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.