Honest-to-goodness dog fights that result in real damage are remarkably infrequent. This is mostly due to the ritualized body language dogs use to avoid conflict. Conflict is expensive, evolutionarily speaking. Why waste precious energy reserves on actions that can result in injuries, possibly death? Scuffles among dogs, however, are common. Scuffles are the less-serious spats and conflicts that might result in minor injuries like lost fur (and dignity), scrapes, or even a small puncture wound.
Ideally, you want to avoid both serious fights and scuffles. And being able to predict and prevent conflict is the best course of action; it’s a lot less stressful to prevent fights than to break them up. Prevention starts with understanding the things that generally lead to conflict, then knowing how to prevent those situations by being proactive. Here are some tips, along with what to do should a fight break out despite your care to avoid them.
Predicting Dog Fights
Fortunately, you don’t need a crystal ball to predict a dog fight. Here’s a list of things that often lead to spats between dogs:
- Rough play, particularly when it continues uninterrupted for more than a minute or two.
- Targeting behavior, in which a dog incessantly targets another dog for play even when that dog isn’t showing any interest or reciprocating the play behavior.
- Herding behavior.
- Stalking behavior.
- Excessive barking. Some dogs attempt to use barking to engage other dogs in play, but this behavior is often not appreciated.
- Failure to read another dog’s cut-off or fear signals.
- Stiff body posture.
- Locked gaze or holding eye contact for long periods of time.
- Growling, especially with escalation. Meaning a growl that starts quietly and builds into a louder and louder growl.
- Baring of teeth.
- The presence of coveted resources, particularly among resource guarders. The desirable objects can be anything from toys and tennis balls to food.
These are things you should keep your eyes peeled for. If you do, you’ll be more able to prevent fights from happening in the first place.
Preventing Dog Fights
Here are a number of things professional dog walkers can do to minimize the likelihood of conflict among dogs.
Careful screening and pack composition. One key way to prevent dog fights is to carefully choose the dogs you’re going to take out into public situations. This is particularly important when walking dogs in groups, especially if the dogs will be off leash and have the opportunity to interact with unknown dogs. Suffice it to say you shouldn’t be shy about reorganizing groups that have a poor dynamic. Separate resource guarders and dogs whose mismatched play styles make walks more difficult. You may even need to fire dogs who are causing more than their fair share of trouble. While it never feels good in the moment to do so, letting difficult dogs go ultimately makes your job more enjoyable and the daily routine less stressful on the remaining dogs.
Situational awareness. Being aware of the surrounding environment, including teaching yourself to scan for approaching dogs and potential resources (chicken bones, garbage, tennis balls, sticks, drinking puddles, etc.) will help you prevent scuffles among your canine charges.
Avoiding interactions with unknown dogs. The only way to be sure two dogs aren’t going to get into a fight is to not allow them to interact. And so even if the dogs you’re walking are approaching another dog giving all the right body language signals and the unknown dog looks downright friendly and receptive, you’re better off calling your dogs cheerfully to you and moving on. In most cases, the dogs would have greeted each other appropriately and would possibly even have had a nice play session. But the more conservative you are, the fewer scuffles you’ll see.
Remember you’re walking other people’s dogs and your job is to keep them safe, not provide them with scores of new canine friends. So whether you’re walking a group of dogs off leash or a single dog on leash, keep interactions limited to those between you and the dog(s) or between the dogs in the group.
Proactively Avoiding Dog Fights
Active management means you, the dog pro, being in the game, focused on the dogs in your care and managing the environment to the best of your ability to set your dogs up for success and keep them safe.
Establish the tone. By asking for some simple obedience behaviors at the outset of the walk to focus the dogs on you and requiring them to calm down and pay attention, you set the tone for the walk.
Build strong recalls. Strong recalls allow you to call dogs away from unknown dogs, potentially desirable resources, and out of amped up play before it tips over into argument.
Reward off-leash dogs for checking in. The closer your dogs are to you, the easier it is to monitor their behavior and keep them out of trouble.
Take frequent obedience breaks. Stop now and then to practice sits or touches or recalls so you can use these exercises to interrupt play sessions. Dogs are like kids in this respect. The longer the play continues, the more likely it is an argument breaks out. By calling dogs out of play every one to two minutes to practice a couple of obedience behaviors, give them a treat, and let them return to play, you keep the game from becoming too intense. Over time this routine teaches the dogs to self-regulate—dog walkers who consistently apply obedience breaks will notice the dogs begin to take play breaks on their own to check in with their walker for treats.
Apply time-outs for bullying, repeated harassment, excessive chasing, excessive barking, and humping. These behaviors often lead to scuffles, and consistent use of time-outs helps dogs learn more appropriate ways of playing with their buddies. Off leash dogs can be timed out by being put on leash. Already leashed dogs can be timed out by a moment or two of boring time standing still in one place.
Redirect dogs with difficult play styles to toys, more appropriate playmates, or other pursuits.
Interrupt stalking and herding behaviors by calling dogs to you and rewarding them for walking alongside you.
Interrupt before fights happen. Anytime you see anything you recognize as a predictor of a fight, whether it’s excessive chasing, two dogs circling each other with stiff body posture, or two dogs staring each other down, don’t wait to see if a conflict erupts. Proactively step in by cheerfully calling the dogs to you and redirecting their attention onto something else.
Breaking up fights
Again, prevention is always better. But when the worst happens, the first thing to remember is: Never grab a dog’s collar. You are likely to make the situation worse by heightening the tension and removing flight from the fight-or-flight menu. It’s also an excellent way to get bitten, as it’s common for dogs in the midst of a fight to turn and redirect their bite onto the person who grabbed their collar.
Instead of touching either dog, attempt to break up the fight by startling the dogs. By far the best way to do this is using a startling sound. A sharp hand clap can work in small scuffles. For more serious dog fights, you’ll need something much louder, like a shrill whistle or air horn. You can buy air horns at party stores. If you carry an air horn, remember it will be of more use to you if it’s attached to your belt or in another easy and quick-to-grab location. An air horn at the bottom of a backpack does you no good when fur is flying.
Another option is spraying the dogs with water, such as squirting them in the face with your water bottle. If you have neither noise nor water, you can try tossing an article of clothing like your jacket over their heads or using citronella or pepper spray. We don’t generally recommend the latter as a first recourse, as these irritants can get in the eyes of both the aggressor and the aggressed-upon, as well as the eyes of other dogs in the area and yours.
If it’s absolutely necessary to remove the dogs from each other with physical force, your best option is to grab the dog who appears to be the aggressor by the tail or hind legs and lift swiftly backward and up into the air. But please note that you do risk being bitten by taking this course of action.
Fortunately, the vast majority of dog fights are easily broken up with a loud noise.
After a fight
Once the dogs are separated, immediately step in to keep them apart and occupy them with other things. Don’t let them interact again that day. Put the aggressor on leash if he isn’t already, and if it was more than a mild scuffle, take the dogs home.
Adrenaline continues to be produced in a dog’s body for 10 to 15 minutes after a fight is over and it can take the body three to six days to reabsorb these stress hormones, depending on how agitated the dog was. For this reason, it’s best to leave dogs who have been in a fight home for a day or two, as they will be more likely than usual to get into new scuffles until their adrenaline levels drop again.