The Safest Way to Break up a Dog Fight

Our instincts can fail us in these situations

March 5, 2018 (published)
Image courtesy of DepositPhotos

Dog parks often are often an arena where a dog fight can happen. I have seen many dog fight contenders in 20 years of ER medicine, and I’ve seen many people who were bitten while trying to break up a fight between two or more dogs.

Obviously, it’s not just dog parks that can serve as the boxing ring. Dog fights can break out at home, on a walk, or even in the lobby of a veterinary hospital.

Dogs can fight over anything, but resources, such as food, toys or attention from their humans, often serve as the trigger. I have three fairly placid dogs in my home (with maybe two neurons to share between them), but when two heads knock together near a food bowl meant for one, growls ensue and it has escalated to a minor skirmish a few times.

That word – escalate – is key when discussing dog fights. They don’t usually just start when someone rings a bell like a boxing match. In the world of dog behavior, there are often several steps that dogs go through before resorting to a fight. In dog society, dogs usually have to exhaust the diplomatic options before the fur starts flying, and knowing the early stages and intervening before the pugilism starts is key to avoiding danger.

Some early warning signs that a fight may be imminent:

  • Growling
  • Raising of the hackles
  • A wider-than-normal yawn
  • Flattening the ears
  • Keeping head turned away while following the other dog with their eyes, which usually exposes the whites of the eye.

Many of these cues are used by dogs to avoid a fight. If they can work out differences without resorting to a potentially dangerous fight, everybody wins. But sometimes the negotiations don’t go as planned and a fight ensues.

Preventing a dog fight is always better than breaking one up. Learn some cues, and pay attention to your dog when around other dogs, even familiar ones.

Some fights are mostly posturing and present little risk of harm. They are brief and one dog thinks “I’m not gonna win this – feet, do your duty!” and backs off. Luckily for my dogs, this is how the dog-bowl dustups end, and I’ve never had a serious fight.

But for a real fight, and especially when the combatants are of mismatched sizes (the dreaded big-dog-little-dog interactions that are seen daily in veterinary ERs), it is vitally important to separate them and get the little dog out of the situation.

Our instincts can fail us in these situations. We may think “Hey – I’m gonna pull my dog right the heck outta this!” and attempt to grab our dog by the scruff, or even worse by the head. Dogs engaged in a full-on dog fight are riding an adrenaline high and may take you for another attacker. Many owners sustain injuries from their own dogs, not the other guy’s. Don’t trust your own dog when they are engaged in a fight. They may be so enraged that they don’t recognize you. Life-altering injuries can happen in a heartbeat.

Everyone has their own idea of how to break up a dog fight; water from a hose or bucket, shouting, distraction, tree branches, dragging by the leash. While some of these may work depending on the situation, many have drawbacks.

While some people claim that it’s best to “let the dogs work it out themselves,” doing that requires people who can really read the nuances of dog behavior, like a behaviorist or dog trainer. It’s not a good idea for others.

So, what’s the best method?

Well, it involves a wheelbarrow.

Before you think I am espousing carting along an actual wheelbarrow on your jaunts with your dog, let me clarify.

Much like the various named moves used by professional wrestlers and luchadores[1] , the Wheelbarrow is a maneuver you can use to separate two dogs who have decided to take it outside and engage in some serious and dangerous action.

The bitey parts of a dog are located at the front end (except for that one nightmare I had where my dogs grew teeth in their butts). The Wheelbarrow involves the other end, which doesn’t bite. Stinks a bit at times, but can’t bite.

If faced with a pair of dogs really going at it, you grab one dog (preferably yours) by the haunches and literally drag them backwards out of the fight. You need to grab them high enough on the back legs that you've got a good grip and won't hurt them, but stay far enough away from teeth. The more you try to pry them of another dog, the more they clamp down. The technique only works if both dogs are wheelbarrowed at the same time. If you just pull one away it doesn’t work; you're just dragging the fight closer to yourself. You also have to continue walking the wheelbarrow away from the other dog until you can get your dog under control, or that adrenaline high will pull those dogs right back together like angry magnets.

This has the benefit of keeping your hands away from the bitey part, but it doesn’t come without risks. Remember – we are breaking up a fight, and if you engage, there’s always a risk to you. With the Wheelbarrow, we’re trying to mitigate the risk, but it’s still there. There’s a risk to your dog of a sprained hip or a wrenched back, and there’s a risk to you. A dog may turn on you, or even do such a good Cirque du Soleil impression that they can still bite. You have to get control and defuse the situation quickly, hopefully by getting both dogs the heck outta Dodge.

You can also use a leash, looped under the belly and in front of the hind legs to drag the dog backwards and out of the fight.

If your dog is wearing a leash at the time of the fight, you can try dragging them by that, but you risk both of you becoming entangled in the leash and more injuries.

A nudge to the ribcage (NOT a kick) can push a dog out of a fight, and has the advantage of preventing your hands from being involved. A bite to a shoe, while still painful, is far less likely to result in serious injury to you. Remember: no matter how much your blood is boiling, don’t kick either dog. This is just as likely to result in you becoming the new target as it is to stop the fight. Violence begets violence, so keep your head (and your fingers), and use non-violent methods to stop the fight.

If these more close-in methods don’t sit well with you, the next best way would be to try and distract the dogs with something like a hose, a bucket of water, or your travel cup of water. Some dogs are so committed to duking it out that this will do nothing but get them wet. You can use an air-horn if you happen to have one of those lying around. A product called Spray Shield consists of citronella spray packaged like mace; it’s buffered so it won’t hurt the dog’s eyes but it can be sprayed right in faces.

Shouting does nothing. A dog in a really bad fight is focused on one thing: winning. For all they know, your yelling is just you cheering them on. Save your energies for more effective things. A physical barrier, like a door or a sheet of plywood can also be used, depending on the location of the fight.

If your dog decides to tell another dog “Cash me outside” and gets into a tussle that’s serious, make sure you don’t get injured and use the Wheelbarrow. It’s really the safest way. But remember: dogs give us many signs that a fight is about to go down, so pay attention and know the cues. If you think some trouble is in store, get your dog and yourself out of the area.

Better to ruin a trip to the park than risking both of you ending up in the ER.


Dr. Jennings
October 7, 2018

Recommend carrying poop bags and an air horn is a great idea but can not recommend any ammonia or other caustic product to be sprayed at a pet or in the vicinity of people.

Michael Burns
March 5, 2018

I carry 3 things when I go to the dog park with my doxies. Poop bags of course, the other 2 things are an air horn (the kind used at sporting events) and a bottle of ammonia water. Usually the horn is startling enough that the dogs loose tract of what they were fighting about. At the very least it get the attention of the other owner. The ammonia water is very uncomfortable without any long term damage. It works for breaking dogs that like to chase cars too.

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