Have you listened to any CAABChats lately? Hosted by PhD’s Suzanne Hetts and Dan Estep, a CAABChat is “A professional discussion among Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (and occasionally invited others) about timely, useful, controversial and foundational topics in the field of pet behavior and training.” The monthly podcasts are free if watched in real time or if you are a member of the Behavior Education Network. They are $18 a session if watched later. Hosted by Dr’s Hetts and Estep, topics range from resource guarding to temperament tests, island dogs versus North American dogs, and the one I want to talk about today, the meaning of oft-discussed body language signals, Three Current Issues Surrounding Body Language.
The issue I want to raise today is the relationship between “displacement behavior” and postures, expressions and behavior often described as indicators of stress, anxiety or fear. As well explained by Hetts and Estep, the term “displacement behavior” was coined by ethologists to label behavior that was seemingly out of context (or “displaced” from the situation). For example, gulls were seen to begin grooming themselves during territorial conflicts, skylarks were observed to stop fighting and peck the ground as if feeding, and then resume fighting again. I couldn’t resist including Wikipedia’s graphic here, seemingly out of the same time period as Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen, of a man scratching his head when unsure of what to do next–a classic displacement behavior (as is chewing on your nails or twirling your hair).
Displacement behaviors (or “activities,” as first coined) are believed to occur when an animal is in conflict about two incompatible desires. For example, an animal wants to defend his mating territory, but is afraid of being injured. Animals are either ambivalent (“approach versus avoid”) or unsure of what to do next.
Many of the signals termed displacement activities are also being interpreted now as signs of stress or fear, such as tongue flicks, grooming, and yawning. However, Hetts and Estep make the excellent point that displacement behavior MAY be a sign of fear or stress , (or a “calming signal,” a la Turid Rugaas), but not necessarily. Take a dog sniffing the ground before greeting another dog for example, often labeled as a “calming signal”. Ethologists would label this as a classic example of a displacement activity–the animal is in some kind of conflict about how to proceed next. Of course, being in conflict in many cases might be somewhat stressful, so in this case one could label the behavior both a displacement activity and a sign of low level stress. Or (and!) you could suggest that stress had little to do with it, but the sniffing is an example of an animal avoiding conflict with another by avoiding social pressure and giving both dogs time to adjust and settle. But does that mean that “stress” is involved here?
Hard to say. Note that being “stressed” is not inherently a negative state. Stress, if defined and used correctly in the biological sense, refers to being pushed out of a state physiological homeostasis, either by something negative or positive. Being excited about seeing a rock concert is as stressful as being afraid of going to the dentist. Eustress refers to stress (or arousal, or excitement) that is perceived as positive. Distress refers to stress that is perceived as negative.
Tongue flicks are an interesting example. I have labeled them signs of “low level anxiety” (as have many others) which is not inconsistent with an animal being in a kind of conflict. I noticed that Willie often tongue flicked when I gave the cue “Get Back” for back up. When I noticed that (not until I watched a video of it by the way, another reason it’s brilliant to video your own dog’s behavior and watch as an objective observer), I thought Oh dear! Is Willie fearful or somehow upset about this cue? Have I made some mistake in his training? And then I remembered that Willie is no doubt in conflict in this context. I usually say “Get Back” when he wants to move forward… so he wants the reinforcement for moving backward, but he wants to move forward too. In conflict? Yes. Stressed? Well, maybe a bit, because conflict can inherently be stressful. Fearful? Nope, I’d say not a bit. A displacement activity? Yes, if I am right that Willie is in conflict, even the smallest bit, about his next action.
That brings us to the well-articulated conclusion of Hetts and Estep, when they argue that one single action or posture is never enough to accurately interpret an animal’s behavior. A displacement activity might indicate eustress, distress and/or fear. Or not. Oh dear, I’m back to my answer to everything: It depends. Don’t think I am arguing that we should dismiss paying attention to these signals. If a dog starts tongue flicking and turning his head when I reach to pet him, I’m going to pay a lot of attention to it, and probably change my own behavior. But is does mean we need to be thoughtful about labels, and use them carefully and precisely.
