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Playing The Fool

30/05/2018 - Advice

Playing the fool.

By Emma Goulding-Bosworth

My main aim for this post, is to portray my own observations and experience with regards to ‘fool around dogs’, I don’t think their reactions to stimuli are taken as seriously as a Fight/flight or even freeze dog. People can react to a ‘fool around’ dog with high energy themselves, they may laugh, play with or encourage the dog, and may not really understand how the dog may be feeling, or why they are behaving as they are. These dogs can tend to look like they are playing, but really, they aren’t. They aren’t coping as much as some people would think. I will be using my dog Sookie as an example in this post. Sookie is a 3-year-old Staffordshire bull terrier cross lady. She was rescued at about 4/5months of age.

When starting out as a Dog trainer, you learn about the 4 ‘F’ behaviours in response to fear/stress/stimuli.

1: Fight, where a dog may lunge (if on lead), snarl, show teeth, growl, bark, snap, pin down or bite the source of fear, or redirect these behaviours onto the nearest person/dog as a reaction from fear/stressor.
2: Flight, a dog will run away from what is scary. This response can be hindered if on lead or held.
3: Freeze, “if I don’t move, the scary thing may go away.”
4: Fool around, fiddle, fun, fidget.

BUT, actually, there are many more and many different ‘F’ behaviours that dogs exhibit when reacting to stimuli. These may include, ‘fornicating’, ‘feeding’ (predatory chase behaviours) ‘Faint’ (mainly in prey animals), ‘Flirt’, ‘Flock’…. the list seems to be quite long, and no one can give a definitive answer as to the main 4 or even 5 ‘F’s’ which I find really interesting.
Karen Prior’s 4 F’s are:
1. fight
2. flight
3. fool around
Karen states that: “When considering stress behaviours, we often think of the first two, but not of the latter two (although #4 seems fairly de rigueur in bad romance novels and many film genres). But, fight and flight are probably the final stages in stress reaction, chosen when other coping mechanisms are not perceived to be working. (There’s a potential fifth F, too—”freeze,” or do nothing and just hope for the best. But we’re talking here about active responses.)
We’ll leave #4 for another time. But #3 happens far more often than many realize. If stress is addressed at that stage, it can prevent an escalation to #1 or #2.” (The Four “Fs” of Fear, 2013)

So, for my post we will concentrate on the Fool around, fiddle, fun, fidget Dog response.
A ‘fool around’ dog may react to stimuli in other ways such as Fight/Flight/Freeze. All behaviours are context specific, they may not necessarily always ‘fool around’, it may be their preferred way of coping that they display more often, but can also be dependent on stimuli and environment. ‘Fooling around’ may be their first port of call, just like people, if we’re usually the first to make a joke in an awkward situation, or to leave a stressful encounter, or be speechless or start shouting. We have probably all demonstrated every response, but may have a preferred coping behaviour that we practise more often. I know mine is also the joker. Making light of a stressful situation. These preferred reactions can be based on previous experiences. If the ‘fool around’ dog gets out of a stressful situation, that response worked, therefore they may be more likely to do it again.

We have a long way to go when it comes to learning everything there is to know about dog behaviour. We are learning new things all the time so this thesis may be backed up by future knowledge or disproved. All I can go on is what I know today.

“They (Dogs) become stressed in situations of threat, of pain or of discomfort. They become stressed when we are angry or punish them. Excitement stresses them, such as when male dogs scent bitches in season. Lots of full speed action might stress a dog. But primarily a dog gets stressed for the same reason as humans: when they feel unable to cope.” (Rugaas, 2006, p50)

How to identify a ‘Fool around’ dog: A ‘fool around’ dog will not be calm, they may be frantic and use many types of behaviour, even some calming signals such as play bows, lip licking, sniffing, wagging of the tail, and other behaviours, often inappropriately. They may run fast, spin, jump up, pant, have wide eyes, roll over, play growl, mouth or bite. They may be sensitive to touch, eye contact and/or sound. Speaking to them may set them off or make them more ‘crazy’. They are fast moving and manic. This manic-ness can start off as play or excitement but can lead to panic or frustration dependant on environment and stimuli. Every dog will have their threshold of what limits the ‘Fool around’ will go to before it becomes too much for them, and they may need to go to one of the other ‘F’s’. It is easy to misinterpret these behaviours as a dog who is ‘stubborn’, ‘naughty’, ‘bad’, ‘a clown’, ‘excited’, ‘unruly’, ‘uncontrollable’, ‘happy’ or ‘boisterous’. But what we must do over all is help the ‘Fool around’ dog and try to understand the bigger picture. This way of coping starts from a very young age, it is a very common behaviour for puppies to display. Sookie, as long as I have known her has gone to ‘fool around’ mode as her first port of call. BUT, when your puppy is ‘fooling around’ they are less threatening or less of a perceived threat than an older adult dog displaying the same behaviours. So, may not seem as much of a big deal.

Sookie displays all the above behaviours when in her ‘fool around’ mode. She can also do these behaviours in her day to day ‘play’ mode, the differences I have noticed is that the intensity and franticness seems heightened in ‘fool around’ I can feel her panic. Sookie in play is more able to control her behaviours, switching from her ‘play’ to an asked of cue or behaviour change is easy when in play. When in ‘fool around’ she finds it harder to respond to your requests to change behaviour or your use of cues. And sometimes Sookie’s ‘play’ mode may even turn into her ‘fool around’ mode.

Stimuli: Practically anything could set a ‘fool around’ dog off. Eye contact, talking to them (even in a calm manner), touching them, someone coming into their home, a stranger in the park, dogs and play, a noise, wind, rain, a bird/plane/hot air balloon, sand or a different floor surface, certain plants, this could also be linked to certain scents.

