My dog isn’t “lively” or “excitable”, he’s actually anxious.
The "fool around" response to stress
Often, when my 3 year old Labrador and I are out on walks, he can be referred to as “excitable” or “full of beans”, yet, just minutes before being approached by unfamiliar dogs, Bowie is usually very calm, sniffing away happily.
Unfortunately, Bowie’s response to stress is not as you might expect. He doesn’t show aggression (fight) or run away (flight), instead he can lower his back end to the floor on greeting another dog (freeze) and if we don’t leave the situation fast enough, he starts to “fool around” instead. And he's not alone, this can be a fairly common reaction and is often mistaken for rough play.
Did you know, that if a dog suddenly bursts into behaviours that come across as intense, bullish or rude play, that doesn’t necessarily seem to fit the context, or directly follows a very different behaviour (such as dropping low to the ground or looking away with a low tail wag) they might not actually be engaging in play.
The “fool around” response is actually a displacement behaviour in response to stress, and when my dog does this, it is simply a coping mechanism for a situation in which he is really uncomfortable and he cannot cope.
I’ve worked at length with him over the past three years, the most progress occurring once I realised that his over-exuberance was in fact stress, and not excitement and disobedience.
My dog may never be comfortable in every situation and often for me, it’s all about managing his needs to ensure he has plenty of positive experiences. Of course we are constantly trying to improve things for him, but he may always be insecure and lack certain social skills. By trying to ensure he doesn’t need to tap into this over-the-top coping mechanism, we can ensure he lives a happier life and trusts that we will keep him safe.
This is where other people can help. Next time you see a calm dog “suddenly” (it’s never sudden if you know what you’re looking for) break out into intense, over-the-top play, consider whether they are actually playing, or if they might actually be stressed and need you to give them space.
Needing space isn’t always about aggression.