Yes, There Is A Smart Way To Break Up A Dog Fight

As a former animal control officer, I have seen my share of dogs fighting. I'm not talking about dogfighting in the Michael Vick sense. A fight can break out between dogs at any time and over many things.

It's not uncommon to see a sudden fight break out between two dogs while introducing them to one another. Dogs scuffle over food or toys or when one of them isn't feeling well and gets bothered by the other dog. It can happen at the dog park or while you're walking down the street with your dog leashed. Your dog may even redirect on one of his housemates if another dog is walking outside of your fence and gets him upset.

These are scary scenarios but it's important to remember if your dog is involved in a fight, it doesn't make him a bad dog.

Dogs don't usually go straight for a fight, but will give each other warning signs first. The best outcome is for them to work out their troubles and retreat before getting too aggressive. Dogs don't naturally resolve their issues by immediately fighting. Their ancestors, wolves, don't walk around all day looking to fight. It is a last resort and often lasts only moments, until one animal gets the message and agrees to back off. Not every physical interaction between dogs is indicative of them fighting. Dog play can look just as intimidating.

Former shelter dogs Macy and Kora spent a lot of time playing with each other. Although they look fierce in this photo, they were truly enjoying their play date.Julie LeRoy

Former shelter dogs Macy and Kora spent a lot of time playing with each other. Although they look fierce in this photo, they were truly enjoying their play date. | Julie LeRoy

When dogs do resort to fighting, it's a scary thing and it's even scarier when you realize you have to intervene. The most important goal of breaking up a dog fight is maintaining your safety because you're not going to be helpful if you get hurt. Trying to pull your dog away by the collar will surely result in your getting bitten if the dogs are really going at it. They are in fight mode and may not even know they have bitten you. And it can happen to anyone.

Consider Olympic gold medal skier Lindsey Vonn. She recently posted photos of injuries she received to her hand trying to break up a fight her dogs were having over a frisbee.

Again, it doesn't mean your dog has become bad and you can no longer handle him. It's emotionally draining to see your dogs fight, and I've seen people turn off from the love they once had for their dogs because of it. But there are methods experts and shelter managers recommend for breaking up fights as quickly and safely and possible. Our first reaction is to get right into the middle of the fight, but as you will read below, we are better off getting behind the fighting pair.

Grabbing a dog by his collar to break up a fight can result in your getting

Grabbing a dog by his collar to break up a fight can result in your getting bitten. |

The method I'm addressing below is to be used when the dogs are fully engaged and no longer responding to verbal communication. Some of the other methods people use are squirt bottles, cans with coins taped inside, air horns and hoses - and while they may be effective at the initial onset of the fight, they are not as effective as human intervention if the dogs don't immediately back off.

If two dogs are clearly engaged into a fight, the situation has escalated to a point where physical intervention is necessary.

Ideally, a dog fight should be broken up by two people. A method called "the wheelbarrow" is the safest one to use. Each person grabs a dog's back feet and lifts them off the ground. After a moment, the dogs should disengage and each person must pull their dog by his back legs away from the other. It is crucial to separate them immediately to allow for recovery time.

Demonstration of the wheelbarrow

Demonstration of the wheelbarrow method |

Breaking up a dog fight when you're alone is much more difficult and daunting. It takes speed and swift movement and lots of adrenaline. Again, the goal is to break up the fight without getting hurt. If you can manage to stay calm and focus on the task on hand, you should be able to succeed before any real damage is done.

I can tell you screaming at the dogs to stop will only result in you having a sore throat. Remember that they are only focused on the fight, and like a boxer responding to the bell, they can't focus on what's happening around them. You'll need to grab a leash. Slide one end of the leash into the looped end and slip it under the dog's belly, towards the groin, creating a sling. Like the wheelbarrow, lift the dog and give a moment to allow the dogs to disengage - and very quickly but calmly, direct the dog away, preferably to another room or behind a fence. If the other dog is still coming for the anchored dog, step around to the rear of loose dog and use the wheelbarrow method to steer that dog in the opposite direction. The wheelbarrow is helpful in keeping your hands and arms away from their mouths, but still be aware of their heads. A highly stimulated dog may attempt to redirect on you.

It's important to note that if your dog is on leash and he gets into a fight with a dog off-leash, drop the leash before you or the dog become tangled in it. If two leashed dogs get into a fight, drop the leashes and use the wheelbarrow method. I've seen more damage caused by two owners yanking their dogs apart by the leash.

Prevention is of course the best way to never have to experience breaking up a dog fight.

People tend to miss the warning signs and often say a bite was unprovoked. I personally feel there is no such thing as an unprovoked bite - something stimulated the dog, causing her to react.

Puppies learn how to communicate with each other from their elders and more experienced dogs.Julie LeRoy

Puppies learn how to communicate with each other from their elders and more experienced dogs. | Julie LeRoy

What are the warning signs? We often mistake dog's body language as mimicking our own. A dog who is giving what appears to be a wide smile may actually be panting and fearful. And a fearful dog cowering and looking away is not looking for a big body hug. He's trying to make himself invisible. A dog will lick his lips when he's nervous. An exaggerated yawn is also a sign of stress. He will turn away from you and flatten his ears. The dog's tail may flicker or flag and stand straight out or tucked. One of the final signs you will see in a dog who is on the threshold of reacting is the "whale eye." The dog will turn his head away from the perceived threat while keeping an eye on it, exposing the whites of his eyes. At that point, things are going to escalate and you should remove yourself or the other dog from the situation promptly.

An example of "whale eye"

An example of "whale eye" |

The only time I was bitten when I was an animal control officer was when I let my guard down. I had a call to vaccinate a dog and I'd been to the owner's house several times previously to deal with her issues. It was the end of the day and I wanted to go home. The dog exhibited every warning sign that he was uncomfortable with me. I ignored him and while he was on leash, he jumped up and grabbed my arm. I froze. I failed to lean into his mouth, which is a way to break the pressure and can cause a dog to let go. His owner was yanking back on the leash trying to pull him off, which caused him to get even more pissed off and clamp down harder. The bite lasted forever in my mind and resulted in stitches and a scar I still have five years later. I did everything wrong in that scenario and I could have avoided my injury by looking for the warning signs.

Dogs will communicate these signs to humans and other animals. Whether you are introducing a new dog to your dog or just looking to enjoy some time at the dog park, be aware that an interaction can change from positive to negative in a heartbeat. This doesn't mean you should be paranoid or avoid allowing your dog to interact with other dogs, if he is well socialized. It means you need to be responsible for your dog and yourself.

My dog Cuda enjoying some snow time play with her neighbor TessJulie LeRoy

My dog Cuda enjoying some snow time play with her neighbor Tess | Julie LeRoy

Many people want their dog to meet Cuda, my 5-year-old Staffordshire bull terrier, even though I explain she doesn't always respond favorably to dogs she doesn't know. That doesn't mean she gets physical; I just don't wait for the point to see if it will. When the other person responds that their dog is fine with other dogs and won't do anything, I commend them but that doesn't mean I don't keep my guard up. I don't want to set up any dog for failure and I certainly don't want to break up any more dog fights. You should never have to, either.