Doin’ The Displacement

AUG, 2015

“Whenever you are examining someone else, you are bound to learn many interesting things of which you were not previously aware.” ―Lemony Snicket

behavior

Do you have a long list of things to do, but even more reasons not to do them?

I do.  We all do.

We have lists of must-do today, gotta-do this week, have-to-do this month, and so on.  They’re things we know we should do, but instead we check Facebook, read the newspaper, watch T.V., garden, organize the office or garage, or do something else that is completely unrelated to The List that we are wanting to avoid.   When humans do this kind of avoidant behavior we call it ‘procrastinating’, but when other species of animals do it, it’s referred to as displacement behavior.

To-Dos-List
I wish my To Do list looked like this.

What Is Displacement Behavior? 

Rather than try and explain it myself, here are a few definitions of displacement behavior:

In biology and psychology, it’s something that a person or animal does that has no obvious connection with the situation which they are in and that is the result of being confused about what to do.

Displacement behavior usually occurs when an animal is torn between two conflicting drives, such as fear and aggression. Displacement activities often consist of comfort movements, such as grooming, scratching, drinking, or eating.

Displacement Activity defined:

1. (Psychology)  behavior that occurs typically when there is a conflict between motives and that has no relevance to either motive, e.g. head scratching
2. (Zoology) zoology the substitution of a pattern of animal behavior that is different from behavior relevant to the situation, e.g. preening at an apparently inappropriate time

Simply put, it’s a normal behavior that’s displayed out of context.

Displacement behavior is usually seen when an animal has a conflict between two drives: the desire to approach an object, while at the same time being fearful of that object.  Displacement behaviors are a way of coping with the present environment.

In social situations, scientists also refer to these kinds of behaviors in humans as displacement behaviors.  You might recognize these commonly seen behaviors when you’re out at a bar or restaurant where couples are gathered.  Men often scratch at, or touch their face.  Women will fiddle with their hair, tug at their purse, or tap their shoe.  I call it fiddling and flirting!  Scientists have even found that these behaviors represent an important strategy for coping with stressful situations, particularly for men. 

Body-Language--Men-Flirting-8
Male displacement behavior when flirting

Mating and Conflict in Many Species

Humans are not the only species who display a variety of displacement behaviors in a myriad of environments to cope with stress and frustration.  There are many examples of displacement activities in the animal kingdom.  They are known to occur in a wide range of species from dolphins to dogs.  Below is a description of the reactions of two herring gulls contending for nesting territories on a sand dune:

If both the birds are standing near the edges of their territories so that in each the urge to drive off the intruder is matched by the urge to retire into the heart of the territory, they may suddenly leave their confrontation for a few moments and pull with their beaks at grass stems.  

Tinbergen found that this was really part of the pattern of nest-building; and it appeared that when the drive to defend the nesting territory was frustrated by an opposing drive, part of the pent-up “energy” splashed over, so to speak, in isolated actions which were part of the sequence normally expressing quite a different drive, that of building the nest.

Another interesting point is that some of these activities, especially those which arise in mating encounters, have become transformed into signals which convey the frame of mind of one individual to another of the same species.

Whether or not this adaptation occurs, the essential characteristics of displacement activity are frustration of one basic drive and the inconsequential performance of fragmentary activities normally part of behavior expressing another.

What the scientist is describing are displacement behaviors. These behaviors are allowing the gulls to avoid conflict.  They are a form of clear communication within their species, and the behaviors work for the gulls. Our companion animals are doing this all the time with us, and others at home, but we fail to recognize it.


Fidos, Felines, and Feathered Ones

Gulls are not unlike our pets at home.  If we look closely enough we will see similar behavior in our animal companions!  For example, a dog may have the desire to bark, bite, or walk away from another dog, but instead she scratches herself (when she’s not actually itchy).  During conflict, a cat who’s being harassed may be unsure whether to run from her attacker, or stand her ground and fight.  So instead of doing either behavior, the threatened cat displays a third, unrelated behavior; grooming.  Self grooming is a normal behavior that cats find calming and reassuring. But in this situation, it’s a displacement behavior!

displacement behavior cats
Grooming can be a displacement behavior.

“Some dogs will interrupt play, or other types of interactions with humans or other dogs, to take a quick ‘inventory’ of their own uro-genital body parts. This is a form of displacement behavior that appears most in stressful situations.” – Handelman, Barbara, Canine Behavior

Other common examples of displacement behavior in cats and dogs:

  • yawning when not sleepy
  • grooming out of context
  • using the scratching post after a stressful encounter
  • shaking off when not wet
  • stretching deeply
  • Scent marking with their face
scratching post cats displacement behavior
Have you seen your cat suddenly run over to use his scratching post? What happened right before he did that?

