Putting aside the more exotic underlying medical conditions which may cause aggression, for the vast majority of dogs, the occasional argument, squabble and fight is just part of everyday life and results in little or no injury to either party. I am not suggesting that because it’s normal we should just let dogs get on with it, but instead understand that for a variety of reasons – poor play and social skills, bullying, conflict over resources, proximity sensitivity or frustration – dogs may growl, snarl, snap and fight with other dogs.
So, if we can accept that dogs will have aggressive behaviours in their normal behavioural repertoire and will use this behaviour when they feel it is appropriate and that this may sometimes result in a fight with another dog, it is my hope that by looking at dog fights more rationally, we will be less freaked out and more likely to act sensibly when it inevitably happens.
Living with groups of dogs has prepared me well and I have become accustomed and a little desensitised to the occasional squabble and fight and consequently well-practiced at dealing with my own dogs and the occasional fight that may break out in a class. Similarly though, I do recognise that if you have not had as much experience of dog squabbles and fights as me, a fight can be a scary experience.
No matter what your experience, when a fight breaks out, you need to act decisively and quickly. Now is not the time to panic, so it helps to be prepared. Before a fight happens, mentally rehearse and practice what you would do if a fight was to break out so that you will then be more likely to react and stop a fight quickly. In addition to rehearsing, I carry protective gloves, citronella spray and a break-stick. (A break-stick is used to open the dog’s mouth in order to release the other dog, but this needs some skill and confidence to use).
So what can you do if a fight breaks out?
There are a number of ways people advise on how to break up dog fights and the method I use is based on the one that can be found in the book Fight by Jean Donaldson. No method is 100 per cent safe, so I must caution that if you choose to use the following, there is always a risk of injury; plunging your hands into a dog fight puts you at a real risk of receiving a redirected bite.
If there are a number of other dogs present, get everybody whose dog is not involved in the fight to catch and control their dogs as quickly as possible. Dogs are drawn to intensity, so it is important to act quickly and interrupt before it really gets started.
To interrupt, as soon as a fight breaks out, very quickly raise your voice, make a loud noise, yell and clap your hands. In many cases this sudden startle may be enough to nip things in the bud and stop the dogs in their tracks. If this brings the fight to a sudden end, immediately move the dogs away from each other and restrain and/or separate them and then check for injury.
If making a sudden noise for no more than a few seconds has no effect, you are going to need to part them, to do this, work together and go in and grab the dogs at the rear of the body, at the point where the legs join the body. Don’t mess around, move decisively and positively and pull them backwards away from each other and at the same time elevate them into a wheelbarrow type position and start to turn them away from each other so the dogs are also side stepping. In this position, it is unlikely you will get a redirected bite and the dogs are unable to lunge forward – Note: never elevate a dog by its lower legs or tail.
Being on your own with no help available is a dire situation to be in if a fight breaks out, so firstly try and get help from people around you. Tackling a dog fight on your own is something that requires a calm head and quite a lot of skill and experience, but sometimes you may find yourself without a choice and so you will have to do the best you can if you decide to intervene.
If you do find yourself in this position, try to startle them into stopping and then if you have it with you, a citronella spray can sometimes work, but do not waste time if startle and spray does not have a pretty immediate effect of stopping the fight, you are going to have to part one of the dogs, so choose the one that appears to be the aggressor, if you cannot tell this, just choose the dog you can least likely control with your voice and try to part them using the wheelbarrow technique, while using your voice to keep the other dog back.
If you have a situation where a dog latches onto another dog and will not immediately let go, try not to panic, in most cases this looks worse than it is. I also need to stress this is not a common occurrence, although some breeds appear more prone to do this than others. Quickly assess that the bite is not causing the airway to be compromised or that the dog is not panicking. If there is not an urgent need for emergency action, take hold of the collar of the dog that has latched on and try to coax them off with food or just wait patiently and see if they will let go as things calm. Do not pull them apart as this risks tearing and in my experience, the latching dog will often bite down harder to hang on.
Finally, if the dog’s airway is compromised, it appears to be losing consciousness or if the dog that is being latched on to is panicking, then it is a real emergency. If you have prepared and have a fight kit handy, now is definitely the time to use it. If you do not, then you will have to think on your feet and use whatever means you can to get the latching dog to release the other dog. This is not going to be easy and may be unpleasant for the dog, but better that than a dead or seriously injured dog – sometimes, in very extreme circumstances, the ends may justify the means.
I would just like to let you know that thanks to their stellar bite inhibition and me acting quickly to separate my dogs using the wheelbarrow technique mentioned previously, both parties were fine, apart from having bruised egos!