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.
In my house call cases, I frequently see this behavior in cats: they are frightened by a strange or new cat, and will turn and attack… the owner! This is frequently also the situation in inappropriate urination situations. The cat dislikes something about her litterbox, and urinates… in a different location.
In dogs, redirected behavior frequently manifests itself in social relationships. Dogs, more so than cats, have a social hierarchy, and if confronted by a more dominant animal, dogs will frequently redirect their aggressive response towards a different target, usually a dog lower on the social ladder. Some wags have suggested that this sort of behavior is frequently exhibited in the corporate world: passing the “aggression” right on down the corporate ladder.
But redirected aggression may exhibit itself in less obvious ways as well. A novel or escalating stress situation can be the trigger for redirected “aggression” towards objects, resulting in the destruction of shoes or furniture, which are unlikely to have elicited an attack themselves. It becomes very much a matter of “I know I am not supposed to growl or bark at that new baby, so I will tear up the sofa instead.”
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 all three of these 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.
The difficulty for pet owners, and specialists treating their pets, is recognizing redirected behavior. It is a frequent mystery when your dog turns and attacks you, or another member of your “pack” when you or they have done nothing to deserve it. Determining whether this is truly a change in behavior, a change in the relationship, or simply the sign of a redirected behavior is critical to the assessment and treatment of the situation. It frequently takes a skilled behavior observer to establish the difference.
Some situations are quite obvious: if your dog gets into a fight with another dog, and you intercede and get bitten by your own dog, this is an obvious case of redirected behavior: an appropriate behavior for the situation directed at an inappropriate target in the heat of the exchange.
But other situations are much more difficult to establish, like a situation that I saw in a behavior case. A cat named Milo (all names have been changed to protect the furry) was reported to have suddenly and without provocation begun chewing and tearing up curtains. The curtains had not been changed, nothing in the room had been changed, and Milo was in good health. Milo was housebroken, using a litterbox correctly, and had remained social with the owners and other cats in the house. Upon a lengthy investigation, it was discovered that another one of the cats in the house had recently been ill, had spent a night or two in the veterinary hospital, and had come home a day before the first curtain “attack.” The two cats had never interacted much but Milo hated visiting the vet, and when the sick cat came home smelling like the vet office, Milo started attacking the curtains instead of the cat. By using positive (food) counter-conditioning to reduce Milo’s anxiety, and therefore aggression, in the presence of the other cat, we eliminated the behavior within a few days.
So, being attentive to the possibility that a behavior might be a form of redirection is an important part of the behavioral assessment. It’s an obvious idea, the need to channel conflicting behaviors into something that is less dangerous, but in its myriad subtleties, it can be tricky to diagnose and treat.