  2. My oldest dog prefers to be with me at all times. If my husband is holding her leash – even if I am within sight – she whines and paces side to side. She is with a person she likes, but is prevented from reaching me, her favorite person. This frustration comes out as whining and pacing.
  3. My youngest dog is always in a hurry and tends to pull on the leash. I have worked on this a lot, primarily by standing still when she puts tension on the leash. She understands that keeping a loose lead means the walk will continue, but she really wants to go fast! Her solution to this conflict (wanting to be good and get to walk, but wanting to go faster) is to smush her face between my knees and walk beneath me for several steps.

What Displacement Behavior Means

If you notice your dog showing a displacement behavior, consider his overall body language and the situation that he is in. Is he mostly loosey-goosey and relaxed, or is his body language stressed? Displacement behavior can be a response to stress, but stress isn’t always a bad thing.

Stress is a normal part of life. Your dog experiences positive stress when he is excited about something, and negative stress when he is anxious. Short bouts of stress from conflict or frustration are nothing to be concerned about. The issue is when stress becomes a frequent occurrence or if it is interfering with your dog’s ability to enjoy day-to-day life.

If your dog quickly bounces back and is relaxed and happy or playing after showing displacement behavior, it just means he was temporarily unsure about or frustrated by the situation. For example, maybe he started eating grass as he approached another dog, but then they greeted each other politely and started playing. This is nothing to worry about.

However, if your dog continues to show signs of distress even after the initial conflict has resolved, or if frustration can’t be addressed, this could be problematic in the long term. Let’s go back to the example of a dog worried about a shiny floor. His owner is calling him, and he wants to go to her, but is afraid of the floor and starts whining and licking his lips. He finally goes to his owner but continues to pant and be tense with the whites of his eyes showing for ten minutes after the event. This dog is distressed.

If your dog barks hysterically out the window at dogs that he can’t approach for hours on end, he is staying in that stressed, hyper-aroused state for an extended period of time. This prolonged frustration isn’t great for him (plus it is probably driving you and your neighbors insane).

What to Do When You See Displacement Behavior

Consider what your dog is doing, why he is doing it, and how he behaves after the displacement behavior ends. All of these factors will affect how you should respond.

Does your dog’s displacement behavior stem from frustration? Try to identify the cause of the frustration and eliminate it. This will minimize your dog’s stress and prevent the reaction from becoming a bad habit. For example, if your dog screams when he sees other dogs out the window because he wants to play, prevent him from looking out the window by blocking access to that room or putting up opaque window clings.

Does your dog’s displacement behavior come from a place of insecurity and conflict, but then resolve positively? For example, the dog who is nervous about approaching another dog but then plays happily. You can reduce this displacement behavior by building up your dog’s confidence and comfort around other dogs. Arrange playdates with calm, friendly dogs that you know will be gentle with your dog so he can have a lot of positive experiences approaching and interacting with other dogs.

Does your dog’s displacement behavior come from fear, and have the potential to end badly? For example, a dog who alternates between barking and lunging at another dog and retreating fearfully, even if the other dog is calm. This dog is distressed and could potentially bite the other dog if pushed too hard. If you find yourself in this situation, get your dog out of there as quickly and safely as possible. Strong fear of other dogs should be addressed with the help of a veterinary behaviorist and/or your veterinarian.

Does your dog’s displacement behavior come from insecurity or fear, and lead to prolonged anxiety? For example, the dog who is afraid of the shiny floor and stays stressed out even after getting to his owner. You can reduce this displacement behavior by avoiding shiny floors, providing rugs or mats for your dog to walk on, and/or a desensitization program to help your dog become more comfortable with the shiny floors.

Does your dog’s displacement behavior itself have the potential to cause harm? For example, a dog who obsessively licks one spot on his leg when he experiences conflict or frustration. This dog could eventually create bald patches and even damage the skin if he continues licking. Try to identify the cause of your dog’s behavior and eliminate the source if possible. You will likely also need help from your veterinarian or a behaviorist to prevent physical damage and break the habit.

Redirected Aggression

Redirected aggression is similar to displacement behavior, but works a little differently. The classic example of redirected aggression is when a dog wants to attack a dog on the outside of his fence but can’t get to it, so he bites his owner or a housemate instead. A dog showing redirected aggression is extremely frustrated, but instead of finding an innocuous displacement behavior such as grabbing a toy or whining to vent that frustration, he does exactly what he wants to do to the first poor soul who gets in his way.

The Bottom Line

Periodic, mild episodes of displacement behavior are a normal response to conflict or frustration. When possible, identify the source of your dog’s conflict or frustration so that you can address both the feelings and the behavior.

If your dog’s displacement behavior itself could cause harm, or if the result of the situation causes distress for anyone involved, start by avoiding the situation while you seek help from your veterinarian and/or a veterinary behaviorist.

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Kate Basedow, LVT is a long-time dog enthusiast. She grew up training and showing dogs, and is active in a variety of dog sports. She earned her Bachelors Degree in English from Cornell University in 2013, and became a licensed veterinary technician in New York in 2017. She has been writing professionally about dogs for most of her life, and has earned multiple awards from the Dog Writers' Association of America. Kate currently has three dogs at home, as well as a cat, two zebra finches, and six ducks.