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7 Ways to Break Up a Dog Fight (Without Getting Bitten)

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Dog Training By Kayla Fratt 15 min read April 27, 2021 15 Comments

dog fight

Dog fights are your worst nightmare.

Snarling, flashing teeth, fur flying, and – heaven forbid – blood.

Even if no one gets hurt, it’s a terrifying experience that can permanently scar human and dog mentally. Not to mention the massive vet bills if the dogs do end up doing some damage.

Breaking up a dog fight is a dangerous thing to do, but sometimes you don’t have another option. It’s not like there’s a dog fight squad that you can call to break up the fight in front of you.

We’ll explore your options if a fight does break out.

how to stop a dog fight

Recognizing a Dog Fight: What to Look For

Being able to recognize dog body language and differentiate between appropriate play, inappropriate play, and a true dog fight is a skill that takes a long time to develop.

In general, I get worried if I see:

  • High, stiff tail wags
  • Lips pulled forward (instead of gaping mouths)
  • Tight, controlled, efficient movement (instead of bouncy play movement)
  • Forward weight with staring eyes at a distance
  • Lunging towards the face or neck
  • One dog that’s really dominating play (always on top, always chasing, etc)
  • Lots of calming signals from one or both dogs

Play fighting usually is loud, bouncy, and exaggerated. The dogs will take turns and when they bite each other. They’ll have wide open gaping mouths.

While this type of roughhousing can tip over into a fight if the dogs aren’t socially savvy, it’s not a true dogfight. Keep a close eye on those games so that you can call your dog away and give him a break if necessary.

The list above is not comprehensive. Distinguishing between play vs trouble time can be difficult even for pro trainers, and while it’s worthy of its own article, we won’t go too much into it today (this discussion of this post deals primarily with breaking up a dog fight). For more info on recognizing play vs fighting behavior, the AKC has a good article to get you started.

Generally, it’s better to air on the side of safety. I rarely let my dog greet other dogs on-leash and almost never go to the dog park (read up on our dog park etiquette guide to better understand what’s acceptable and not acceptable behavior at the dog park – and check out our collection of dog park alternative options).

I’d rather pick my dog’s friends carefully than get into a nasty situation.

Types of Dog Fights

Not all dog fights are the same. It’s important to recognize which type of dog fight you’re dealing with so that you can break it up more effectively. Most dog experts classify dog fights into two main categories:

Snappy Dog Fights

Most dog fights fall into this category. There’s a lot of snarling, snapping, and lunging. The dogs are very mobile, very loud, and it’s quite scary. These fights are often over quickly, but not always.

Snappy dog fights are more easily broken up because the dogs are snapping and letting go – but the dogs can still cause serious damage. This type of fight can also has the potential to tip over in the the second type of dog fight.

WARNING: Some may find this video below disturbing – watch at your own discretion.

Grab-And-Hold Dog Fights

This is the less common, but much more dangerous type of dog fight. Here, one or both dogs grabs and holds onto the other.

These fights are often quiet and still, with the dogs locked onto each other. These fights can be much more difficult to break up and make up the majority of newsworthy dog fights that produce dramatic footage of dogs not letting go when tased, beaten, or physically pulled apart. (We do not recommend using any of those methods of breaking up a dog fight).

Dogs that are bred or trained for fighting are anecdotally more likely to engage into the grab-and-hold type dog fight. This is where the myth of pit bulls having “lockjaw” likely comes from.

Why Dog Fights Happen (and How to Prevent Them)

There’s a huge variety of things that can trigger a dog fight; knowing the types and recognizing warning signs is key to success.

The best way to break up a dog fight is to prevent one from starting. We’ll talk more about the warning signs of each specific type of fight here.

Reason #1: Predatory Drift

In a fight driven by predatory aggression, one dog attacks the other as if the other dog was a prey item – it’s not really a fight at all.

This is particularly common with breeds that are either bred for killing things (like terriers) or dogs that are more “primitive” (like huskies).

That’s because in breeds like labradors and border collies, we’ve bred them to highlight a specific predatory sequence. Border collies and labs would both be pretty bad at their jobs if they finished the predatory sequence

Predatory Sequence: Eye –> Orient –> Stalk –> Chase –> Bite –> Grab / Bite –> Kill / Bite –> Dissect –> Consume

Retrievers stop at the grab/bite stage, and shepherds stop at the chasing stage. No shepherd wants his dog to kill his sheep! Read more about predation in dogs in this article by Positively.

