The large dog in the photograph is showing a slight insecurity toward the small dog. How can you tell? He is leaning away, ears back, mouth closed and you can see the whites of its right eye, a distress signal called, “whale eye”. Those two ended up playing well because the big dog stayed respectful of his small friend.
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.
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 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. Green Dogs 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 healthy as it leads to defensiveness and, sometimes, aggression, which we label Yellow and Red Dog behaviors.
Labeling a dog with a color type for the purposes of group play does not mean that the dog itself is the category. 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.
That said many dogs have a tendency to 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. Note the lifted lip of the dark brown dog on the left. Fortunately the light brown dog got the message: Stop! You are playing too rough.
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, really, self-calming or coping communication. I’ll write more about self-calming and cut off 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 behaviors that might disrupt happy group play.