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The Four Fs of Fear

December 26, 2013

Almost everyone has heard of the “fight or flight” response: In reaction to a scary or threatening situation, animals (or people) may react by either aggressively confronting the threat (“fight”) or running away from it (“flight”). Both of these strategies are often employed by pet dogs and cats when they are stressed at our office. But what is not as well known is that there are at least two additional common reactions – “freeze” and “fooling around” which together with Fight and Flight are sometimes called “The Four Fs” of fear.

“Freeze” is exactly what it sounds like: The individual freezes, relying on stillness and/or camouflage to escape notice (like a rabbit or fawn freezing in response to a passing predator).  Our pet cats commonly practice freezing in reaction to stress; this is why so many cats, even those who are very friendly and outgoing at home, become very passive during a visit to our office.

“Fooling around” is perhaps the most easily misunderstood reaction because it is a displacement behavior – that is, a behavior inappropriate to the situation that nonetheless relieves stress. In humans, nervous laughter is an example of “fooling around” in response to stress. Fooling around is not often seen in cats, but it is very common in dogs, who may display some very intense play behaviors when stressed: Jumping, barking for attention, “zoomies” (wild running around), pushy greeting behaviors, pawing, obsessively playing with toys, and similar behaviors. In some cases, play behaviors may become very frantic. In some cases, dogs may display conflicting behavior – play bowing alternating with backing away and barking at a stranger, for example.

Why does it matter? Because it is all too easy to misinterpret these behaviors if we don’t recognize that they are involuntary coping mechanisms and are a reaction to fear and stress. Furthermore, if we react to these behaviors as if they are caused by our pets being “bad,” “stubborn,” “defiant,” or “dominant,” we are not only unlikely to improve them, but may make them worse. If I am working on training a skill with my dog Maisy and she suddenly becomes fascinated by a smell on the ground, I know that she is getting stressed out and I need to give her a break or approach things a different way instead of getting frustrated by her ignoring me. An acquaintance of mine knows that if her dog suddenly becomes completely and frantically obsessed with a particular toy, a thunderstorm in rolling into town and she needs to get his Thundershirt and medication instead of being annoyed by him. If a dog growls or barks at someone but then play bows, that person may reach out thinking the dog wants to interact and then get snapped at or bitten because the dog is actually afraid. These are all examples of dogs fooling around when stressed or fearful, although they all look very different.

At our office, this means that if your dog or cat who is displaying behavior that isn’t typical – whether it is fight, flight, freeze, or fooling around – there is no need to be frustrated or embarrassed. Your pet is not being naughty, s/he is just stressed and frightened. S/he won’t do anything we haven’t seen before, and we have several techniques we use to minimize the stress of handling for exams and procedures. Your pet will also benefit greatly if you stay calm and patient, and remember – it’s just the Four Fs talking.

This video is an example of a dog who is fooling around big time. This dog and owner are very experienced in agility, but after four days of shows she had simply had enough. Fortunately her owner realized that even the most well-trained dog can experience this type of stress displacement and decided to see the humor in her dog’s “zoomies” an an inopportune time instead of getting angry or frustrated.


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