A big warning sign of predatory aggression is a dog that stalks other dogs. While this isn’t unheard of in some herding breeds, it’s a big red flag. A stalking dog will lower its head and crouch as it stares at or moves towards a “prey item.”

Your dog is more at risk of becoming a victim of predatory aggression if he’s tiny. This is why I cringe whenever I see small dogs at the dog park. In the excitement of play and running, it’s too easy for another dog to slip into predatory drift. This is where tragedies happen.

preventing a dog fight

I’ve seen this firsthand, and it’s very scary. A husky stalked my border collie for a few steps, then rushed up and went straight for his neck. Luckily, my yelling distracted both dogs and nobody got hurt.

Reason #2: Poor Social Skills

Socially awkward dogs can get themselves (and others) into trouble pretty quickly! We see this all the time at the shelter I work for. Dogs with poor social skills might become way overly excited at the sight of another dog, or they might totally miss social cues from their partner.

awkward dogs

Despite the adorable photo above, the consequences of poor social skills can be disastrous.

A few example scenarios include:

  • Dog A runs up to Dog B. This alone can be enough to set off Dog B! It gets worse if the Dog A T-stances or mounts Dog B. Often Dog A is overly excited by this situation – some may even jump onto the backs of their would-be playmates. Dog B will probably tell Dog A off and a fight can ensue.
  • Dog A and Dog B meet and begin to sniff muzzles. Dog B is a little stiff but Dog A continues to sniff around and does something rude. Dog A might shove his face where it doesn’t belong, paw at Dog B, or put his neck over Dog B’s back. Dog A might give a “correction” like lifting his lips, turning to stare at Dog A, or even giving a little bark. Dog A doesn’t heed the warning and continues to do whatever he’s doing (or worse, escalates). Dog B then gives a harsher “correction” to Dog A by biting or snarling – and then you’ve got a fight.
  • Dog A goes up to greet Dog B when Dog B is cowering a corner. Dog B tries to move away but can’t, so Dog B snarls at Dog A to keep Dog A away.

Resource Guarding

Many dogs aren’t great at sharing, and resource guarding can be a dangerous problem.

Fights over resources are common. In many cases, they’re also preventable. Don’t introduce toys, treats, or favorite sleeping places into situations with unfamiliar dogs. If your dog stiffens up when other dogs try to share his things, be extra-careful.

Since I often train my dog using super-tasty treats like steak, I’m also extremely careful around other dogs. My dog doesn’t appreciate strangers trying to take away his hard-won earnings. He usually will just stiffen up and stare at other dogs, but that’s enough to worry me.

If another dog lacks social skills, the situation could quickly turn ugly. It’s best to keep high-value objects out of social situations for dogs (this is why treats and toys aren’t recommended at the dog park).

dogs fighting over toy

There are many other reasons that a dog fight can break out. Sometimes you might never know what caused a particular scuffle – we can’t read the minds of our canine companions. Keeping an eye on your dog and others around him is the best way to avoid fights. Introducing dogs properly is another great way to prevent dog fights.

Learn how to read canine body language and don’t be afraid of crossing the street to avoid a dog that gives you the creeps. I do it all the time. Really. Some people in my apartment complex probably think I’m a weird social recluse. But really, the way their dog looks at mine makes me nervous.

How to Break up a Dog Fight (and What Not to Do)

The number one rule of any emergency situation is do not create another victim. For dog fights, this means not putting yourself between fighting dogs!

The worst dog-caused injuries I’ve ever seen are almost exclusively from people trying to break up a dog fight.Putting your hands between the dogs is simply too dangerous – never do this! The dogs are so stressed that they probably won’t recognize your hand and you can end up with some very serious injuries.

If Your Dog Is On a Leash…

If your dog is on leash and the fight is a snappy one, you might be able to pull the dogs apart via their harnesses. This is great because it keeps your hands relatively safe.

