Just like us, dogs have their disagreements, and even some seemingly amicable hole-smelling can suddenly turn violent. But what can you do to keep things copacetic? How do you break up a gnarly dog fight? And which owner is really to blame when dogs tussle? Guided by Jerry Klein, chief veterinary officer at the American Kennel Club, you can become an adept dog wrangler.
Why Dogs Fight
Klein says unpredictable canine instincts can often result in fighting between dogs, but there are distinct situations where even the most peace-loving pups can be pushed over the edge. Such as…
When a Stranger’s Dog Intrudes on Their Area. Dogs can be highly territorial, so allowing a new dog to run free around your home or yard may trigger your devoted pup. Klein notes that dogs can become especially aggressive and territorial when a physical barrier, like a chain-link fence, is separating them. This phenomenon is called barrier frustration, when a dog can see — but not reach — their objective, and it gives rise to aggression. This is why neighboring dogs often bark and scratch at each other through the fence.
When Another Dog “Steals” Their Food, Water or Toys. Yep, dogs have trouble sharing, so separating them when they eat and play can be a good idea. “It’s always best to feed multiple dogs on opposite sides of the room, or even in different rooms,” Klein says. “Never attempt to remove a toy or bone from a dog’s mouth using your hands. Instead, distract the dog with another toy or treat to refocus their attention before taking away the item.”
When They Think You’re in Trouble. “Dogs want to defend the people in their pack, so some dogs may be likely to act protective of their pack when they’re out with their owner or family on a leash,” Klein says. Appreciate you, Spot!
When They Get Overstimulated. Sometimes friendly play can become so fun that your dog gets overwhelmed with emotion. Not knowing what else to do, they may turn to aggression.
For No Reason at All. Sometimes dogs just fight — it happens to the best of us. “Some dogs just don’t get along for no known reason,” Klein explains. “There may be something about the other dog that an aggressive dog may not like, whether it’s the dog’s personality, smell or something else entirely.”
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How to Prevent Dog Fights
For starters, avoiding situations like those listed above and keeping your dog on a damn leash are both great ways to avoid fights altogether. Being aware of body language that signals they feel threatened can be helpful, too, such as:
- Bared Teeth
- Flattened Ears
- Raised Hackles (the plumage or hair behind the neck)
“If you notice any of these signs, the best course of action is to separate the dogs involved, preferably on a leash, having each dog face away from each other at the furthest places in the space or room, and redirect their attention,” Klein says. “Once separated, keep the dogs out of each other’s sight, in different locations if possible. Secure the dogs by leashing them to immovable objects, while still supervising, or placing them behind closed doors.”
How to Stop a Dog Fight
If things escalate into a full-fledged dog fight, there are several things that Klein says you should absolutely not do:
- Never get between fighting dogs.
- Never reach in with your hands to separate fighting dogs.
- Never put your face close to a dog fight.
- Never grab a dog by the tail and attempt to pull them away from a fight.
These types of things may cause the dogs to transfer their aggression toward you, which could easily land you in the hospital. (Consider Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn, who had her hand crunched while attempting to separate her quarreling dogs — they were having trouble sharing a frisbee.)
Now, I feel compelled to quickly address the rumor that you can stop dogs from fighting by sticking your finger in their asses. This was likely inspired by the 2014 story of an Australian woman who allegedly successfully ended a dog fight using this approach. However, not only is this incredibly dangerous for the reasons mentioned above, but there are also some serious logistical problems when it comes to accurately poking the prostate of a dog viciously wrestling with another dog. Your fingers would need to be swift, indeed.
So, rather than fingering any dogs, Klein suggests the following tactics for breaking up a dog fight:
Stay Calm. “Avoid yelling at the dogs and other people,” Klein says. “Shouting and screaming at the dogs rarely works and usually has the opposite effect of intensifying the fight.”
Keep Kids and Crowds Away. As is often the case, too many people can cause even more trouble. “It’s best if there are two people, ideally the dog’s owners, involved in breaking up the fight,” says Klein. “All other people should step far away.”
Spray the Dogs With Water. If you have a hose handy, Klein says, “Spray the water at the dogs’ heads, aiming specifically for the eyes and nose of the more aggressive dog, if possible. A bucket or spray bottle filled with water may be less effective, but is worth a try if you don’t have access to a hose.”
Honk Your Horn. While yelling typically makes things worse, a loud enough noise can be used as a potential distraction to separate fighting dogs. “Air horns or the sound of a car horn may be jarring enough to snap fighting dogs out of it,” Klein explains. “This is less likely to work on intense fights, though.”
Toss Something in Between Them. “Throwing a heavy blanket or objects like laundry baskets over fighting dogs may momentarily break their focus and help end the fight,” Klein explains. “It may also give you a chance to more safely separate the dogs. Opening a long, automatic umbrella between two fighting dogs is sometimes successful as well.”
If these options are unavailable or none of them work, then you can attempt to intervene physically — but be extremely careful. “This method of breaking up a dog fight is potentially the most dangerous if done incorrectly,” Klein warns. “Remember, you should never get in the middle of two fighting dogs, and never attempt to grab the collar or head of fighting dogs, as you can get bitten, even by your own pet.” He suggests using the so-called wheelbarrow method, “which consists of owners grabbing their dog’s back legs and walking backward in a circular motion. This method only works if one adult per dog is available to intervene and can still be dangerous.”
As a final warning, Klein says, “Remember to never get violent with the dogs. Kicking or punching will not help in these situations and may increase the potential risk.”
What to Do After a Dog Fight
Keep the dogs separated, obviously. But you should also check yourself and your dog for injuries. “No matter how minor they seem, always contact your veterinarian immediately,” Klein says. “Your dog should be examined, as the damage from dog bites isn’t always noticeable to the untrained eye.”
How to Know Who’s at Fault
This is tricky. Legally, law regarding dog fights varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. If your dog harms another animal or person, while uncommon, the owner may file a civil lawsuit asking you to pay for medical bills and whatnot. They may also file a complaint to have your dog declared dangerous, which, depending on your area, could result in them having to wear a muzzle, be rehomed or even euthanized.
While factually incorrect, there are also a lot of stigmas surrounding certain breeds and sizes of dogs that may make them more susceptible to blame. For instance, when I had my dog in a pitbull training class, the trainer was adamant about us essentially just keeping our dogs away from all other dogs — not because they were aggressive, but because they commonly get blamed whenever anything happens. On the flip side, smaller dog breeds tend to get away with bad behavior, because it’s labeled as cute or obnoxious, rather than dangerous.
The sad reality is that if you have a dog that’s perceived to be aggressive, whether they actually are or not, you need to be extra cautious, because they can very easily be blamed for something they didn’t do. As dog bite law expert Kenneth Phillips writes on his website, “If you have a big dog or one that shows signs of aggression (whether because it likes to eat, likes to sleep, likes to hoard its toys or likes to bite people — the reason doesn’t matter), you need to protect yourself by keeping the dog away from people, muzzling it when it is around people, and strictly following all animal control laws (like leash laws, anti-trespassing laws which apply to dogs and anti-running at large laws).”
And remember, no fingers in butts!