Fool Around and Find Out

You’ve probably had some exposure to the concept of fight or flight by now. It’s a pretty well known, evolutionarily programmed response living things have to sensing and responding to perceived danger in their environment that includes responding with lightning speed and without a whole lot of prefrontal cortex input. Which is a good thing if we want to stay alive. (If you would like to read more about fight or flight, this blog post does a nice job summarizing the general concept: Does Your Pet Have Mountain Lion Brain?) 

Today I would like to introduce you to one of fight/flight’s lesser known stress response brethren; one that often gets overlooked or mistaken for something else. If you read the title of the blog post you probably already guessed that our mystery guest for today’s post is “fool around,” also known as “fidget.” 

What exactly does “fool around” look like as a stress response? Well I think the answer is, it largely depends on the animal exhibiting it. I have a “fool around” stress response to being suddenly startled that sometimes consists of standing in place and jumping up and down for several seconds, sometimes accompanied by sounds or profanities. It’s really fun when that happens in public. When we are talking about dogs, there are a variety of ways that “fool around” can make an appearance. Those delightful zoomies we chuckle at? That can actually be a “fool around” response to stress. So can jumping up on people, getting mouthy, grabbing the leash, or humping someone or something. It can look like play and silliness but it’s super “extra” and has a frantic, frenetic feel to it. 

Eustress (excitement, anticipation, “good” stress) can be a contributing factor just as much as distress (fear, anxiety, toxic stress) can be. If you would like to learn more about stress in dogs, I highly recommend you check out our podcast episode with Dr. Kristina Spauling. 


What’s the Big Deal? 

The big deal about a “fool around” response to stress is that it very often can look like play or fun or just plain silliness. What’s the harm of a dog zooming around the backyard or grabbing a leash and giving it a tug? It’s just fun and games right? Well, you know the saying about fun and games. It’s all just fun and games until someone gets hurt. One of the problems with not recognizing the “fool around” response as a stress response is that we are often times end up diminishing the experience the animal is having and instead of recognizing that they are having a hard time we tend to think that they are giving us a hard time. And that mindset can significantly shift the way in which we respond. We might respond with frustration, anger, harsher training methods or even punishment. 

When I worked in the shelter world, “fool around” was one of the most common responses to stress that I would see. Let’s be honest: most folks who spend any time in a shelter, can start to recognize the signs of an extremely fearful dog and whether that dog is in fight or flight mode. When a dog is in “fool around” mode it is much more difficult to discern because lots of times people mistake it for the dog being naughty or that they were being disrespectful or silly or that the dog was “fine” (read more about why fine isn’t always fine here and here) or just rowdy or untrained. Oftentimes the behavior would be dismissed. I just don’t think that’s fair to the animal experiencing these behaviors as a result of having big feelings and not being able to do anything about them except jump, spin, grab, hump, zoom, etc. People have a hard time taking those behaviors seriously because sometimes it seems like the dog might be enjoying them. It seems highly unlikely that anyone would dismiss a dog who is pancaked on the floor in fear or one who is lunging, snarling and snapping at people when they approach. The stress hormones that contribute to the pancaking and lunging behaviors are identical to the jumping, mouthing, humping behaviors. Same stress hormones, different topography. 


It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Gets Hurt 

“Fool around” behaviors may seem innocuous at first glance but let’s take a look at some examples of how “fool around” can become quite problematic behaviors. 

  • It’s one thing for a dog to jump up on you once or twice and quite another when that same dog begins to grab and tear at your clothing or skin. 
  • It’s one thing when a dog gently takes the leash in their mouth as my dog does and takes themselves for a walkies and quite another when a dog grabs the leash with enough vigor to knock you off your feet or starts to travel up the leash and grab your arms. 
  • It’s one thing for a dog to zoom around the house a few times and quite another when they use your family room couch, chair and maybe even your child as their own personal parkour course. 
  • It’s one thing when a puppy gets a little too friendly and gives your leg a little humpy hump and quite another when a dog grabs your leg frantically, wraps their front two legs around yours and humps you with enough force that there are bruises left on your leg in the dog’s wake. 

