Before diving into the details of the unsafe, unpredictable or dangerous behaviors, I’d like to share some of the underlying motivations of those behaviors. Except for a dog showing predatory behavior, most of the unsafe behavior seen in normal dog play groups results from feelings of insecurity and lack of control. A dog is or, temporarily, becomes stressed. Don't miss the link below for a good visual of the escalating responses to perceived threat.
Stress affects dog behaviors
James O’Heare, who writes about aggressive behavior in dogs, defines stress as “the response of an organism to a demand placed on it to change or adapt.” A dog’s behavior is a result of its perception of whether stressors are safe or threatening. New physical environments, different dog playmates or human caretakers, even a new baby at home are examples of stressors that ask for adaptations from the dog.
Good stress and bad stress
When the stressors are considered “good” (eustress) or safe, we see mutual and happy play among dogs. Dogs with "Green" emotional states adapt easily and feel comfortable with a wide variety of environmental and social demands.
At other times with a different dog or context, stressors can be perceived as threatening and, thus, cause distress. If a dog can’t adapt or the other dogs don’t receive the communicated signals to play nicely, problems happen. Distress in a play group is not a healthy emotional state as it leads to defensiveness and, sometimes, aggression, which we label Yellow and Red behaviors.
Labeling a dog with a color type for the purposes of group play does not mean that the dog itself is the category. Emotional states and behaviors can change from one moment to the next, and from one environment to the next. How the humans arrange play partners and the environment can sometimes affect labeling. And don't forget that there is more variability within a dog breed than across different breeds so you can't 100% predict what a dog will do until it gets into the play group.
Nevertheless, most dogs have a tendency to feel and behave relatively consistently when stressed so we can use the color categories to predict behavior potential in a playgroup.
Distress responses: The 4 Fs
Four responses are possible when a dog is distressed: fight, flight, freeze or fiddle. Sometimes these responses are obvious the moment a dog walks into a play environment.
Flight can be seen in a dog who hangs back on a leash wanting to leave. Some dogs freeze and start snapping the moment a dog walks toward them.
At other times the responses crop up during the course of play. For example, two dogs might be playing then suddenly start fighting. Often one or both dogs has suddenly realized that their play is no longer fun. Feelings of insecurity and loss of control may arise, leading to anxiety, frustration, anger and, finally, defensive aggression.
Other subtle but possible distress responses can be seen when dogs fiddle, that is, when they go urinate on bushes, stop to scratch imaginary itches, sniff the ground, yawn. The humans have to determine whether fiddling is just simple curiosity, or self-calming or coping communication. I’ll write more about self-calming and cutoff signals later.
Is Zulu a Yellow or Red dog? What about Haven? Next time I’ll share more of their behaviors as we look deeper at Yellow and Red dog emotional states and the behaviors that might disrupt happy group play.