When dogs are stressed their bodies are flooded with hormones and neurotransmitters which trigger the flight or fight response, however, there are two other responses which dogs can elicit whilst under stress, the freeze and the fool around response.
Under stress, a dog’s body prepares for flight or fight. The flooding of the body with hormones increases the heart and breathing rate, increases the blood pressure, increases blood flow to the muscles and muscle tension, amongst other changes.
The Flight Response
This response makes the dog flee, to avoid threatening situations or encounters. The flight response does not just encompass running away. It can be seen more subtly, for example, a dog when a dog hides because he does not like a sound, such as fireworks.
The Flight Zone
The flight zone of a dog is the area surrounding him or her that, if entered by a potential threat or predator, will cause alarm and escape behaviour will ensue. The animal’s comfortable flight distance or flight initiation distance determine the flight zone.
Swiss Zoologist, Heini Hediger, distinguished between flight distance (run boundary), critical distance (attack boundary), personal distance (distance separating members of non-contact species, as a pair of swans), and social distance (intraspecies communication distance).
Flight distance can be used as the measure of an animal’s willingness to take risks. Escape theory predicts that the probability of fleeing and flight distance increase as predation risk increases and decrease as escape cost increases. Flight initiation distance is one measure of animals' fear responses to humans.
Fighting is a defensive response from a dog who will use an aggressive display in the hope that the threatening stimulus, situation or encounter will go away.
Dogs displaying fight response may growl or attempt to bite. An example of fight response is when two dogs meet one is on a lead, the dog is scared, cannot remove himself from the situation and will respond with the fight mode. This response is also considered adaptive as the dog cannot escape confrontation, cannot use the flight mode and is forced to protect himself from a real or perceived threat.
Dogs can freeze, when presented with a threatening situation. In dogs, we see the freeze response most commonly when they are chastised/shouted at or stand motionless when they are faced another fear causing stimulus, such as a dog.
Again, the freeze response is considered adaptive it is thought due to their descending from the wild. In the wild, when spotting a danger stimuli, an animal will freeze. This allows the animal the opportunity to a) evaluate the situation, or b) avoid detection by predators, as motionless animals do not stimulate motion cues.
At times when dogs are under pressure, they may engage in behaviours which seem out of context - it could be likened to the person who tells jokes in inappropriate situations. The ‘fool around’ response in dogs includes a plethora of behaviours such as rolling around and play bowing. What makes these behaviours different to usual is how appropriate they are, for the situation they are in.
An example of this could be the dog who acts daft at the vet, tugging on his lead or rolling around on the floor, these behaviours may indicate the dog is trying to transfer the focus from one situation onto another.
When dogs act this way, it is not often associated with stress, as it isn’t as obvious as a dog who is displaying the flight or fight reaction. Dogs acting inappropriately are often reprimanded for playing the fool when the reality behind their behaviour may be very different.