All of these behaviors are ones that I have either had happen to me or had a client, shelter employee or volunteer tell me happened to them. It is neither fun nor silly or games. Oftentimes it is downright scary and dangerous. Just like with fight or flight the dog isn’t using much of their prefrontal cortex when these behaviors are being rehearsed. Redirecting them can be challenging. Interrupting them is difficult. Connecting with them feels futile. Waiting them out can feel really frustrating and frightening. Sometimes the dog’s arousal level is so high that it seems like they have no idea what they are doing. It feels almost “robotic.” And when they are done with the behavior it can also seem like they have no idea of what just happened. They go back to “normal” behavior. But again, the same stress hormones that occur while your dog is in fight or flight? They are the same ones that are happening to your dog when they are in “fool around”, which is why it is so important to pay attention to this response to stress. Let’s stop trivializing those “fool around” behaviors and really pause to consider what is happening to cause our dogs to exhibit these behaviors. That way we can proactively come up with a plan to help them out when they need it most. 


Now What? 

  • Learning your dog’s baseline body language and ladder of escalation can be really helpful with determining if your dog is truly playing and having fun or if they are experiencing a “fool around” response to stress.
  • If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a million times; behavior does not occur in a vacuum. Try to pay attention to things happening in your environment that could be contributing to your dog’s “fool around” response. Did a car just backfire and startle your dog? Did a squirrel antagonize them to the point of frustration? Did someone suddenly make an appearance at the front door just as you and your dog were exiting? All of these sudden, unexpected shifts in the environment can impact your dog in big ways. There are a million little weekly occurrences that we might take for granted that can throw your dog for a loop. 
  • “Fool around” behaviors can be tough to handle on your own. Working with a qualified behavior professional can help provide you with some necessary tools and skills to help get you and your dog started on the right path.


Happy training!


2 thoughts on “Fool Around and Find Out

  1. Thank you so much for this thoughtful and timely post. We just had a meeting at my shelter with volunteer mentors who are trying to help newer volunteers with questions and concerns about handling dogs exhibiting “fool around” behaviors. Everything you described – jumping dogs tearing at clothing and skin, excessive mouthing and leash climbing, byproducts of the stressful, difficult shelter environment. You are absolutely correct, difficult behaviors to redirect, interrupt or wait out. Do you have any guidance to help safely get these stressed out dogs the time out of their kennels they so desperately need?

    1. Hi Linda,

      I am so happy that you found the blog post helpful! A couple of things that can really help is for the volunteers to have a good foundation in understanding canine body language before they handle pups with lots of “fool around” behaviors. Understanding what a ladder of escalation can look like will be helpful too. There are sometimes very subtle signs that can indicate that a dog is climbing up that ladder of escalation and it is super important that folks know and appreciate what that looks like. Like all behavior, treating stress responses is more complex than one simple suggestion. With that being said, at the shelter where I worked we taught all the dogs a “find it” game. First we taught it to the dogs inside, where and when there are less distractions, time of day matters here; the less busy times in your shelter is a good starting point. We then progressed to a play yard second and lastly on walks. The game consists of them learning that the cue “find it” means search for treats on the ground. If we were working with or walking a dog who is prone to fool around stress responses, we would proactively start to play “find it” with them before they started to climb up that ladder of escalation. The key is to be proactive and start the game before the fool around behaviors emerge, otherwise the game can inadvertently reinforce those undesired behaviors. We also would try to judiciously place dogs in kennels so that these super stressed dogs would not have to pass as many dogs on their way out of the building or having as many dogs pass them. I recognize that in full shelters this is easier said than done. I do think that only experienced volunteers should be handling dog exhibiting extreme fool around behaviors as there are safety concerns. Modifying behavior in a shelter is really hard to do. If you are not familiar with The Shelter Playgroup Alliance, I recommend you check out their website and resources. I truly appreciate the staff and volunteers at shelters across the states who work really hard to make life better for the animals in your care!

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