Thanks to CAABChats for an interesting discussion, I look forward to more in the future. My own discussion of this is a bit less than I had envisioned, but I’m deep into the tunnel of copy edits for my new book. However, I very much look forward to our discussion on this topic. . . what activities, expressions and postures of your dogs have you classified as fearful, stressful or as displacement behavior? Of course, we are all making guesses about an animal’s internal state and motivation for doing anything, and some would say it doesn’t matter, at least in terms of reinforcing or changing the behavior in some way. But my ethological training and plain old curiosity can’t stop me from speculating, and most importantly, from wanting to avoid mislabeling behavior and miscommunicating about it. I’m all ears. . .
MEANWHILE, down on the farm: Not a great weekend for the dogs, the weather was so hot and humid we spent much of the weekend eating out or going to a movie. (Hunt for Wilderpeople, loved it) However, I don’t think southern Wisconsin has ever been more beautiful. We’ve had tons of rain, and the vegetation is lush, and the flowers are bursting out of their buds as if impatient from confinement. Here are two photos I took Sunday morning while walking on some friend’s new property. Part of the land is rented to a nearby farmer, and I loved the patterns created by the soybean rows.
Best part of the weekend was a visit from David Wroblewski, the author of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. He lives in Colorado but was back in Wisconsin doing research for his new book. David has become a friend and a mentor, and I can’t wait for his new book to come out. 2018 perhaps? Here’s David and Jim with the BC’s on the steps of the tent camp.
I have no idea what to label the behavior but every time you squeak a toy prior to throwing it for Finna her tongue flicks out. It’s like pushing a button for a result, it’s that reliable. Finna LOVES things that squeak and she loves playing fetch so she’s excited and happy when you squeak her toy but perhaps the conflict of waiting for you to throw it instead of just grabbing it away from you manifests as the displacement behavior of tongue flicking for each squeak. Confession time, it’s so funny seeing that tongue flick in response to the squeak that we often squeak it multiple times before throwing. I should video tape it and share it because it really is funny.
We’re still working on my husband’s relationship with Finna. They find each other very difficult to read so it’s hard for them to develop trust. We were enjoying the evening on our deck recently and playing fetch with Finna and a squeaky. She wanted my husband to throw it, she kept bringing it back to him but she didn’t want him to pick it up. If he tried she’d snatch it away then put it back when he stopped reaching. I had to walk over from where I was, pick it up, and hand it to my husband to throw. There was a lot of pawing, pacing, and sniffing because she was very much conflicted, wanting him to throw it but not wanting him to take it from her (pick it up).
Krissi Goetz says
I’ve been reading your blog for a long time but never had the time in life to respond…although I’ve wanted to!…too busy building a farm from a hayfield here in Idaho. (In case you want to put face to a name, I was one of the folks Dianne D had meet Maggie on video so you could see how she greeted strangers…) Anyway I cannot hold my tongue any longer, because I always love reading your blog, since you always have great reading suggestions and are a fellow BC and sheep junkie, but now that I hear you had the author of Edgar Sawtelle at your place, I cannot resist. 🙂 I read it some time ago and had forgotten it takes place in the Midwest. There is a line in the book that I think about all the time :”Training is not about words”. I pen a dog column in the local paper here and I hope to write about that in the near future. Thanks for reminding me!
Maybe there is a third possibility – transition. In monkeys, sometimes displacement behaviours occur right before a monkey changes activities. I have a truckload of behavioural data from my PhD and I reckon there is something in that. Dogs in my study frequently poked their tongue out just before shifting their focus from one activity to another type of activity (e.g. working -> looking around them). I did a rudimentary analysis on this and found that behaviours I had categorised as “transition” did occur more often before a change in activity type than before no change. The issue is I am categorising behaviour for dogs, though. I am hoping a much more complicated analysis will pick out behaviour categories from the data rather than me shoehorning data into categories. I wonder if displacement behaviours could better be described as “stalling” while an animal waits for more information, and sometimes the stalling is just very brief.
