What Do I Do Now: Conflict Behavior in Dogs and Cats

Some time ago, I wrote a [blog about redirected behavior], and started it like this: “Most pet owners are familiar with the situation: your dog or cat is upset about something, perhaps has been challenged or even attacked.  But rather than an understandable response in which the animal lashes out at the challenger, or turns and runs, it will turn and attack someone, or something, else.  That is, it will exhibit an appropriate behavior but toward an inappropriate target.”  I went on to mention: “Redirection of a behavior is one of three forms of conflict behavior seen in animals, and humans.  The other two forms of conflict behavior are “approach-withdraw” and “displacement behavior,” which I’ll discuss in future blog entries.”  But I never did… so let’s talk about the other two now.

The example that I gave in that earlier blog was: “(conflict) behaviors are methods for resolving internal conflicts: a hungry dog, faced with a bowl of food and an aggressive canine owner of the food might express any of these three ways of resolving a conflict between approaching for food and fleeing the aggressive owner of the food.”  Another example might be a dog which has been severely frightened.  One of the ways of resolving this internal conflict in drives and motivation, in fact physiological and neurological demands, is familiar to most of us: approach-withdraw, or “flight or fight” as it is commonly, but incorrectly, called.  The other, like redirected behavior, is less well known, the least well known and often the most confusing option: displacement behavior.

Flight or fight: I guess “flight” is ok as a term: dogs and cats don’t actually take flight, but the use of the term “flight” to mean a hurried departure is quite correct.  Animals, including humans, placed into a conflict situation, will often attempt to resolve that conflict through a sudden, almost desperate, withdrawal, a “flight” from the conflict, or by a sudden, again almost desperate and totally out of character, attack or “fight”.  Thus, one example of an “aggressive” dog.  Is this an aggressive dog?  Sure, by the strict definition of aggression, a dog approaching a person or other dog, clearly behaving in such a way as to drive away or remove that person or dog.  But what is also important, in establishing risk or in treating the aggressive behavior, is the motivation: if this is a conflict-resolution behavior, that tells me something much different than if I can establish that it is a habit, a learned behavior, a genetic trait, a function of early deprivation, or any of the other myriads of possible causes and triggers for aggression.

One characteristic of this approach-withdraw behavior that I often see in this behavior is perseveration: the animal (and I know a few people like this) will run away, a little ways, stop, gain their nerve, begin to return and “fight”, lose their nerve, back away into a “flight”, and often hit a balance point, almost rocking back and forth in this conflict situation.

Another behavior that I have seen in these situations, and not one I recommend intentionally testing for, is when a dog in this conflict situation does attack, you can frequently turn the behavior off very quickly by simply shifting the behavior back over the balance point into a flight.  A loud “Hey!” in the face of such an attack has generated a sudden stop, turn, and run on more than one occasion.  The dog, and I have had cats like this too, was in a conflict situation, decided to attack (“fight”) but could easily be switched back to the flight decision by an increase in the scariness of the stimulus.  Again, not an effect that you want to count on, just in case it’s NOT conflict behavior, but it can save the day once in a while, and help you to explain what happened to your client.

How about the third form of conflict resolution, displacement behavior?  It’s an odd one, and more controversial as to its value and cause.  Perhaps you have been in a situation in which there is a conflict, some stress, a dog that is unsure of what it should do.  That dog’s body language signals will be in conflict, flicking from fearful and anxious to aggressive.  Suddenly, the dog will… urinate… or stop and eat a flower… or sit up and beg, or do some seemingly totally unrelated behavior.  This is displacement behavior, an outlet to the conflict.  We see it in humans all the time: some conflict, a disagreement at home among spouses, and suddenly one of them will jump up and light candles, or start to fold laundry.

The animal (or husband?) is in conflict and needs to resolve that conflict, and there are three ways of doing so: approach or withdraw from the stimulus perceived to be causing the conflict (“flight or fight”), redirecting behavior towards another target (often aggressively, in dogs and cats), or take your mind off it, by exhibiting a displacement behavior.  Watch for all three of these in the animals (husbands, wives, and kids count) in your life: your dog, your cat, animals at the dog park, or at the zoo.  Examples are common!  And maybe understanding these sometimes-puzzling behaviors can make our lives a little bit better, or at least a little less confusing.

About drjimha

I am a professor of animal behavior at the University of Washington, specializing in social behavior with a focus on primates, killer whales, crows, and companion animals (dogs and cats). For fun, I love to fish saltwater (spinning, fly), snorkel, and travel with my wife Renee and son Andrew.
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