Deuce brings his ball to me so that we can play one of his favorite games. As I am trying to get the ball from him, he tightens his jaw with the ball in his mouth. I remove my hand from under his chin and I turn away. No release of the ball, no throwing of the ball.
He tries again and this time he lets go of the ball. I throw it for him and he returns back with the ball “talking” happily through it and lying down with his favorite possession.
We play like this for a few minutes with me having to remove my hand as I ignore him for not releasing the ball. This is a perfect example of a dog being in conflict.
He wants possession of his ball, but he also wants me to throw it for him so that he can go after the ball and hopefully stop it from moving. Animals are in conflict all the time. It is an excellent survival mechanism to keep them safe. Most conflict involves having to make a choice amongst two or more options: Drop the ball or hold on to it, go say hi and get a treat or remain safe at a distance, etc.
Think of it, we are in conflict a lot of times as well. Should I order this entrée? Or this one? Or my third choice? Should I tell my friend that I saw her significant other with someone else or mind my own business?
For dogs, conflict for the most part, falls more in the realm of being safe but not always. In the case of Deuce and his ball it is more about guarding an important possession.
When dogs are in conflict they can engage in behaviors called Displacement Behaviors. They are called Displacement Behaviors because they are performed out of their normal context. Examples of them are yawing, but not because the dog just woke up from a nap; lip licking as in licking its chops, but not in the presence of food; or shaking their body as if wet, but the dog is not wet.
More typical examples are: dogs yawning when feeling uncomfortable about an interaction or an event, lip licking once or many times in quick succession, shaking, looking away from what concerns them, a paw raise – sitting while raising a paw, lip licking or yawning, arching their body in a greeting, walking slowly or standing still when interacting.
Displacement Behaviors are also referred as “calming signals” – since it is commonly thought that animals engage in them in order to “calm” a potential threat. Or perhaps to calm themselves down when they feel threatened or nervous.
So far, there is no evidence as to the motivation (or motivations) behind them.
As the case might be, animals partake in displacement behaviors when they are in conflict. The conflict might be mild – keep the ball, release the ball or more complex as it would be the case of a dog that is afraid of someone’s proximity, but also wants the treats the person is offering. As you can appreciate, if the dog approaches the person while still concerned or afraid it might turn out that the proximity is more than the animal can handle resulting in aggression. This is always a bad situation for both parties!
Whenever I am working with a dog that might feel threatened by the interaction, my priority is to make sure I do not put that dog in conflicting as my safety depends on this.
So for example: I never give treats at close proximity to a dog when I noticed he is conflicted, instead, I throw treats AWAY from me in order to create some distance.
This procedure besides relaxing the dog a bit also allows me to ascertain if the dog is becoming more comfortable with the interaction as he chooses to come closer to me and remains relaxed. Keeping in mind that behavior is more of a movie – always running than a “still frame” is also very important – things can change in a split second.
The fact of the matter is that if we become more cognizant of the subtle, yet present signs of a dogs becoming stressed we could help the dog relax in all sorts of situations that elicit fear or concern such as interacting with new people, other dogs or “scary” stimuli in the environment by either giving them distance or changing something in the environment such as angle of approach, etc. or just allowing the dog to take its time in interacting when ready.