“If an animal (or bird, or fish) is stimulated to express a basic drive but the action is frustrated, the drive may find an outlet by inducing fragments of the pattern of behavior properly belonging to another drive. This is known as displacement activity.” -Thus, Tinbergen


parrot behavior
Beak wiping and scratching are common parrot displacement behaviors you will see when they are feeling conflicted.

Instead of licking our genitals or racing over to the scratching post, humans find other calming (and much more appropriate) reassuring activities to keep us busy, comfortable, and feeling secure.  In fact, I am doing a displacement behavior right now: Instead of facing my Must Do List, I am writing this blog to you.

Displacement behavior is the animal equivalent of nail-biting. It’s a behavior which helps to relieve stress or deflect trouble, without dealing with it directly.
Scratching can often be a dispacement behavior during training sessions and when other dogs or kids are getting too rowdy.

Displacement behavior is the animal equivalent of nail-biting. It’s a specific behavior that helps to relieve stress, or to deflect conflict, without having to deal with it directly.


How do you know if it’s a displacement behavior?

—> We need to look at the FULL picture.

We need to ask, “What’s happening in the environment at that moment?”

We also need to become aware of the ABCs of Behavior.

ABCs of behavior_dog behavior_cat behavior_ antecedent_consequence
The ABCs of Behavior began with people, but are now used for pets!

What’s In The Name?

The reason these behaviors are called “displacement” behaviors is because they happen out of context.  For example, if you and your dog head into the veterinarian’s office and your allergy-free dog begins scratching herself all of a sudden, then paces in circles while in the lobby with you, and then suddenly she “shakes off” (when she is dry), your dog is displaying displacement behaviors.  Then this is your dog’s way of calming her nervous system, lowering her stress, and dealing with the environment she feels is threatening.

NOTE: Observing a single action, behavior, or posture is not enough information to accurately interpret an animal’s behavior. A displacement activity might indicate eustress, distress, and/or fear … or not.


Displacement In Action!

The video below shows a number of displacement behaviors in dogs.  See how many you recognize.  Can you determine what’s causing the dogs to be conflicted/anxious?


The dog wants to do something, but he is suppressing the urge to do it. He displaces the suppressed behavior with something else such as a lick or a yawn. For example, you are getting ready to go out and the dog hopes to go too. He is not sure what will happen next. He wants to jump on you or run out the door, but instead he yawns. The uncertainty of the situation causes conflict for the dog and the displacement behaviors are a manifestation of that conflict. The dog may want to bite a child who takes his bone, but instead he bites furiously at his own foot. – Doggone Safe


Below is a video of an adult cat displaying Displacement Behaviors to reduce the energy and anxiety of a juvenile cat. The Displacement behaviour you will see is grooming, yawning, rolling, and averting gaze.


Cats and dogs aren’t the only companion animals who show displacement behaviors! Rabbits, rats, ferrets, horses, pigs, and parrots do too!  Check out the licking, yawning, sniffing, grooming, foot flicking, tail swishing, digging, scratching and more in this video!


Why do we need to be aware of these behaviors? 

These behaviors can indicate that the animal is feeling conflicted.  Inner conflict that’s not positively addressed can lead to more severe anxiety, fears, and prolonged stress. These can in turn affect an animal’s mental and physical well being, which can lead to medical and behavioral issues. And frankly, if you are living or working with an animal, you should be FLUENT in their language.

What should you do?

If your animal companion is doing any of these behaviors around children, dogs, cats, or other pets in the home (or elsewhere), turn the conflict into fun, or at the very least, help the animal to feel calm, relaxed, and safe.  Help them walk away from what’s stressing them, or let them know they are safe by removing the perceived threat.  If the situation is getting tense with another animal or child, intervene swiftly but positively. Then offer everyone something positive and productive to focus on.  Remember to keep it upbeat and easy!  We don’t want to add more stress to the situation.


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. – Patricia McConnell, PhD, a Zoologist and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, (CAAB)

funny-awkward-cats-
Putting this random image in here is another form of displacement behavior for me; I would rather laugh at this kind of silliness instead of proof reading this blog post.

Do you notice displacement behaviors in the animals at your work or home? What is the most common one that you see?I would love to hear from you. Please share below!