While not at all the ideal way to break up a fight, this is often a first instinct. I’ve done it – and it’s worked. I’ve also tried it and had it totally backfire – the pressure of the leash just made the dogs dig in harder.

Tools and Techniques for Breaking Up a Dog Fight

If you don’t have any tools on you or nearby, shouting and screaming and clapping your hands can often work. Making a big ruckus often distracts dogs in snappy fights for long enough to separate them.

If your self-generated noise doesn’t work, there are a few other techniques you can use that will keep you out of harm’s way:

1. Air Horns

air horn

Air horns are loud. And effective.

The blast of an air horn usually startles the dogs for long enough to grab their leashes and pull them apart. It’s worked almost every time I’ve ever used it, and it’s a common tool seen at animal shelters.

If you don’t have an air horn at your disposal, try to make another obscenely loud noise to startle the dogs. Many shelters use air horns during dog testing and have them on hand when introducing two unfamiliar dogs – just in case.

2. Hose

While you may not have a hose with you during a walk, this is a good option in some dog parks or your own backyard.

Spraying the dogs will often startle them enough to break them apart. I’ve never had to use a hose, but we’ve come close at the shelter when an air horn doesn’t work.

3. Throw a Blanket Over the Fighting Dogs

Oftentimes, this alone is enough to startle the dogs into stopping the fight. You can also use a jacket, tarp, or anything else lying around nearby.

4. Separate Dogs With a Board or Another Barrier

Wedge a piece of wood, a skateboard, or anything else that keeps you out of harm’s way between the fighting dogs.

5. Citronella Spray

Dogs aren’t crazy about citronella, so it’s smart to have some citronella spray on hand in case of a dog fight. Pointing a spray of this stuff towards an oncoming dog can stop them right in their tracks. In fact, citronella collars are often used as a bark prevention tool.

I’ve only ever used citronella spray to deter oncoming dogs before a fight breaks out. In my old neighborhood, I carried it for every walk with my dog since there were quite a few sketchy dogs around!

6. Break Sticks

You probably don’t have a break stick lying around, but they’re one of your only options in a truly intense grab-and-hold type fight.

They’re basically a wedge that you can place between the dog’s jaws and then twist.

This will force the dog’s jaws open, and then you can use the wheelbarrow method (see below) or another technique to separate the dogs. This puts your hands pretty close to the dogs and is not for novices.

7. Wheelbarrow Method

With the wheelbarrow method, two people each grab the hind legs of one of the fighting dogs and physically pull the dogs apart.

I’m hesitant to recommend this one for three reasons:

  • It requires two people to pull it off.
  • The dogs might redirect onto you. When you put your hands onto a fighting dog, they might think you’re another attacker and turn to bite you as well.
  • It can cause more damage in a grab-and-hold type fight. If the dogs are truly locked down onto each other, pulling them apart might not work, in which case a break stick is your best best.

Since there is quote a bit of danger involved, we don’t recommend the wheelbarrow method unless you’re a more advanced dog handler. While your dog’s safety is important, yours is more important.

Important Note: Don’t put your hands on the dogs if at all possible, even after you’ve startled them with the above tools. The dogs are likely so stressed that you’re still at risk.

Most of the tips here also work for when you yourself are the victim of a dog’s aggression – but if you want to learn more, make sure to read our guide on surviving a dog attack.

After the Storm: What to Do After a Dog Fight Has Ended

When the fur and fury has ended, take a deep breath and then: 

  • Check For Injuries. Once the dogs are separated, check them both over for injuries if it is safe to do so. Your dog might be so worked up that it’s not safe to do this right away.
  • Exchange Info. Check in with the other dog and their owner if applicable and exchange information. Depending on where you live, you might need to file an incident report of some sort.

If You Own Both Dogs…

If both of the dogs are your own, separate them fully. Then assess the situation – what caused the fight? You now know that it’s not safe to leave these two dogs alone together.

If the fight was something manageable, like over a piece of steak, you might be able to slowly reintroduce the dogs in controlled settings. It’s important not to give trust back too quickly – you don’t want the next fight to happen when you’re not around. This means you might have to separate the dogs for hours, days, weeks, or even permanently when you’re not around.

