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The Four “Fs” of Fear

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It's autumn—the season of shorter nights, crackling leaves, the hunter's moon, and, of course, Halloween. Costumed creatures come to your door and scary monsters parade across your television screen. Maybe your pulse will quicken as you get reacquainted with Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and Boris Karloff, and maybe your hands will get sweaty. And maybe you'll see behavior in action.

Yes, a room full of people watching a horror film can be a great example of an important behavioral concept. Let's talk about the Four Fs, specifically about the third F.

The four Fs

Ted Turner (the behavior expert, not the film mogul) created a series of videos that I stumbled upon early in my clicker training education. In one, he talked about the possible responses to stress or threat, response that he summarized as the Four Fs:

  1. fight
  2. flight
  3. fool around
  4. …fornicate (my own paraphrase)

When considering stress behaviors, we often think of the first two, but not of the latter two (although #4 seems fairly de rigueur in bad romance novels and many film genres). But, fight and flight are probably the final stages in stress reaction, chosen when other coping mechanisms are not perceived to be working. (There's a potential fifth F, too—"freeze," or do nothing and just hope for the best. But we're talking here about active responses.)

We'll leave #4 for another time. But #3 happens far more often than many realize. If stress is addressed at that stage, it can prevent an escalation to #1 or #2.

Fooling around

"Fooling around" can appear frequently as a displacement behavior, out of place and sometimes inappropriate. Have you ever been at a funeral or visitation when someone made a joke and everyone laughed too quickly, or more than the joke seemed to deserve? That is classic stress relief by "fooling around."A bit of humor, appropriate or not, can be a coping mechanism to relieve stress. Storytellers know this, which is why many dramatic films also include "comic relief."

With dogs, fooling around often presents as intense play, such as jumping up on a person, play bows, very pushy greetings, or any over-the-top behavior.

With dogs, fooling around often presents as intense play, such as jumping up on a person, play bows, very pushy greetings, or any over-the-top behavior. Some dogs that can't stop bothering visitors with a ball or tug toy really just want to play, but some are engaging in a coping mechanism.

Is the third F still unclear? Like many concepts, this is one that can be easier to perceive first in the human species, and then look for corollary behavior in another species. Here are some examples of people feeling fear but reacting in a way that looked quite different.

Example: Trapped

During my college years, a friend and I were once in a smallish room on an upper dorm floor. A guy we didn't know came in, looking for someone. He didn't leave, and while he kept his eyes on us he positioned himself firmly and deliberately in the room's single narrow entry. He wasn't a threat when he entered and asked after his friend, but when he blocked the exit and fixated, he became a threat. When he began to flex and posture over our couch, he started to scare us. It's possible this guy was simply showing off his musculature to impress the girls, but he had quite the opposite effect. We knew we didn't stand a chance if he decided to stop us from getting out; we were afraid, not attracted. In matters of fear, perception always matters more than intent.

I was afraid, and so I got angry. I didn't do much to act on the anger though, because I was afraid of triggering a response in our visitor. But I was ready to move to fear-aggression, or fight, when my freeze was no longer working.

My friend was equally afraid. I remember being angry with her as well because she kept giggling. When I look back, I think the guy might have interpreted the giggling as some sort of flirting, and so he kept escalating his flexing and posturing and eye contact! But it wasn't flirting, it was her fear.

Eventually the guy got frustrated, snapped some insults at us, and left. Today I see this episode as not just a creepy incident from my past, but a set of clear behavior cases:

  • lack of predictability and control resulted in a perception of threat (for my friend and me)
  • frustration produced aggression (in the guy, when we didn't rise to the flirtation level he wanted)
  • fear was expressed in aggression (by me)
  • fear was expressed in humorous displacement behavior (by my friend)
There's a reason we call it nervous laughter.

Afterward, my friend and I never spoke of the incident, and I never told her I was mad at her for laughing in what felt like a very serious situation. I shouldn't have been angry with her, though, because it wasn't really a choice for her. She was having a perfectly normal stress reaction. There's a reason we call it nervous laughter.

Example: Horror film behavior lab

A group of us were invited to watch what we were warned was a suspenseful horror film. A good story doesn't need gore, which, in my opinion, just detracts. I will confess to being a total wimp before a good suspenseful horror flick, though. The title of this particular movie isn't important; if you would not find it particularly scary, that does not discount the effect on those who did.

We were perhaps 20 people in a little theater space, and for the first third of the film we were quiet—mostly. There were some jumps and screams at the first big scare. As the movie's tension rose, though, the room became less quiet. People began to shuffle in their seats (physical displacement behaviors) and comment aloud on the film. As the plot entered the third act and the stakes were highest for our imperiled protagonist, people began to make jokes and laugh at film events that weren't funny. Generally, those who made the most jokes were those who jumped the highest and screamed the loudest. They were fooling around. The third F.

What can the fooling around fear response look like with dogs?

Play-bowing can also be a reaction to fear.

Dogs don't tend to watch many horror films, or mine at least seem unimpressed by them, so the movie "fear-fun" might be harder to picture with dogs. But you've probably already seen it. How about when a conflicted dog moves forward toward and backward from a stranger, alternately barking and play-bowing? That's fear-fun. Puppies, especially, rely on this kind of response to stress, because they know inherently that flight and fight are not valid options for them yet. Puppies are slow and weak, so they need to appease a threat or wiggle out: "I'm just a cute li'l puppy that wants to play!"

In my own home, I see fear-fun when a particularly big storm is rolling in and Laev begins to jump up on me and throw bows in my direction. It's an early expression of what might become more serious fear if I do not intervene with melatonin or a chew to help her relax.

With dogs, be aware of ANY reaction to stress, expected or not, so that the source of the stress can be eliminated for your pet.

Fear-fun can also be frantic or desperate play behavior, when a dog engages in manic play or invitations. That over-the-top dog that seems basically friendly under all the ridiculously pushy behavior? He might be merely untrained, or he might be coping with stress in the only way he knows how. It's easy to assume a dog is just being rude or is over-excited (and that might be the case), but sometimes it can be a desperate-to-fool-around response to fear or stress.

Fear responses vary in both humans and dogs. The "fooling around" response is common to both and, when acknowledged and addressed responsibly, can eliminate the need for more intense reactions. With dogs, be aware of ANY reaction to stress, expected or not, so that the source of the stress can be eliminated for your pet. In other words, keep an eye out for all of the possible Fs!

About the author
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Laura VanArendonk Baugh, CPDT, KPACTP, started playing with animals at an early age and never grew out of it. She owns Canines In Action, Inc. in Indianapolis, where she lives with her tolerant husband and her dobermans. Laura is also a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member.

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