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.
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:
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.
In the video below, Josh of Argos talks a bit about what to look for in healthy dog play fighting:
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). I’d rather pick my dog’s friends carefully than get into a nasty situation.
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:
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.
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.
WARNING: Again, please be aware that this footage can be quite disturbing. However, we want to show it as it's important for demonstrating the different types of dog fights you may encounter.
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.
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.
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.
This segment on Let's Talk Pets Radio talks a bit more about the dangers of predatory drift - especially for small dogs.
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.
Despite the adorable photo above, the consequences of poor social skills can be disastrous.
A few example scenarios include:
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).
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.
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 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Wedge a piece of wood, a skateboard, or anything else that keeps you out of harm’s way between the fighting dogs.
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!
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.
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:
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.
When the fur and fury has ended, take a deep breath and then:
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 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.
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!
Kayla Fratt is an Associate Certified Dog Behavior Consultant through the IAABC and works as a professional dog trainer through the use of positive reinforcement methods. She also has experience working as a Behavior Technician at Denver Dumb Friends League rehabilitating fearful and reactive dogs.