Do you bite your nails or rub your face when you’re stressed or confused? Well, when dogs are stressed or confused, they do similar things — behaviors that are perfectly normal to do, but not at the right time. These are called "displacement behaviors."
Dogs commonly yawn when they feel stress, but not necessarily because they are tired. Under similar conditions, they often lick their lips, but not necessarily when they are thirsty. Sometimes when they’re getting worried they might scratch themselves, and sometimes they might even sneeze.
Think about it: When you struggle to solve the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, are you scratching your head because it is itchy, or is scratching some involuntary thing you do because your brain is being pushed to its limit?
Displacement behaviors are important to understand because they are an early signal to you that your dog might be feeling distressed.
For example, your dog gets along fine with some dogs, and with others she snarks in their face, seemingly without any warning. But if you watch closely, does your dog yawn or lick her lips as the other dog approaches? That’s your early cue to happy talk your girl away from the action.
What about when children run towards her, when she’s at the vet, or when thunder first rumbles far in the distance?
Keep an eye out for displacement behaviors. They can help you learn when your pup needs an assist from you, before problems occur.