Anyway, my Erik is the king of displacement behaviours. He is a very impulsive dog, and he’s crazy alert and anticipatory, leading to much conflict, I guess. Sometimes I wonder if the issue is he feels it more keenly than other dogs, or if he just acts on it more readily. At any rate, I see lip licks a lot, and poking or scraping his paw across objects, pacing, more poking, sometimes whining, and some more poking, and he does the sniffing the ground thing, and he humps one of our other dogs (who doesn’t mind, usually). And he pokes. I think there is significance in which displacement behaviours we see. Humping is exclusively social conflict, like when my partner and I are leaving the house or maybe hugging. Poking and scraping is information-seeking, and he falls back on that whenever there is something going on in his environment that he doesn’t understand. Pacing seems to be anticipation more than anything. Lip licks seems more communication to me. Whining is arousal and anticipation. There is crossover with poking and pacing and lip licks, making me think they are related to conflict in general.
Interesting story: Some of the dogs in my study would go and sniff the ground if they made a mistake in the discrimination task they were learning. Does that mean they are experiencing something like cognitive dissonance? There was a kind of urgent, sheepish quality to it, like they would check for their reward and then look confused for a moment and then they badly needed to intently sniff the ground over here for a few moments before they came back to the task. It could be simple conflict like “I like the game, but I don’t like losing.” Or maybe it’s conflict like “I thought I had it figured out and I got it wrong.”
Rebecca Rice says
One which I ponder sometimes with my dog is “fooling around”. My greyhound came to me with severe generalized anxiety, and was terrified of being outside. With a lot of work, and Prozac, she is now pretty comfortable at home and in her yard, coming out to greet me when I get home most days. But, if I have to work late at the office, which happens on an irregular basis, when I get home she comes out and does zoomies around the yard while stopping briefly to sniff me. Happiness because I am home? Stress relief because she has been anxious while I was not? A bit of both? As you say, stress can be experienced because of both positive (yay! she’s home!) and negative situations (is she ever coming back??), so it’s hard for me to say for sure which it is. But it happens every time I work late, and not every time I come home, so I am thinking it’s some sort of stress-relief activity.
Maria B says
I’m completely confused about how to interpret tongue-flicking in my dogs. Sometimes it is clearly a sign of conflict/stress, but they do it in many contexts where I just don’t know how to read it. For instance, they often tongue-flick when being petted. But if I read that as discomfort and back off, 9 times out of 10 they come forward for more petting. The oddest displacement behavior among my crew is a sudden, compulsive need one of them gets to have something in his mouth. Any time I object to his bad behavior, he’ll frantically search for a toy to grab or, failing that, he’ll race to the water bowl and start drinking.
Alice R. says
I love this blog! I learn so much from you, Tricia, and also from all of the commenters. As I learn and apply it all, I begin to learn as I go. Thank you for such a wonderful resource.
Monika & Sam says
Terrific insight. And gorgeous photos of the farm.
To Kat: Ah, the “Here it is No it’s not!” behavior. Willie is a pro at it. It took me the longest time to get him to release a toy. As soon as I (or anyone else) would reach for the toy he brought to you he’d snatch it away. I am reminded of very young children who do the same thing. They want you to take it (or perhaps just to show it to you? “Look what I have!!!”) but can’t bear to part with it. I got around it by using two toys and throwing toy B as soon as Willie released toy A. Interesting though that Finna will give you the toy but not your husband. Maybe the game I played with Willie would help.
Even more interesting are Finna’s squeak-inspired tongue flicks. I suspect you’re right that it’s classic displacement behavior (perhaps “I want to grab it but I want to chase it too”?) If you do get a video, send it to email@example.com (if compressed, as would be from a mobile phone) and we’ll get it up!