Hire an animal behavior consultant immediately if the dog fight occurred between two dogs that share a household – especially if you don’t know the cause or if the cause is not something obviously manageable. The scope of reintroducing them safely is beyond this article and should be done with the supervision of an animal behavior professional.

If The Fight Was Between Your Dog And Another Owner’s Dog…

If the fight was between two dogs that don’t share a household, it might be easiest (not to mention safest) to just keep them separate.

But if you do plan on reintroducing the dogs, do so as if they had never met. Give the dogs a break of at least a few days before reintroducing them and make sure that the owner of the other dog is willing to work through a reintroduction.

Choose a safe and neutral location and go for a parallel walk. The two dogs might immediately go back to being fine with each other, or they might have a strong emotional response to the other dog. If they’re extremely scared, excited, or aggressive, they’re not ready to be reintroduced.

Will Your Dog Suffer Trauma?

Some dogs develop reactivity or aggression following a bad dog fight or attack. This is not unusual – but still a cause for concern. Hire an animal behavior consultant if that’s the case.

Finally, it’s important not to punish the dogs further following the fight. They’re already extremely stressed, and you want to be the safe and calm presence involved in this mess.

If you want to learn more about how to effectively break up dog fights and keep yourself safe, we recommend checking out the IAABC’s Defensive Handling with Aggressive Dogs Course. It’s only $20 and fully online!

Have you ever witnessed a dog fight? What happened? Share your stories in the comments!

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Written by

Kayla Fratt

Kayla Fratt is a dog behavior consultant and freelance writer. She is an Associate Certified Dog Behavior Consultant with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and is a member of Dog Writer’s Association of America. She travels full time with her border collie Barley and her boyfriend, Andrew. Before coming to K9 of Mine, Kayla worked at Denver Dumb Friends League as a Behavior Technician. She owns her own dog training business, Journey Dog Training and holds a degree in biology from Colorado College. When she’s not writing or training Barley, Kayla enjoys cross-country skiing, eating sushi, drinking cocktails, and going backpacking.

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Destiny Bingham

I have 2 pups, the younger is more playful and I am assuming does not take social cues too well. The older one and I were sitting on the floor together when the younger one came up. My older dog immediately let her know that she was not wanted at the moment with a lip curl, I jumped up and deescalated the situation..however the younger one started walking back to the older one and a fight broke out. We separated them for maybe 5ish hours and when we tried to reintroduce them, they started growling at each other again. My husband and I then tried to reintroduce again a few weeks later and they were fine on the leash, I was too nervous to go any further and we have not tried anything else since then..any advice would be so much appreciated.

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Ben Team

Hey there, Destiny.
So far, it seems like you’re doing pretty well. Just be sure to take things slow, listen to your instincts (if you think things are getting heated, separate them), and check out this article about introducing new puppies to older, resident dogs.
Best of luck!

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Emma

Reading this article has helped (a LITTLE bit) with what I’m about to go into. Mainly the bit about how to break up a fight – I feel like the water could really work, but, I also know how quickly things can happen, which is why I’m hoping to get some advice?

So, we have two rescue dogs; Indie was here first and then Zoey joined the family a few months later. They’re both spayed females, around about the same age (five). Indie’s a Boxer-Beagle, and Zoey is a Bull-Arab/Scottish-Deerhound (possibly with some Greyhound?). They’re both medium-sized (bigger than the Labrador-Retriever that we owned before, he was a fixed male who sadly had to be put down on my birthday due to a stroke). They’re also inseparable. Sure, they were wary at first, and Zoey did attempt to have a go at Indie upon their first meeting because Indie jumped up on my sister (she’d rescued Zoey and flown her over from across the country) – that’s probably made some people go ‘oh, yeah, that’d do it’. Zoey lived on the streets as a puppy, but, like I said, they’re both rescue dogs. Still, they’re now like sisters. We live out on five acres and Zoey is the lightning fast sentinel that looks out for kangaroos, whereas Indie (who’s actually done her ACL and has to be on a lead) is very much the brawn. When Indie was young (before Zoey came along) she used to get over excited and latch onto one of us and it would be almost IMPOSSIBLE to break her grip. I’m glad that she got over that and they’re both very cuddly, but, we stopped taking them for walks a few years ago for various reasons.