Recommended Reading

Wanna Get to Second Base? Go Slow and Steady, Babe.

 I’m in no hurry: the sun and the moon aren’t, either. Nobody goes faster than the legs they have.  If where I want to go is far away, I’m not there in an instant. ― The Collected Poems of Alberto Caeiro

Black cats_cat training

Are you a patient person?  Do you take your time with things? Do you want more than you need?

I am not very patient some days.  I rush into things sometimes, and my natural tendency is to get greedy when it comes to animal training.  But I have learned to go slow and to be patient.  I have learned to be grateful and satisfied with small successes.  I would like to share one of them with you.


My mentor and friend, Secret, teaching the sea lions how to paint
My mentor and friend, Secret, teaching the sea lions how to paint

Way back in the day when I was at the Audubon Nature Institute, one of my mentors (and my housemate) was the head animal trainer.  When I was making progress with an animal at work or at home she used to calmly tell me, “Don’t be a greedy trainer, Amy. Stop when you’re ahead.”

I always grunted when I heard that advice, but I knew she was right.  In fact, she was always right when it came to animal training.  She was one of those brilliant trainers that always had a solution to a problem.  She could create and maintain the most complicated chains of behavior. She was famous for creating long lasting bonds with every animal (and person) she worked with.  She always trained and taught without fear or intimidation.  And she was the trainer who make the greatest advances with any animal she worked with.  I learned so much from her.

Now decades later her advice still rings true when I am working with a client or with our animals at home. – especially cats.


If you wanna get to second base, let them set the pace. 

If you have lived or worked with cats you know that they set the pace.  If you have not worked with cats before, know this: When you decide to set the pace and push too fast you will fail.  You will both end up becoming frustrated and stressed.  You might even get injured in the process, too.  And then finally, you loose the cat’s trust.

It pays to go slow.

I like to think of going slow with cats as moving from first base to second base, and then eventually onto a home run. I set up our training sessions this way. First base might be the cat letting you hold his paw. Second base might be the cat letting you lift his paw, then touch his paw with nail clippers. Third base would be touching, holding, and then applying gentle pressure with the nail clippers to the actual nail. Home run is a full nail clip.

I’ll explain why I like to move through the bases slowly.

For over a decade I watched numerous veterinarians push my cats well past the point of no return.  One cat in particular, Mr. Beaux, would become so stressed at the vet’s office, he had to be netted (yes, caught in a net).  Then heavily sedated. They had to do this to even look at him.  I watched Beaux break free of leather muzzles, attack people, climb a metal wall (yes, you read that right) and knock heavy computers off counters in the examination room.

We don’t take that route at home, or at the vet’s office anymore.  I know better now.  Working with any animal should not be a wrestling match.

Now we go slow.  We let the animal set the pace. We let the animal say when they are done. And we make progress together while building trust.

I’ll show you how we do this in the short video.  But before you watch, I need to explain something:  Beaux lost all trust in people. No one could touch his ears, mouth, or feet after all of the many manhandling encounters at various vet’s offices. You couldn’t touch him in any of these areas without him becoming very aggressive.

I had to rebuild his trust.  This is how I did it. 

After several short, positive sessions like that, Beaux will now let me trim all of his nails while staying relaxed.  It’s something I never thought was possible!  By going slowly and letting Beaux set the pace I was able to build his trust.  By rewarding him for calm behavior with something he finds valuable and rewarding, he learned to enjoy the process and no longer feel threatened. By ending the session when he was done he was more willing to participate the next time.


A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.― Ernest Hemingway


Another one of our feline family members has learned that nail trim time can be a very Good Thing!  You can see us in action here: Fear-Free Feline “Pawdicure”


Husbandry with any species shouldn’t be stressful.
Some common habits of grooming cats can get in the way of success:
♦️we ask too much.
♦️we don’t know when the cat is beginning to feel stressed.
♦️we proceed to quickly.
♦️we don’t allow choice.
♦️we haven’t built up trust.
♦️we forget to reinforce.
♦️we aren’t using reinforcers the cat prefers.
♦️we create over arousal.


