In “Dog Language”, Danish evolutionary biologist and ethologist Roger Abrantes writes that dogs only share 50-80% of wolf-communication in true or modified form. I read that years ago, and was happy that a scientist of international caliber pointed out that dogs’, because they live in different conditions, aren’t like wolves’. Every time that happens it counters the popular perception that our common house-canis is in its essence but a status seeking competitor we better be wary of.
To clarify, dogs’ communication is not inferior to wolves’; it is not that they lack language skills, only dropped some signals and developed others because the environment they live in demanded it. Trust me, dog-speak is not mumbled because they live in the midst of humans, like some dog-pros suggest. To the contrary, they talk very clearly with us, and because they have learned that our hands can provide and attack, bring pleasure and hurt, their lingo includes a variety of signals intended to pacify. Expressions of active and passive submission, appeasement and displacement I see a whole lot more than assertive growls and snarls. Dogs, by nature, defer to us. In relation to humans they are prey, not predator.
Most everyone has, at least rudimentarily, an idea what a dog who pleads for kindness looks like. Even non-dog-owning people understand groveling and rolling on the back, tail up the belly, whining and dribbling urine.
A different story when it comes to displacement behaviors, which, by the way, can be observed in all animals. Simplified, they are species-normal actions expressed out of context to temporarily reduce anxiety, unease, uncertainty. The pooch feels confused or pressured, needs more time or information, or simply is bored. Not necessarily proof that he was trained with corrections and fears to make a mistake, it could also be that.
Two very common signals are sniffing and scratching. Of course, dogs sniff because they’re trailing a scent or reading the “Taily News”, but if I see mine put her nose into the bush the moment neighbor’s Brutus struts down his driveway, I know that she is a bit worried and hopes that old Brut won’t, la-la-la-la-la, perceive her as someone worth paying attention to.
Certainly, a dog also scratches an itch, but when I see one during an obedience trial eagerly run for the dumbbell, but stop on the way back to scratch himself, my hunch is that he’s concerned about an, at least at times, irritable handler and my advice for him is to be less overpowering and more inviting.
A play bow, the front down, butt up mega signal that friendly interaction is sought, can also be a displacement one. Not long ago I worked with two rescues who both exhibited it in different contexts: one in front of a treat she was leash-prevented to access. Without receiving any information from me, she had no clue what to do to get the loot and bowed, an action that might have, in the past and other situations, resulted in favorable outcomes - from her point of view. It became a habit. But maybe it was her launching position; her trying to gain momentum.
The other dog, a powerful male I assessed, bowed outside a run that contained a litter of puppies, and we knew it wasn’t play because he tried to attack (the puppies weren’t harmed in any way) a few hours prior. When he saw them the second time, unlike before, they were sleeping and that detail change, from animation to stillness, threw him enough of a curveball to trigger a different behavior: bowing instead of lunging.
Described in “The Domestic Dog”, biologist Ray Coppinger observed a group of Border collies who were presented with chickens sedated just enough that they stood still when the herders stared at them. Border collies give eye in anticipation of movement, and when what they expected, the birds scattering, didn’t manifest they had a problem they didn’t know how to solve. They stopped holding eye and, in frustration, resorted to a variety of displacement behaviors, including the play bow. At first suggestion that the chickens were about to move they locked on again, resumed giving eye, like the male dog lunged for the pups again the moment one awoke and became animated.
Which displacement signals a dog gives varies and depends on circumstance, personality, and what led to desired results in the past, but it can be anything that is part of his behavioral repertoire, including digging, self-grooming and rolling over.
When insecure of all novel situations husky Chinook went belly up as soon as I tried to teach her something new, it wasn’t an attempt to appease me, but to create a pause in our interaction. I ignored the behavior and her, and she popped up a few seconds later and did exactly what I had asked for. Sadly, Chinook’s owner interpreted her action as willfulness, but fortunately I could convince her that her mild, lovely pooch did want to please me, just needed a little more time to figure out how; concerned that I might not be safe if she’d get it wrong, and that is likely based on traditional training methods she once experienced.
Such misinterpretations humans make are common, because the average dog’s bilingual skills are much better than his person’s. One of the most misunderstood behaviors is mounting. Labeled as a dominant or sexual behavior it is typically neither, but exhibited by a dog in conflict; one presented with a person, dog or situation that makes him nervous but he feels powerless to do anything about. Mounting is a not so subtle effort by the dog to control or change a situation that’s not working for him - at the moment or generally, and it can be directed at the perceived “problem”, or redirected like a redirected bite – meant for one but directed at the other.
A displacement behavior always reflects a dog’s emotional state; signals that he is indecisive, needs more information, is buying time to contemplate his next move, would rather not deal with the dilemma altogether, is overwhelmed or utterly bored. If your dog intersperses an action with a behavior that is only normal in a different context, ask yourself why. Your best response is as multifaceted as the dog’s reason. If he is just confused, it is worthwhile to wait 20-30 seconds to see if he comes up with his own perfect solution, like husky Chinook and the rescue dog who bowed in front of a food treat. Problem solving builds brainpower and confidence and we want to foster both. If he is truly concerned, help him, and if he worries a lot, proactively avoid situations that create unease, for example change training facilities and build confidence in an environment he feels less overwhelmed in. If he is chronically mounting, chances are his living arrangement, or part of it, isn’t working for him and changes might have to be made there.
Setting the pooch up for success prevents that the displacement behavior turns into a problem behavior. If it is regularly reinforced, it can become an obsession; if reinforced by the person, a habitual but annoying attention getter that is, like all addictions, difficult to undo.