To Krissi: Thanks for saying hello! And thanks especially for helping Maggie end up here, with me and Jim. I continue to be gobsmacked in love with her every day.
Melissa: Fascinating about your research and results that show tongue flicks occurring during transitions from one behavior to another. “Stalling” could be a good way of describing it. So, as I think about it, could “conflict,” because it can be difficult to switch from one thing to another. I don’t know how many times I’ve said “Transitions are hard,” and I think that’s true of tiny ones, like getting started cleaning the closet, to big ones, like moving or beginning a new job. Keep us posted on your research, perspectives from all mammalian species are critical to all of us.
Rebecca, and the “zoomies.” Great point. I have always thought there were more F’s as indicators of stress than “Fight or Flight.” We should add on to that Freeze and Frantic. I don’t know how many dogs came into my office like bullet trains, and ricocheted around my office for a few minutes before they settled down. Their owners would often say “Oh, he’s so friendly” as they leaped on top of me, my desk and my computer. I always saw them as frantic, and was reminded of how I can begin chattering like a mockingbird when I’m nervous.
Maria B, you make an important point about interpreting tongue flicks. You are right that they are seen in a variety of contexts–that supports Hetts and Estep’s point that you can’t make any assumptions until you’ve seen all the behavior/expressions of the dog, and the context in which they are produced. I suspect that tongue flicks are a lot like human smiles. We smile when we are happy, we smile when we are nervous (many of us at least), and we can smile when we’re furious or irritated. Focusing on the movement of a person’s lips and mouth is not enough to give you the information needed to interpret their expression. Did they eyes smile too? Is their body relaxed? Are they showing signs of nervousness? So, don’t question yourself or feel ‘confused’ about how to interpret a tongue flick; evaluate all else (as you clearly have done) and go from there. Thanks for bringing up such an important point.
Another thought-provoking blog. Thank you. With horses, specifically geldings, a classic conflict behavior is let-down. (The penis comes out of the sheath.) Often a person starts clicker training their horse in hopes of fixing a problem – often a fear – like fear of clippers. In this example, the horse really, really wants the food rewards, but really, really, still hates the clippers. So, the horse will stand, tense, while clipped, but he also drops. But that’s not the only reason a horse drops! Sometimes it’s the opposite and the horse does it when relaxed. There are other reasons, too. That’s why we have to look at physical clues like this in context.
The first thing I am curious about is Maggie’s posture/stance in the picture. She is turning away from your guest, leaning into Jim with her talk tucked. Avoidance, slightly stressed, or just her posture in this snapshot?
The second thing I’m wondering is the difference in both stimulus and behavior between tongue flicking and lip licking. Olive licks her lips in many different contexts. Curled up in bed half asleep, waiting for a bone or treat, sitting looking quite lost in thought, and when slightly stressed looking. I am curious if it could be a behavior related to feeling pretty relaxed as well as a calming signal?
Frantic is right. Right after we got her, Olive flew through the house and used the couch to bank her turn! She was so hyped up that it took a while for us to realize how scared she actually was and how much flooding we were doing without knowing it (the stairs, the radio, the door, etc). I shudder to recall. But, thank you for helping me remember, it’s good to be able to look back and see how hard she’s worked to be as she is today.
Olive had also refused to give up a ball in her mouth and so we used your idea of having two balls, and she would drop one to chase the other. That is until she learned how to stuff two balls in her mouth! Now we need three balls, and I see a carton of balls in our future 🙂
I have two anxious dogs and both of them will show displacement behavior if they feel too much pressure. Rowan will go drink. And drink. And drink. It started at flyball when she was afraid of the box but she’s a good girl and wanted to do what I asked. So if I got too close to the box, she would go get a drink. (She finally convinced me that flyball wasn’t going to be her sport and we went on to other things that she enjoys.) Now, she drinks almost continuously while I prepare her dinner. She doesn’t drink excessively at other times and I believe it has become her go-to behavior to keep herself from getting in the way when she *really* wants the food.