Tips to Remember when you are first learning how to safely trim your cat’s nails at home:

  • GO SLOW!  It’s very tempting to want to move forward quickly when things are going well, but you will make far more progress by going slow and steady.
  • Set aside the temptation to get “greedy” and want to do more. Be happy with one tiny step that you make together! This way you can both enjoy the process.
  • By letting your cat set the pace you are gaining his/her trust.
  • By going slow, you learn to be respectful of your cat’s body language and what their comfort level is that day. Maybe the next time you can get 2 nails clipped!
  • It takes time to build trust, especially if you cat has been FORCED to have his/her nails trimmed in the past and it was traumatic for them!
  • Why rush the process when you can go further in the long run by building trust and creating a stress free, positive experience for both you and your cat?

 Recommended Related Reading 

More Please! … Please Stop!

Petting: to stroke, caress, fondle, or pat an animal affectionately

I can certainly do without that “F word”, but you get the idea of what petting is. We all love to pet our animals. It makes us feel good. It relaxes us, and it increases our mood. But what exactly is it doing to, or for, our animals?

Anyone that has ever met a cat knows that felines can be particularly sensitive to petting. It matters to the cat who’s doing the petting, how they are petting, and for how long the petting lasts. If you are unsure when to stop petting, a cat will tell you when you are done, usually well before you are ready to stop petting him or her.

CAT:  You failed to notice that I wanted you to stop petting me, so here is how I tell you that you can stop petting me NOW.
CAT: You failed to notice that I wanted you to stop petting me, so this is how I tell you that you can stop petting me NOW.

If you really think about it, humans (especially those of us who know what they like) are not that different from cats.  I don’t like to be manhandled. I don’t enjoy being touched by strangers without being asked first. I like my personal space. If I don’t like the way someone is massaging my back or neck, you can bet that I will ask him or her to stop. Usually I don’t bite. Cats know what they like and don’t like, and they have no problem telling us. I adore them for that very reason.

Last week there was a lot of discussion around this very subject.  It centered around a study published recently in the journal “Physiology & Behavior” suggesting that petting cats in general can actually stress them out!  The study was conducted by animal behavior experts from Brazil, Austria and Britain. They examined whether cats living in multi-cat households are more stressed than cats housed singly. The researchers found that cats release hormones linked to anxiety when handled by humans.  Many media outlets responded to the study with an interpretation of the results and published articles titled “Cats Hate to be Stroked”.

I was a bit surprised, believing this scientific article to be true, but I kept rolling it over and over in my head. I kept trying to correlate the article to all four of our cats, and it didn’t seem to add up.  Only two of the four cats in our home have ever shown that they are stressed from being petted, and that was usually when “the “petter” was not aware that the cat was already wound tightly, or stressed from other stimuli in the home.  The other two love to be petted 24/7, no matter what is happening in their environment. So what gives?

To the relief of conscious cat guardians everywhere, who thought they would have to keep their hands off their felines, one of the study’s authors quickly issued a release retracting her conclusion.  The co-author, Rupert Palme of the Institute of Medical Biochemistry at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, explains: “As a matter of fact, the majority of the cats enjoyed being stroked. Only those animals that did not actually like to be stroked, but nevertheless allowed it, were stressed.” She explained that the study had been misinterpreted and assured cat guardians that they “can carry on stroking their four-legged friends without worry.”  Good to know.

John Bradshaw, author of Cat Sense was recently interviewed by National Geographic and he explained, “I think what they have shown is that there are some kinds of cats that are very anxious about something, and you pick that up from the stress hormones they are excreting as well as the fact that they are very nervous when they are being stroked. They aren’t stressed because they are being stroked; they are stressed because something in their lives is making them very twitchy and very apt to overreact to things. But [the researchers] weren’t able to pinpoint what that was.”

 

“Cats are in no way generally stressed when they are stroked. It depends much more on the situation and the character of the individual animal.” ~ Professor Rupert Palme

The Updated and Corrected Summary of How Petting Affects Felines:

  • Every cat feels and reacts differently
  • The majority of cats like to be stroked

If you are a cat guardian, you probably already know those two facts.

Every cat is unique, so we must interact with them as individuals. Each cat has certain preferences
Every cat is unique, so we must interact with them as individuals. Each cat has preferences.

“It seems that those cats on whom the owner imposes him or herself are the ones we need to be most concerned about.” ~Professor Daniel Mills

Now, I must mention that petting a cat may seem like a fairly simple thing to do, but there is much more to it than you think.  Jackson Galaxy, TV star and cat behaviorist, offers his tips on how to ensure that petting a cat will be enjoyable for everyone involved.  You will see in the video below that there is no mindless full-body petting, and he is aware of where she enjoys to be touched. He also asks permission several ways.

The dog may be wonderful prose, but only the cat is poetry.

~French Proverb