I have found Sookie to be set off into ‘fool around’ mode by:
• A stranger’s eye contact when walking past outside
• Anyone (not family) saying ‘hello’ to her at home/outside
• Anyone (not family) wanting to ‘touch’ her/ bending down
• Visitors coming into the house
• Fast moving dogs outside/dogs running up to her
• Sand
• Possibly water, like lakes/streams and puddles
• Wind (The weather kind)
• Heather
• Possible memory of pain?

Different levels: I have noticed that Sookie has different levels of ‘fooling around’, low levels may last a few seconds, this could be a low level ‘fool around’ or her ‘play’ mode. These include spinning or speed, maybe a jump up and play bow then stop. High levels may last minutes and include all the above-mentioned behaviours but are more intense. The high levels may also upset other dogs and if not managed can lead to the more extreme fear/stress response behaviours Fight or Flight. When in a high level ‘fool around’ I try and get her as much space as she needs as quickly as possible, or distance from the stimuli.

Relationships:Sookie and I have a great relationship, she seeks me out for comfort, she tells me when she wants something or if she isn’t sure about something and is generally a perfect companion.
She also gets on well with my family, they adore her and she them. She loves my bunny Bella, they snooze with each other on the sofa of an evening. She has learnt how to behave around my two Cats.

Friendships: Sookie has a few friends who either partake in her craziness, calm her, or just ignore her when she goes in to ‘fool around’ mode. Sookie is great with dogs as long as she is calm and not in ‘manic fool around mode’, not many dogs like this mode. Sookie is easily distracted and calmed if free, but if on lead her ‘fool around’ with the encounter of other dogs can turn to frustration very quickly, especially if the other dog is not calm.
I have seen a few different response behaviours from other dogs when Sookie ‘fools around’ these include Calming signals such as sniffing, turning away, yawning, licking of lips and the ‘flocking’ towards another dog or human. Some dogs may also partake in a bit of ‘fooling around’ themselves this could also be ‘play’. Some join in for a bit and then ignore her, some dogs may completely ignore her and some dogs do not like this type of behaviour at all and may growl, lunge or snap.

Rigsby: A Cocker Spaniel who is the same age as Sookie, they have known each other since puppy school. When they were younger they would play quite a bit and get excited when they saw each other, now they’re older they still get excited when they see each other but have their moments of play, on a walk they mainly do their own thing. Rigsby now has a new baby brother whom Sookie plays more with when out. At first Sookie’s loudness was a bit scary for him but he soon realised that Sookie means no harm and they both play quite nicely, taking turns in being chased.

Chrissie: A 4.5-year-old Collie cross, has known Sookie since she was a puppy, she will play with Sookie until she’s had enough then will start sniffing and turn away. Their favourite game is sharing balls. They both like each other to take balls out of each other’s mouths and they both like chasing each other to get the ball. If one of them isn’t interested, the one with the ball will ‘accidentally’ drop the ball in front of the other one until play can resume. It’s really great to see these two in play mode. Chrissie is also a ‘fool around’ dog maybe that’s why they both get on so well. Chrissie is great at calming Sookie with her body language by looking away, sniffing, a shake off (is infectious with these two). Chrissies ‘Fool around’ triggers are quite different to Sookies. She will mainly escalate to ‘fooling around’ if any part of her routine has been changed.

Lulu: A 6-year-old cocker spaniel, not a massive fan of the ‘fool around’ manicness, or at least wasn’t but is now used to it and it doesn’t bother her as much as it used to. She would ‘flock’ to me when Sookie started up. She now enjoys a ‘play’ but ignores the ‘fool around’ mode.

Penny: A senior lady Dalmatian who used to come to stay with us on occasion. Sookie would be very calm and respectful to Penny. It was lovely to see that she could communicate with an older dog as calmly as she did and still does. Penny would completely ignore Sookie in ‘fool around’.

A Newfoundland puppy: We recently met a beautiful Newfoundland puppy in the park, the puppy seemed to set off Sookie’s ‘fool around’ mode. The puppy wasn’t over exuberant, he was actually quite calm and friendly but this seemed to excite Sookie who proceeded to jump up, play bow, play growl and run. This instance was bought on by a few triggers, a human was near, and we were also near water. Sookie was ‘Trigger Stacked’ which I think was why she started to ‘fool around’.

Trigger Stacking: Trigger stacking is a term used when a dog experiences more than one of their ‘triggers’ in succession. A ‘Trigger’ is something that causes stress or unease in a dog, every dog is different and every dogs’ ‘Triggers’ will be different. The things that set off Sookie’s ‘Fool around’ are also triggers. If she comes across 1 trigger she may have a low level ‘fool around’ if then another trigger comes along her behaviours will escalate.

A Labrador on a walk: Usually Sookie doesn’t like dogs running up to her, but as his owner was far away and he looked quite loose in the body I let him approach, even though I still distracted Sookie on his approach as she didn’t see him running towards her, he lay down when he got nearer, that’s when I stopped distracting her and I let Sookie have a bit of a play. It’s a lot easier when the owner isn’t close by as mentioned before, Humans are a big cause for her ‘fool around’ escalation. They had a great chase play, then he ran back to his owner and Sookie came back to me.

If you need help with your ‘Fool around’ dog, please get in touch [email protected]

• The Four “Fs” of Fear. (2013). Karen Prior Clicker Training. [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 Jan. 2018].
• Rugaas, T. (2006). On talking terms with dogs. 2nd ed. Wenatchee, Wash.: Dogwise Pub., p.50.