Recently some clients have told us stories of dog fights, and in two cases, there were some bad injuries to the humans. Dog fights are something to be avoided at all costs, because once they start, they can quickly get beyond our control.
The best thing to do is to predict aggressive situations between dogs and prevent them from happening. But when things escalate and a fight breaks out, it’s important to have some ideas how to handle the situation. We want to cover both aspects briefly here, giving you some ideas about reading and controlling dog interactions, and providing some tips on what to do if you find yourself trying to separate fighting dogs.
WATCHING AND PREVENTING
All dogs have to be on leashes in the lobby; this way, dogs showing aggression can be separated quickly. The flip side of this is that some dogs become more aggressive on-leash, because they feel protective of their owner. Leash aggression is a common issue, and it should be dealt with immediately and firmly by stopping, making the dog sit, and having the dog focus and pay attention to the owner. Only when the dog responds appropriately should they be allowed to continue moving on their own. (This sort of training takes a LOT of patience for the owner – stick with it! Eventually you should be able to say STOP or NO BARK and get a quick response.)
A quick note: whenever we talk about giving a command to a dog, the format should be (1) the name of the dog and then (2) the command. For instance: ‘Muffin, no bark!’ or ‘Finnegan, sit!’ Always say their name first so they know to pay attention.
We do not allow ‘demand’ barking toward us or toward other dogs; that is, if a dog is barking at us or another dog as if to say, ‘HEY I’m TALKING to you! Pay ATTENTION!,’ we say ‘NO BARK!’ and make that dog sit and pay attention to us.
There are reasons to make a dog pay attention to you after you give it a command. Primarily, they should obey the command and look to you for the next instruction, or for praise. If you say, ‘Benjamin, sit!’ and he sits, he should receive praise right away after sitting: ‘Benjamin, good boy!’ Dogs LIVE FOR PRAISE and will quickly learn what to do to please you. This technique is also at the heart of positive reinforcement.
We do not allow dominating behavior between playing dogs. No humping or mounting, no neck chewing, and no leg biting. Dogs do bite and nip at each other on the ears and head in play, and they should be allowed to wrestle together and socialize this way, but purely dominating behavior should be discouraged. Separate the dogs and make them sit and cool off; if the dominating behavior continues, time-out the aggressor for five minutes. Remember to PRAISE good play in the meantime!
Dominating behavior looks like what it is: one dog sitting on top of the other and not allowing them to get up; mounting from any direction; one dog forcing its’ head across another dogs’ shoulders; biting, ripping or ‘pecking’ at the top or underside of another dogs’ neck; tackling or rolling another dog; ‘hambone-ing’ or biting another dog’s back legs. These things sometimes look like play but they are often preludes to more aggressive behavior.
Sometimes there’s not much you can do: a very nice and responsible woman was home while her dog was lying in the front doorway napping; another dog walked by outside and growled at the woman’s dog in the doorway, and BOOM – a fight broke out. Trying to separate the two dogs, the woman ended up with deep bite wounds and bone bruising up and down both of her forearms. Another client tried to break up a fight at a dog park and ended up with dozens of stitches in her arms and a day in the hospital.
Dog fights happen FAST and things get ugly right away. Occasionally, dogs will get into a scuffle, or “argument” as we call it at Dawg House and they can be separated by water squirts and loud commands. If the fight continues as you try to separate the dogs without getting physically involved, they ARE trying to kill each other. Pay attention to the signals, and so long as your dog doesn’t get blind-sided, you can usually see that a fight is coming. When dogs are playing, pay attention to the domination behaviors we listed, and keep those in check. There is also a whole range of more subtle signals to be aware of when dogs are playing or saying hi / sizing each other up:
Raised hackles (hairs on the back of the neck) mean that a dog is in a heightened state of awareness – not necessarily aggression – but this is a good time to start paying attention to what’s going on. Often times dogs arrive at Dawg House for the day, and their hackles go up for entrance. This is only a reminder to the other dogs that he/she is “huge” and not to be messed with on entrance.
Tails and ears will tell you a lot about a dog. Ears UP generally means things are OK (or indicates a heightened awareness) but ears BACK generally indicates an aggressive posture (unless it’s a puppy, in which case it indicates full submission). Tails and ears can convey a complex set of indicators, so it’s important to combine these observations with other factors such as vocalizations, eyes, lips and teeth, and postures. Check out the series of illustrations in this article for more information.
Teeth bared and/or low growling are huge signals that a dog is ‘on point.’ Dogs attack when they feel threatened, which also means they do not feel safe. SO: if you encounter a dog who is telling you and/or your dog that they feel threatened, back off. Slowly. With nice talk. Simple enough. And if your dog is showing these signs, be the pack leader that you are and take control: back your dog out of the situation and calm them down. Be CALM and ASSERTIVE and you can generally avoid any fights.