This wasn’t really an issue until a few days ago, when my sister’s partner kicked out his Housemate From Hell. Long story short, as Housemate moves her stuff out, my sister’s partner is staying with us. And, it’s safest for his dog to NOT be at the other house, so, he’s here, too.
Kaiser is a beautiful boy. He’s eight years old, kind of on the short side, and a purebred Staffordshire Bull Terrier. He’s unfixed. He USUALLY gets along well with other dogs. He still bears a scar on his ear from the dog of my sister’s former partner, a Sausage Dog thing named Chunney that Kaiser pushed around until enough was enough and Chunney just bit him. And, I have been told, Kaiser nearly ripped the throat out of a Labrador that attacked the (now) ex of my sister’s partner.
We did a burn-off two days ago, when they brought Kaiser over partway through. He was on the outside of the double lots of snake fence, but the girls could still see/hear/smell him (and, the fire). I had actually switched Zoey onto the lead because she’d been bitten by ants, and Indie finally got a chance to come down to the first fence. Lots of barking ensued. Later on, Mum put Zoey on the lead down there, too.
Afterwards, my sister’s partner brought Kaiser up to the second fence. Cue a LOT of barking and snarling from the girls, mainly Indie! Mum hurried over there, as did my sister and then me (Dad was keeping an eye on the fire remains). My sister stayed on her partner’s side of the emcee but I thought that the girls would feel better with me on their side. Kaiser was doing the right thing, he knew that it was their territory and he was being submissive. The girls would occasionally lick Kaiser’s face but there was still growling and snarling. I’ve not heard that from them. We had to cut the meeting short because the ants bit Zoey again, and then bit Kaiser and my sister. I had to run with Zoey back up to the house, where she practically demolished her paws before I put a bicarbonate soda paste on them (I made some for Kaiser, too).

Tomorrow, my sister wants to try another socialisation of them, perhaps with Zoey first and then maybe Indie? I’m kinda worried, though. My girls mean everything to me. It’s probably a bit different for my sister, she’s been in Canada for three years, so Zoey and I have really bonded. Indie was already my angel (after she got over her bitey-bite-play; now they just play biter-face with each other). I know that Indie can be a bit weird with other dogs that aren’t Zoey, and that she can latch on and STAY latched on. The problem is that Kaiser, despite his small stature, surely could as well. However, as soon as Zoey would see this then she would spring to Indie’s defence.

It’s been okay, the girls sniff very thoroughly when they smell Kaiser’s scent on one of us. Kaiser stays out the front and then sleeps in my sister’s room. The girls have their room in the laundry, and they’re not allowed into the rest of the house – there’s no door so they can see into the living room, but, Kaiser cannot come into the rest of the house; he must be carried between outside and my sister’s room.

The issue is that I’m worried, if Kaiser feels the need to, that he might try and do to one of my girls what he did to that Labrador. I must stress that he’s a gorgeous dog. He is loyal to his master, very much a ladies man, really likes all of us including my Dad, belly-crawls past infants and loves kids, etc..
Not discriminating against Staffys (my Aunt’s bigger one is a big sweetheart, too) but their bite force I know can be devastating. If he latched on then I’m worried about what might happen. I can’t lose Indie and Zoey, too. I may just be being paranoid. But, we’re talking about Zoey who lets me paint her claws…Indie won’t have a bar of it, but when I’m upset she comes up and shoves her nose into my eye. Thanks, I think?

But, does anybody have any tips or ideas about how to make this meeting go smoother? Dad will have Indie on the lead this time, not Mum (she broke her shoulder in a quad bike accident a few years ago and it has never fully healed; Indie is also very VERY strong and stubborn). I can manage Zoey, she’s SLIGHTLY more sociable, not to mention she does flight over fight…UNLESS Indie is in danger, then I think that Zoey may show how she survived on the streets. Zoey takes some time getting used to strange people (men more so than women). Neither of them liked the unfixed male dog that visited without permission from next door (his “owners” never spent any time with him and he was actually a really nice dog, the poor thing) – he was one of those dogs that guards the penguins on that island (a Maremma?) and so quite a bit bigger than Kaiser. This only happened recently.

But, the girls may have had enough go strange boy dogs on their property…so, any advice…?