Rowan’s other displacement behavior occurred at herding lessons. She really wanted to make the sheep move fast and was very difficult to slow down. She went from “I can’t hear you!” to “OMG, I will never go near a sheep again” in a split second (and we were using the lowest level of pressure we could) and would go eat sheep poop in the corner of the field! She usually had to be coaxed back to work. After 18 months, she still just wanted to make the sheep move fast, so that was another sport we tried but didn’t pursue. :::sigh:::
Jester is much more sensitive to pressure of any kind and it has always been hard to train him “formally” because just asking him to do something is a lot of pressure for him. He is also my smartest, most clever, dog, which is saying a lot! 😉 I tried nosework for him a few years ago, as it had really helped Rowan gain confidence. He would start to search, then suddenly sit down and scratch. After a good scratch, he would usually go right to the hide. I never quite figured out why actually finding the hide was stressful for him, but it seemed to be. We gave class up because he was never able to get over his hyper-vigilance in new environments, but even if I hide treats around the house for him, he will still often stop & scratch before finishing the hunt.
I find displacement behaviors fascinating. I am sure there are so many more little displacements my dogs show on a daily basis, but when they interrupt an activity with a different behavior to reduce their stress, it’s really obvious.
Leslie K. says
My Vizsla has a behavior that I think is a displacement behavior: we are new to agility, and just before we go into the ring (after I’ve given the last treat) his nose will hit the dirt, and including during walking him into the ring, his nose is on the ground! After I ask him to sit at the start line, he may sniff the ground more, but probably is looking around at everything but me! I’ve learned to walk away anyway, confidently, with my back to him, and when I turn around and give him the cue, he’s off!
I first thought that there was simply something interesting there for him to sniff, but surely not more interesting than elsewhere just outside the ring, and there’s NO food allowed inside the ring, of course. So I’ve decided it must be a displacement behavior – perhaps he’s a little nervous or excited about starting his run…I know I am, which might be the whole thing!!
Rose Lenart says
Had to join this conversation as soon as I read about calming behaviors! My 11 yr old GSD/Husky, Brutus does not like either thunderstorms or fireworks and does the oddest thing when he gets stressed out. He will take the covers off the cat litter boxes and nose the litter out of the box. He just keeps pushing and pushing it with his nose. He doesn’t mess with the boxes any other time and would rather die than eat the contents but my only explanation must be that it is a calming behavior. We had 5 cats when we rescued him as a young puppy so he does do some cat like things like if he pees on mulch or snow he will cover it up using his nose also. Needless to say, he is an interesting character!
Jan Hinkley says
I have a Silken Windhound who does the zoomies in some cases such as when we are at the beach I would say it is sheer joy as he loves the beach and looks so happy as he does them . Other times such as when a dog he does not know gets pushy at the dog park he will do the zoomies but the expression on his face is different as he looks anxious and he often does those zoomies as figure eights going around me and between my legs. He is so very fast that it confuses the other dog so it then walks away.
I think in sighthounds the zoomies are more often then not sheer joy.
There is a dog in my neighborhood that sends out all the “wrong” dog signals when we meet on a walk…she exhibits still, stiff body posture, and direct stare. As we approach I never know what to expect. My dog, male, steers toward her (but he does this with most dogs). Then he also stands straight and direct stares back, which really gets me concerned. After a few seconds, he then loosens, and starts to sniff the ground. Eventually he turns away and continues to sniff the ground. The other dog starts following and air sniffing…then all seems to be okay and they meet. Calming signals from my dog, or displacement behaviour as he may be nervous (or picking up on my nervousness)? Regarding the instance I am describing, I am inclined to think it was purposeful “calming” signals. I never put much stock in calming signals before but I could not help but feel that this was what was going on. I actually praised him for such beautiful communication….but I have no idea if that is what was really happening. On another note…zoomies, they are so cool! My dog always launched into them when I would say “YOU DID IT!! YOU DID IT!!” after performing a trick or good agility run or just some great listening. He always wants to please. I felt is was both exhilaration and a release from a job well done (or just a response to my crazed voice!….no… he was happy!)