Being CALM is important. Dogs sense more about our demeanor than we could ever hope to imagine, and they pay attention to the information we are giving them: our body language, our breathing, the tone of our voices, where our eyes are looking, what we’re doing with our hands, and a million other clues. Being CALM will encourage your dog to also remain calm, and being ASSERTIVE / FIRM with your dog will assure them that YOU are in control, which means they have less to fear.
Here’s a link to a good article on how we often misread a dog’s intent, and how we often assign emotions to dogs incorrectly:
WHEN A FIGHT BREAKS OUT
More often than not, a fight will break out without us seeing any warning signs. Suddenly, two (or more) dogs are on top of each other like Tasmanian Devils, growling and biting and ripping at each other ferociously. It’s REALLY scary to witness, and it’s hard to know what to do when you’re panicking.
Here’s the single best piece of advice we have about dog fights:If you’re going to get bit breaking up a dog fight, take a moment to decide WHERE you’re going to get bit.
The first instinct people often have is to stick their hands and arms between the dogs in order to separate them; the only thing this will accomplish is to guarantee that you get some really bad dog bites on your hands and arms, and maybe your face while it’s down there between the dogs. A dog’s jaws are so incredibly strong that there is nothing our feeble little hands can do except get hurt. Keep your arms and hands away from their teeth!
Another technique is to ‘wheelbarrow‘ one dog away from the other by grabbing its’ back legs and pulling it away from the other dog. Usually this works, forcing the dog to unlock their grip on the other dog. If you wheelbarrow forcefully enough, and actually lift the dogs front legs off the ground, their face will hit the ground and you can gain control of that dog fairly quickly. DO NOT let go of the dog until the others involved are secured, or the fight will start right up again. Also, if this occurs while other people are around, make sure they contain the other dogs involved, even if you have to “bark” orders at them. Most people stand there in shock and don’t really know how to react, so don’t be shy about taking control. The last thing you want to do is hold your dog in a vulnerable position and have the other dog attack again. Holding the dog in the wheelbarrow position also makes it almost impossible for the dog to bite you. It takes incredible strength for the dog to twist and get a grip, which is another benefit. However, if one dog has its’ teeth already sunk into the other, and the wheelbarrow does not separate them, when you try to pull them apart, the wound can rip or tear, making it much worse.
OK, ready for this? If you have a grip on a dog’s back legs and he has his jaws locked onto the other dog and won’t let go, here’s what you do: keep a firm grip on one of those legs, take your free hand, and push your finger into the dogs’ rectum. He will most likely let go of the other dog long enough for you to get them separated. Then keep them separated. You’ll most likely have Hulk-strength at this point. Use it. Lift your dog off the ground. If the other dog comes at you, kick it in the snout.
Remember, if it’s a bad fight, you must act to separate the dogs with whatever you have – but never, ever put your face, hands or arms in between them. If you can find a stick or large blunt object, you can try to separate the dogs by swinging it between them, and then get them away from each other by wheelbarrowing or pulling them apart by their leashes.
Other stuff that works in less aggressive fights: squirt bottles – most dogs hate being squirted with water! You can also dump your iced tea on them – use whatever you have. Water Buckets–if you are at the dog park, pick up the water dish/bucket and dump the whole thing on the dogs. Noise – make a sudden, loud noise to startle the dogs and then get them away from each other. Slam a door, whack a table with a book, bang some pans and pots together, or do one of those really loud whistles if you can. Barriers – jamming something between fighting dogs often stops the argument long enough to separate them – a cookie sheet, a chair, a broom, whatever you have. Yelling at the dogs will most likely have zero effect. Don’t waste your energy – instead, stay calm and think of how to separate the fighters.
When the dogs have been separated, keep them separated. Inspect yourself for injuries. Inspect each dog for injuries, especially their throats, front legs, and their backs. Run your hands through their fur. Look at their paws. Take five minutes to calm down. Reassure your dog in a calm voice, using their name.
Remember to reassess your dog about 15-20 minutes later, because often times the wound will scab by then, and you’ll be more apt to locate the wound. Also, know that dogs get over things faster than we do. Try not to project emotions on your dog because you feel them. Don’t worry too much about ‘why’ a dog fight happened in terms of emotions, but rather, try to see the world as a dog sees it: they depend on us for protection, food and shelter, and in turn, they protect us from what they perceive as threats. Remember that there are triggers for dogs like leashes, fences and gates, toys and food. Being aware of the ways in which our dogs see/perceive the world is the best way to avoid potentially dangerous situations.
Here are some additional resources – there’s a lot of information out there – it’s good to read up on this topic if you own a dog!