What Is the Best Way to Stop a Dog Fight?

Using the wrong method to break up a dogfight can be dangerous.

Posted Jun 15, 2016

Steve Baker Photo, Creative Commons License
Source: Steve Baker Photo, Creative Commons License

A few days ago in Surrey, British Columbia, four women received severe dog bite injuries requiring medical treatment. These injuries were sustained inside their home, while trying to stop a fight between three of their own dogs who were described as pit bulls. Since Surrey is only a short distance from Vancouver, where I live, I was not surprised when my mailbox lit up with requests for interviews and comments from the local media. I accepted a few of these and found that most of the interviewers obviously had an agenda.

Typically the interview would begin with something like this: "Dr. Coren, are these attacks more evidence that pit bulls are a dangerous breed of dog that should be banned?"

I found myself repeatedly saying something on the order of, "You shouldn't turn this into a pit bull issue—it's not a pit bull issue. The problem here is that there was a dog fight and the people who lived with the dogs didn't know how to deal with the problem. They acted instinctively, and they got themselves hurt. These kinds of injuries could have occurred if you were intervening in a dogfight between any large or strong breed of dog, even normally placid breeds like Labrador retrievers or Golden retrievers. If you try to intercede in a dogfight and you don't know what you're doing, you are most likely going to get hurt yourself. It has not been too many years since Queen Elizabeth had to have a number of stitches on her hand for injuries which resulted when she tried to break up the fight between two of her Corgis."

From the puzzled looks that I got from most of these interviewers it became clear that none of them had the faintest clue as to how you actually break up a dogfight. When I quizzed a couple of them, they seemed to feel that the best way was to shout "No!" at the fighters as loudly as possible and then grab the dogs by the collar and pull them apart. This is actually what is recommended by one popular TV dog "expert." It is also the worst thing that you can do, and it is exactly the behavior that got these women severely bitten. Yelling at the dogs often adds to the stress and arousal levels that led to the fight in the first place, and this can actually ratchet up the degree of aggression. Reaching into the battle, especially by placing your hand or body between the dogs, can result in injuries. These are often inflicted by your own dog. This is simply because the dogs are in what they interpret as a struggle for survival. If they see you at all, they will not process you as their loving family member, but just another aggressor who is entering the fray.

The first thing you have to do is to stay calm. Evaluate the situation and read what the dogs are saying. Generally speaking you can let loud dog arguments take care of themselves. If dogs are roaring and snarling at the tops of their lungs (especially if there are barks mixed into the sound array), it means that the dogs are basically "trash talking" to each other. The more flashy and noisy the argument is, the less likely you'll need to get involved. In most cases if you leave the dogs to their own devices they probably won't hurt each other, or at most will leave a few small punctures around the face, ears and neck. Such arguments might last only a minute or so from start to finish (although because your own adrenaline will be surging as you watch, it will certainly seem to be a lot longer). Once the dogs break off, they usually shake out their bodies and reconcile, or just attend to something else as though nothing had happened.

Serious dogfights are usually quiet, or the aggressor may be quiet while the victim dog screams. It is only a serious fight that may require your intervention. And it is in those situations that you are placing yourself in jeopardy, so think carefully before you act.

If you are outside, a jet of water from a garden hose has been shown to be an effective way to distract the dogs long enough so that you can get them under control. If you're in the house, a bucket or large pot of water can also be used although it is less effective. Don't worry about the mess; it's easier to clean up water than blood.

Don't waste your time screaming at the dogs. It hardly ever works. A truly loud sound, like that of an air horn, can sometimes bring the fight to a halt, but most of us don't wander around carrying air horns.

A number of dog trainers have suggested that shoving a board or sheet of plywood between the two dogs may help, but that seems incredibly difficult to me. Besides, unless the dogs have chosen to start the fight in your home workshop, where you going to find the board?

One method of physical intervention that does work is to use a blanket or sacrifice a jacket or a coat. If you toss it over the fighters—one over each works best—it will muffle the outside stimuli and cut off the sight of each dog's opponent, and thus reduce the arousal level. Because it provides a physical barrier as well as containment of the dog, the blanket will also cushion the effect of teeth on skin while the humans reach in and physically separate the dogs by picking up or moving away the wrapped combatants.

The safest way to break up a dogfight requires two people. Each person grabs the back feet of a dog and then lifts the dog up like a wheelbarrow, so that only the front legs are on the ground. (If you are desperate you can lift the dog by its tail, although that is less secure and may damage the dog's tail or bladder.) Both of you now pull the dogs apart. It is critical not to release the dogs at this point or the fight will begin again. It is also important to start turning in a circle or slowly swinging the dogs in a circle while you back away from the other dog. Remember you've metaphorically got a tiger by the tail, and you have to keep moving to keep the dog from curling and coming back and biting the person holding its legs. When you move or circle, the dog has to sidestep with its front feet or he will fall on his chin. If you slowly continue to back up and circle the dog can't do any damage to you. However to ensure that the fight will not begin all over again when you release the dogs, at least one of them needs to be dragged into an enclosure such as another room, a kennel, or a yard. If you don't do this, there is a high probability that the dog will either return to the fight or try to turn and attack the person who held its feet.

If you are by yourself, things get dicey. Sometimes, if one of the dogs is a clear aggressor and the other is clearly the victim, using the wheelbarrow lift that I described above on the aggressor can break up the fight long enough so that the underdog has a chance to run away. However if you can't determine that the scene will actually play out this way, your goal is still to break up the fight without getting hurt. So first get a leash (even if that means allowing the fight to continue while you were doing this). The dogs are almost always locked onto one another, so this gives you a chance to walk up and loop the leash around the lower hindquarters are of the dog that is on top. You do this by threading the leash through the handle. Now slowly back away while you drag the dog to a fence or some other secure object that you can tie the leash to. Your aim here is to effectively create an anchor for one of the dogs. Once that dog is anchored you can walk around and grab the back legs of the second dog (using the wheelbarrow technique) and pull it away from the dog that is tied up. Remember to back up and circle while you drag the dog into another room before you release its back legs. Then return to the dog that you've anchored to the fence and put him or her into another room.

Do not immediately try to check the dogs for injuries — they are too aroused at this point and may turn on you when you approach or touch them. Wait until they calm down (which also gives you a chance to sit down and take a stiff drink).

Remember that breaking up a serious dogfight can be dangerous. Also remember that most of the time dogs will come out of a dog argument often uninjured. That means that if you keep out of it, you will remain uninjured as well.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Gods, Ghosts and Black Dogs; The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

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