Mona Lindau says
Displacement behaviors may not all be signs of stress. Sometimes it is communication to other dogs. For ex. my bullmastiff accepts several dogs on my property. It does not mean that she wants to interact with them, so she turns her head and looks into space., or starts sniffing, or rolls over to scrtch her back. She is not stressed, just saying ‘go away, dont want to deal with you right not. All very calmly done – and the other dogs stop bugging her.
My girl had a fight with a foster I had staying, they were up on their hind legs in a grip with their fore legs, it was looking like stale mate. My dog made one, two then three tongue licks, on the third the foster responded with a tongue lick and my dog relinquished the grip, content to end the conflict. I managed to see this as I had been recording them playing when it broke out, and i was able to slow down the video, really interesting. The spat didn’t quite end there but they never had another fight, on the contrary they became great buddies who played together, slept together and even groomed each other, they really were the sweetest pair.
Vicki Brust says
Love this article! I have puppy mill survivor who went from that first awful crate to a store to be sold and then to an 87 year old man who kept her crated all the time because he was afraid of tripping over her. I was lucky to have been chosen to go to to my vet and check her out as he realized she needed a better home. She’s a poodle mix and nothing I was looking for at all, being a big dog person she is my first little one. She air licks and it’s been very hard to convince my vet it’s stress/excitement. We live alone and when we have company, which she LOVES, and gets excited she air licks. The other evening I was on the phone and upset and she was lying beside me and began to air lick. My vet doesn’t want to except this behavior as excitement/stress and believe she has internal issues. She’s had an ultrasound and everything is perfect. I am blessed to have her and we grow closer every day. She came straight from God.
Jenny H says
>Jan Hinkley says
I have a Silken Windhound who does the zoomies in some cases such as when we are at the beach I would say it is sheer joy as he loves the beach. . . Other times such as when a dog he does not know gets pushy at the dog park he will do the zoomies but the expression on his face is different . . . >
I absolutely agree with you — I have a Cocker/Beagle who just adores to run — I say she enjoys the feel of the wind in her ears. She looks the epitome of joy when she runs.
But I have seen other dogs (usually at Agility trials) who seem absolutely frenetic when they run — These are (to me) the ‘zoomies”. The dogs don’t loom at all happy 🙁
https://www.flickr.com/photos/33350160@N02/28528693562 This photo shows Ranger and his Bearded Collie buddy Harry walking together. They walk ‘glued’ together like this quite often especially when Harry is feeling at all stressed. Ranger is 10 and Harry is 5 and they’ve done this practically since the moment they met. In this photo they are walking to an event going along a street where cars are going by. Harry really doesn’t like cars going by because they are going too fast and (herding dog) he wants to get that motion under control. He wants to chase cars but knows he can’t. Both dogs are wearing their TDI uniforms so they know they’re going to ‘work.’ Ranger doesn’t worry about cars moving around anywhere anymore. Harry’s solution to the stress of the cars that he must not chase is to move next to Ranger and walk with him touching all along their sides. I find it a fascinating form of stress management/displacement behavior.
Krissy Ross says
Hello! I found one of your blogs in November that helped with a horrible decision we had to make due to aggressive behavior from our pitbull Petie. He was a biter. We loved him so much and we did end up having to put him down. That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life.
But I’m writing today because we adopted a Labradoodle that was 2 1/2 years old from a breeder. She was kept for breeding and lived her life outdoors in a pen. She began miscarrying and was no longer of use to him. She has done well with adjusting to being indoors and potty training. But she doesn’t know how to play and is learning. We have had her for 8 months and she still shows very little affection to us. We have 3 children, 22, 20, and 14, myself and my husband in the home. We also have a shih tzu and a cat. She does well with them but will rarely play with the shih tzu. She seems depressed. She isolates herself a lot. We show her so much affection but she just has little interest in being with us. It’s almost like she’s just staying with us until she can go back home. Any thoughts or insight would be so greatly appreciated.
