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Safety First: How to Break Up a Dog Fight

Ren Volpe, April 1 2022
Two dogs play fighting in a park
Two dogs play fighting, photo by Jess

Witnessing a dog fight is frightening. If your dog is involved, it can be downright terrifying. Unfortunately, when trying to stop a dog fight, our first impulses can often make things worse, and you risk getting bitten. So knowing how to stop a dog fight without putting yourself in harm's way is crucial.

Whether interrupting a scuffle or trying to stop a full-on brawl, here are ways to identify and interrupt a potential dog fight, along with techniques and tools to separate dogs if they are already going at it.

Preventing Dog Fights

Although altercations can happen very quickly, there are almost always warning signs. Understanding canine body language and recognizing the potential for conflict can prevent a fight before it happens.

All greetings with unknown dogs should be monitored, even if your dog is friendly and has never gotten into a fight before. Teach your dog to approach new dogs slowly and do not allow them to run up and greet any dog on a leash. Also, avoid leashed greetings when one or both dogs are on a leash. A leashed dog cannot choose to retreat if they don't want to interact; the inability to escape or create distance can put any dog on the offensive.

Always supervise play between dogs. Your dog might be an angel, but you still need to interrupt inappropriate play and call your dog before it goes bad. The free-for-all at dog parks can be stressful for many dogs, so opting for a long hike will keep everyone happier.

Know your dog's triggers, and don't put them in situations that make them uncomfortable. If your dog is not good with sharing, leave the balls and toys at home. Passing other dogs in tight quarters like narrow sidewalks, elevators, or hallways, especially when on a leash, are prime opportunities for a scuffle. Dogs can be like middle schoolers at recess ("fight, fight, fight!") so I've taught my dogs that whenever they see or hear a dog skirmish, they should run to me for a treat party rather than join in.

If you are struggling with overexuberant greetings, recall, resource guarding, or leash frustration (whining, pulling, lunging, or barking when your dog cannot greet another dog), get help from a force-free trainer or behavior consultant. But whether you choose to get professional help or not, please be aware of the following signs in your dog or other dogs they may encounter.

Signs that a Dog is Anxious or Uncomfortable:
  • Lip licking or tongue flicking when no food is present
  • Yawning when not tired
  • Whale eye (showing the whites of their eyes)
  • Tucked tail
  • Shifting body weight back or turning head away when another dog approaches
  • Hiding between your legs, retreating, backing away
  • Sniffing the ground, scratching ("I'm not a threat, don't look at me")
Warning Signs that a Dog Greeting or Interaction May Turn into a Fight:
  • Body posturing: moving very slowly, freezing, on tippy toes
  • Eyes: hard and direct staring
  • Mouth: lip curling, baring teeth, growling
  • Tail: stiff and straight "flag-pole" tail position or short and fast wagging tail
  • Ears: either stiff and standing straight up or pinned back
  • Fur: hackles up along the dog's neck and back
  • Teeing off: standing perpendicular (like the letter "T") to the other dog and placing their chin or paw over the other dog's shoulder
  • Mounting or humping.

If you see any of these behaviors, calmly intervene and separate both dogs before it escalates into a fight.

What Not to Do

Some of the things humans do to stop a dog fight, like shouting and hitting, can further agitate the dogs involved. In fact, dog owners are frequently bitten when trying to break up a fight, with the redirected aggression sometimes coming from their own dog in the heat of the moment.

If a fight has already begun:

  • Do not grab either dog's collar or harness.
  • Do not kick, hit, or punch.
  • Do not grab either dog by the tail.
  • Never put your hands near either dog's mouth.
  • Do not place your body between two fighting dogs.
  • Never dangle a small dog in the air. This may cause the other dog to jump and bite at you.
  • Pepper spray is effective, but it can cause burns, and you may accidentally spray yourself or another person or dog, especially if it's windy. There are safer alternatives, such as Pet Corrector.
How to Break Up a Dog Fight

Dog fights are often scary and loud, but you typically have a little more time than you think. The safest methods for breaking up a dog fight involve a hands-off approach to avoid being bitten. Here are some of the most effective methods.

Use Water

Use a hose, water dish, or water bottle to startle and separate the dogs. Direct the water at the aggressor. I once stopped a dog fight with a bottle of Coke. Yeah, they needed a bath, but no one was hurt.

Block the Dog's View

Use a jacket, towel, or blanket and throw it over the head of the aggressor. Most dogs will stop fighting as they become disoriented and cannot see the other dog. Separate them immediately after.

Separate with a Barrier

Find a trash can lid, a chair, a piece of wood, an open umbrella, or even a backpack or briefcase and use it as a barrier between the fighting dogs. Take care to keep your hands away.

Use Noise

Yelling, especially high-pitched shouting, is likely to add chaos to the scene. Instead, a loud, sharp noise will startle both dogs long enough to separate them. A can of Pet Corrector or a pressurized air horn are two good choices. I prefer carrying a marine horn (the kind you blow into) because it's smaller, and there is no chance of running out of air. These noisemakers can also be used for hazing coyotes or mountain lions. However, be aware that unexpected loud noises carry the risk that your dog may become so startled that they run away from both the fight and from you. With some time and effort, you can use a desensitization protocol for a specific noise so that your dog is less apt to startle and run off.

Try the Wheelbarrow

This popular technique should be a last resort as either dog may turn around and redirect a bite to you. Ideally, this requires two people working together. Each person grabs one of the dogs by the hind paws and lifts their back end into the air. The fighting dogs will be surprised and caught off-balance, giving you time to separate them. If you’re alone, wheelbarrow the aggressor by threading a leash through the dog’s hind end and lift it. You can then clip the leash to a tree or pole if possible. If one dog has latched on, push the aggressor into the dog that is being bitten; this may sound counterintuitive, but it is better than risking a tear.

Your dog is not a bad dog because they got into a fight. They are not a bad dog even if they instigated the fight. Like people, your dog won’t like every dog they meet and conflicts may arise. Put some forethought and planning into your outings and set your dog up for success by removing them from uncomfortable situations. With careful observation of your canine pal’s behavior, most dog fights can be avoided.

About the author:
Ren Volpe is a Professional Dog Trainer and a Certified Behavior Consultant. She is also the crazy dog lady behind GoDogPro, a new online service that matches dog owners with force-free dog professionals godogpro.com