Tails of Seattle: A pets blog
How to stop a dogfight, Part 1
Seattle pet behaviorist and author Steve Duno, pictured with his dog Flavio, right, discusses how to stop a dogfight in the first in a series of posts on the subject from local behaviorists and veterinarians.
Dog fights can be bloody messes.
As a trainer, I can tell you that most of us pride ourselves on avoiding them, by managing the environment and knowing what the dogs we work with are capable of. We prevent fights if at all possible.
That said, dogs will fight. Most of the time, these are simple spats over territory, attention or possessions, or simply anxiety over perceived issues of safety or status.
A nervous 8-year-old Chihuahua nips at a lumbering Lab puppy for coming too close at the park; a 6-month-old puppy steals the neighbor dog's ball; one dog eats her food fast, then sticks her nose into the slower eater's bowl.
These are usually low-threat situations that rarely end up lasting more than a second or two, with nary a drop of blood.
In fact, spats over these issues can be seen as beneficial because they teach one dog what the other dog's boundaries are, and what rules are in place. It's an instant wake-up call for both animals: a very doggish way to establish decorum and hierarchy.
As an owner, your best strategy here is to simply let these little altercations happen, interfering only if there is an escalation or injury, or if other dogs jump into the fray.
Other times, dog fights can be a totally different matter. I've seen fights between two large, aggressive animals that resemble running chain saws tossed into a garbage can. Blood, crushed windpipes, tails or noses ripped off -- or worse. If you've ever watched illicit dogfighting videos between two pit bulls, you know what I mean.
These kinds of fights are usually beyond the capabilities of most owners to stop.
This kind of violence often has its roots in either abject fear, bad breeding, chronic abuse, total lack of early socialization or in macabre conditioning by ignorant or malevolent people involved in dogfighting activities.
Though breed can play a role in the degree of aggression, it's often more related to a dog that either has a genetic predisposition to violence, one that never spent enough time with littermates or one that has been so abused (or spoiled and placated) that it has no concept of the normal social give and take.
Whatever the reason, aggression of this type can result in a fight without end, one that, if involving your dog, needs a higher power to step in.
Dog fights often happen when one or more dogs are off-leash. A simple way to avoid fights is to ensure dogs are being efficiently controlled by capable owners. Unless at a sanctioned off-leash park, keep your dog on a leash.
The first rule of thumb for me with regard to dogfights is, literally, do I have a dog in the fight?
If I happen to be at a park and see two strange dogs tearing into each other, my first responsibility is to my own safety, the safety of my family and the safety of my own dog(s).
If unable to secure the safety of my own pack, I'm not going to get involved.
Odds are the fighters will have owners present or close by who can take responsibility.
If I'm alone, the next issue is whether I know one or both of the dogs. If not, the odds of me getting bit because of redirected aggression are high; I have no credibility with two strange dogs, either of which could interpret me as an additional threat. And if the two fighters are large, powerful animals known to be effective fighters -- well, I'm probably not going to take a chance.
If I think I might be able to disrupt the fight with a display of blustering bravado, I (as a professional) might give it a go. I might grab a garbage pail, a heavy pot (if indoors), a branch, broom, or even a handful of stones to use as an interrupter, or even a garden hose or fire extinguisher if available.
If the combatants are small, wimpy little goofballs, I may just storm in there and intimidate them out of the tussle. But if a Rottweiler and a Great Dane are roaring into each other like two Greek gods, I'm going to let them go at it.
IS YOUR DOG INVOLVED?
The real concern here is: what to do if your dog or dogs get into a fight?
Odds are if the fight is between your own dogs, you'll have the ability to defuse the situation with sheer status and a demonstrative display of disapproval.
Of course, it depends on if you do have that status; some owners who rarely train their pets, or who placate or humanize them, won't have the rank to countermand the fight's energy. That's why an integral ingredient to managing a dog is leadership, training and respect.
If your dog gets attacked, you must determine if it's just a momentary spat or a full-blown rumble.
Did your dog sniff a scared dog's butt and get nipped a few times? Let it go.
But if the attacker is determined, and if the altercation takes on that explosive, do-or-die quality, it's time to help your pack member.
Often, the other dog's owner will step in and stop his or her dog before you can even react. But if not, you'll have mere moments to act.
PROTECT YOUR DOG
It will need to be a subjective, prejudicial reaction, too; your concern should be for your dog, and not for the aggressor. If you have to clobber the aggressor, you do it.
If the dog is a small one, storm in there and use bravado to overwhelm. Kick up dust, yell, clap, boom out. Be larger than life. Most times this will break their focus long enough to grab your dog and go.
But if need be, grab something -- a stick, a garbage pail lid or whatever is available.
Even the end of your leash can be used to smack the dog on its butt. Break the focus, and get your dog out of there.
A bigger dog that is tearing your pooch up is a whole different matter. You can get seriously hurt, by either dog. But left with no choice, you must act.
I've used well-timed kicks, garden hoses, water buckets, chairs, umbrellas, walking sticks, handfuls of gravel, and even a coat to break up fights between big dogs. Just know that, because of the heat of the moment, either dog is capable of biting you.
You don't want to grab for either dog's head or neck. That's a sure way to get bit. If either dog has a leash on, use that to drag it away, while dealing with the other animal with a kick if need be. You can even grab a dog's tail to pull it away.
If more than two dogs are fighting, you're odds of stopping the fight while avoiding injury go down substantially. If you don't have other persons with you, or a substantial weapon such as big stick or garden rake, you're going to get bit. But again, if your dog's life is at stake, you've got to come up with a workable scenario.
Often, screaming and running around like a crazy person can distract long enough for you to grab your dog and jump up on a car roof.
These fights are fluid, scary and unpredictable. If you have any doubts in yourself, or if the offending pet is too powerful, don't risk it. Scream out for help and call 911. Often other people will appear to help.
Use preventive techniques to avoid these fights. Be sure to bring a leash, and consider taking a walking stick if in an area where off-leash dogs are known to lurk.
If you see someone walking their dog toward you, don't feel obligated to let your dog greet it; if you have any doubts, steer clear, especially if the dog seems worried, or if it's the size of a pony.
Sometimes on-leash aggression between two passing dogs can be worse than off-leash, because the restriction of the leashes makes the dogs feel encumbered and limited in their ability to respond.
Train your dog to obey you off-leash, even around other dogs; if you can't get your dog to come to you in the presence of other dogs, then you haven't done your job as an owner.
Momentary aggression between dogs is part of being a dog. All-out fights to the death are rare, but when they do happen, it's almost always because an owner has failed in some way.
Being an effective owner is usually the best way to stop a dogfight before it ever happens.
Pet behaviorist and author Steve Duno has authored 19 books and scores of magazine and Web articles. He has covered a wide variety of subjects on both dogs and cats, including basic training, aggression, environmental enrichment, behavior modification, breed profiling, trick training, and pet health care. Formerly a teacher in New York City and Los Angeles, he now lives in Seattle with his family and an ever-changing assortment of rescued pets.
Do you have a question about veterinary health or pet behavior? Ask now! We'll pose some of your questions to a local trainer in an upcoming post.
Read earlier Q&A columns here.