Thank you so much.
Trisha – Good luck with the book editing. I am still looking forward to a leisurely read when your book comes out.
Displacement behaviors vs. calming signals vs. stress, anxiety, and fear – Interesting! I have noticed that the same behaviors often have different labels. Perhaps the labeling is less important than what we DO with the information. Observing tongue-flicking or anomalous sniffing may help us improve training approaches or recognize when a social interaction is becoming stressful. There is probably no substitute for learning each individual dog’s quirks.
Zoomies – Red Dog had a major case of the zoomies last night. We went to the dog park in a pouring rainstorm. When Red Dog gets wet, she zooms. The more she zooms, the wetter she gets. The wetter she gets, the more she zooms. Rinse and repeat, so to speak. Red Dog appeared to be having a blast, and I could not stop laughing.
Despite the rain, Red Dog needed tiring out to protect Mrs. B, who suffered a sprained knee at the dog park after a well-meaning but clumsy young Labrador ran into her at full speed.
Tennis balls – One of my previous dogs was reluctant to relinquish a tennis ball, but invariably dropped it if I threw a second ball. If I threw ball #2 at just the right time, ball #1 would bounce into my hand after she released it. This enabled a wonderfully continuous game of fetch down the long, carpeted hallway of our previous house. Great way to amuse the dog indoors.
Alice R. says
I have one of those “frantic as stress signal” dogs, something I wasn’t aware of before. He does love people, but he’s also nervous at first so he dances and bounces to an extreme degree. If I don’t move him away, he will keep going back to the person or persons. If I do move him away, he will whine to go back to them. If I don’t manage him, he will add “puppy mouthing” of their hands. He will also do this if I am leaving him with friends or family (who he loves) to keep him while I’m away, surely due to the stress of knowing we are separating. He then does it when we visit these folks as he’s not completely sure until we’ve been there a while if I’m leaving or not. Even though I have never left him here with a sitter while on a trip, he does the same thing to them when they visit here. I get the impression that sometimes it’s a stress signal, but sometimes it’s just happy excitement as well since he will do it when my husband comes home as well. I have to keep reading between the lines to read the cause and then manage it correctly. My guy is a boisterous youngster (16 months), but very responsive so I have high hopes that with a little more age, practice managing his impulsiveness, and more socialization he will become more comfortable and manage his excitement better.
Rebecca Rice says
With regards to “stress zoomies”, I think it’s the dog equivalent of the feeling that we get when we find someone who has wandered off in a crowd, especially a child. That combination of relief because they are safe and back with us, and the anger/stress/fear that we had while they were missing that makes you want to shake them for having wandered off. With a sighthound breed, I think that comes out as a desire to run, since that is what is in their genes, and it does give them endorphins.
But context is everything, because some cases of zoomies are just because they are feeling happy and it’s fun.
Joanne Ometz says
Trish, so glad you brought up the concept of displacement. Turid Rugaas’ work on calming signals has been so important to how I work with dogs and helps me understand them in many instances.
However, just like humans, dogs are pretty complicated animals. I believe it makes sense that they would use displacement behaviors much as we do. I am reminded of a DVD set I have by Sarah Kalnajs in which she shows, with commentary, dog after dog in a situation where it is not sure what to do and so it licks its privates!
And there is always Festus, I believe on the old tv show Gunsmoke, who was always scratching his head and saying things like, “I don’t rightly know.”
My own dog Sadie appears uncomfortable if I use my whole hand to signal a ‘stay’ and will turn her head and do a lip lick. But if I just use one finger, she does not do this. Not sure if these are calming signals or something else, but I always thought it was an interesting behavior on her part, and it ‘trained’ me to change my own!