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Stephanie Raimundo

I love all your Useful Information

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GAY NELL SHERBERT

Very good information on dog fights. Thank you. I do have a different type of question.

I have a toy poodle, Rusty, who get so excited to go for walks. He jumps and grabs my clothes all out of excitement until we reach the door then he is fine, off we go. He is two years old and very good all other times. How can I calm him down for walks?

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Rebecca Elzi

These are all great ideas for separating fighting dogs. I have been in the middle of a mother cat and dog fight when I was a young child and I also in the past year was attempting to separate 2 of my dogs Beagle and Collie because of a food incident when a third pet (large Beauceron/Border Collie mix )got involved as well. Normally I believe they would have let go with some squirts from a water spray bottle but I was trapped in the middle and couldn’t reach it. I ended up being bitten by each of them probably because they thought they had ahold of each other. I, too like the blanket idea because of the normal availability in most homes. I do know though if you have dogs that don’t like being sprayed or squirted that a water bottle has worked for me very well in the past. I unfortunately had to re-home the Beauceron mix with a family member because of her after aggression.

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Ari

We took my 2 year old golden retriever to my in-law’s house. My MIL thought it would be okay to open the door as we were getting our pup out of the drive way. Because we were in the Terrior’s territory (close to the door) he ran up on her and because he’s the alpha the pitty ran up too. So we had two dogs on our girl. My MIL screaming as my husband and i are trying to get the dogs off of my girl. I was more upset at the man across the street just standing and watching. My FIL says if he was there that wouldn’t happen but I honestly doubt that. We haven’t brought her back since, since then she’s more afraid of meeting new dogs that are her size or bigger and i warn the owners that. Most are nice and let us take it slow but as soon as she backs up and goes between my legs i know to move along.

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Kayla Fratt

Ari, I’m so sorry to hear that. It’s very scary for all of you!

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Susanne

We lost our bulldog and then the very next day out of no where our mini dachshund attacked our Jack Russell two times in one day. The Jack did nothing to provoke the dachshund. Only change is the bull dog is gone. What do you think is going on?

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Kayla Fratt

It could be stress. I’d recommend keeping the dogs separate for a while unless you’re occupying them (like on walks or during training) for safety’s sake! If this continues, I’d get help from a pro trainer ASAP.

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Jennifer stout

my two male dogs are about to be fixed as well as my female, the two males have grown up together and never had a bad fight until our female went into heat. they were all outside playing happily then i called them inside, the female ran up first and both males tried to follow her first they started fighting on the stairs and rolled down them, i chased after them did the wrong thing and got in the middle my finger was almost bitten off, i got thwm separated by turning the hose on them.. they separated immediately. this fight seemed like it went on for hours, it was about 2 minutes. my husky was relentless, my doberman got near his eye tore open, did not neee stitches. the dogs are now not allowed to be around each other at all, im more emotionally scarred then they are im just too afraid to get them back together until 2 months after they are fixed. recommended by a dog trainer. my husband is the alpha and got them to get along the day after but as soon as the female came around they tried to fight again it was immediately stopped. its very emotionally draining and i love all my dogs so it really hurts. but the safest thing right now is to keep them apart. i never thought they would turn on eachother so hopefully getting them fixed helps. i wanted initially to breed my female and male dobies but not anymore. id rather have my dogs alive.

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Kayla Fratt

Jennifer, that’s really scary! I highly recommend getting the help from a dog behavior consultant (check the IAABC for a consultant near you). Unfortunately, according to many vets it’s unlikely that just neutering your dogs will eliminate the problem. Continue keeping them separate for now. I’d also recommend looking into the research on alpha dogs, it’s not likely that that’s the problem either. Let me know if I can help in any way, this situation is serious. 🙁

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intabe

Thank you for sharing the post. This incident have not happened to my dog but this is what every dog parents should know.

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Ben Team

Fantastic article, Kayla. I really enjoyed it. I like the blanket/towel idea a lot.

Here’s some more info about the predatory sequence of canines for anyone interested.
http://www.footstepsintheforest.com/?p=665
*shameless plug*

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Kayla

That’s a great article! Love it!

I also really like the blanket/towel idea. I’ve never used it, but it seems like a good option in your home. Probably the item you’re most likely to have lying around.

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