I’m so enjoying reading all of these comments. I don’t have much time, so just a quickie example of what I consider ‘stalling’ behavior in Otis: Otis loves to sleep, has a capacious bladder, and once he’s settled and comfortable, his sheer size lends him a great deal of inertia- so in the evening, before we go to bed, my husband or I have always needed to MAKE Otis get up to go out for one final pee-he almost never gets up willingly on his own, despite usually not having been out since six o’clock. I know that he likely won’t sleep all the way through the night without needing to go out if we don’t make him get up and go (and I can’t think it’s good for him even if he is willing to hold it for twelve hours), so we have to drag his sleepy self out of bed.
The interesting thing is, he shows markedly different behavior on days when he likely feels conflicted (he last went out at six o’clock and will go out to make a huge pee) vs. days when we get him up for routine’s sake but he’s been out more recently and likely truly doesn’t HAVE to pee (though he will). Most days, when Otis is feeling torn, he’ll sloooooowly, and with a great show of reluctance raise himself into a seated position and then make a show of, in order 1) licking his chest 2) scratching at his belly 3)sloowly coming to his feet and waving his back feet at his belly further, rubbing his face against any nearby human’s midsection to reinforce his request for a standing face and belly rub.
Eventually, after five minutes of cajoling and massage, he’ll amble outside, make a monster pee and trot back in to settle in for the night.
When Otis honestly doesn’t need to go out, he just doesn’t move. He’ll actually close his eyes and remain limp in what seems like a pretense of sleep as long as he possibly can despite the fact that my husband is often literally rolling him up and off the ground with the edge of his blanket. Eventually Otis will relent and heave himself up and go out with only a fraction of the delaying tactics.
I’m sure that Otis’ nighttime ritual is mostly a learned routine for prompting attention and affection, but it began as a series of ‘stalling’ tactics- he didn’t want to get up, but he didn’t want to NOT get up, either, and I’ve seen many of the same moves (the scratching and mugging for petting) in many other instances where Otis feels conflicted.
em: Your comments about Otis had me laughing out loud. Thanks for making my day. I thought of you and Otis last night, when asking my three to go outside for their last pee of the night. As usual, Willie lept up. Willie is ready for anything, pretty much anytime. Sometimes exhaustingly so. (“No Willie, we’re not going outside for last pee. I just shifted my legs a bit because they needed to stretch out.”) Willie has even learned a long list of cues that I’m about to get off the phone. Saying “Thanks for calling,” “Okay,” or “Good night” is enough to cause him to jet up into the air and run toward the door.The girls, on the other hand, channel Otis. When I say “Let’s go out,” Willie arises from the floor as if propelled by a blast of air, while Maggie and Tootsie lift their heads slowly, blink their eyes and appear to say “Out? What? Why would we go out? Why would we move? We are soooo comfortable.” It matters not whether they might need to pee or not, they are simply settled in, comfy and only finally drag themselves off the couch grudgingly. Toots is the worst. Maggie will always come when called, but Toots will stay motionless on the couch, staring at me as if she had no idea why I was making such a fuss. Last night I was so tired that I simply picked her up and carried her outside, amused at the description of your husband rolling Otis up in a blanket and dep0siting him on his feet. Ah, the advantage of a small dog! It’s occurring to me as I write this that I too hate getting up from the couch at night and I have to force myself up, take the dogs up and climb up the stairs. Oh dear, maybe soon someone will have to roll me out on a blanket?
So glad you got a kick out of Otis’ evening antics. I’ve seen the show virtually every night for more than seven years now, and he still makes me laugh every time.
There are times when I truly do wish I had a shrink ray so that I could just scoop him up a la Tootsie and carry him out, though!
I rescued a 5 year old Great Pyrenees St Bernard mix 8 months ago. She was afraid of everything and everyone. After 8 months she is slowly getting better with the family, but is petrified of the outside world. She goes for a brief walk and most of the day isolates herself in my upstairs bedroom. Any suggestions on how to make her more confident. I want so much for her to experience life and enjoy it, something I don’t think she has had in the past. I don’t know much of her history except she came from TN, probably a rural area and now she is in a suburb with more people traffic and sounds