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Two Australian Cattle Dogs playing outdoors.

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Dog fights are intense, dangerous, and scary. And when your beloved pet is involved, your instinct will be to step into the line of fire to rescue them. It’s essential for your own safety and that of your dog that you know how to correctly recognize and break up a dog fight.

Why Do Dogs Fight?

Dogs fight for many reasons including resource guarding of territory, toys, or food. Or they might react out of fear. Some dogs go on the offensive when they feel threatened hoping to scare the other dog away. Frustration can also lead to aggressive behavior, especially in a dog who has not learned emotional self-control. And a dog can also be pushed too far past their point of tolerance. This can be the case with a reactive dog who is overwhelmed by certain triggers, or a dog who is in pain and therefore lacks patience.

How to Tell a Dog Fight From Rough Play

Dogs play to rehearse more serious behaviors, and many of their games can look aggressive with body slams and throat bites. Plus, many dogs play growl which can make the activity seem even more vicious. So, how do you know the difference between roughhouse wrestling and a dog fight? A close look at the dogs’ body language and behavior should help you decide. Here are some things to look for:

  • Are they relaxed and floppy or tense and stiff? Dogs at play will have a looseness about them.
  • Are their mouths hanging open or are their lips tight or snarling? Dogs use a wide-open play face to show the other dog they mean no harm.
  • Does the action start with a play bow (the dog’s front end goes down to the ground while the rear end stays up)? This gesture signals that everything to follow is all in good fun.
  • Are the dogs taking turns doing the chasing, slamming, and biting? During play, dogs will alternate being the mock aggressor.
  • Do they bounce around with big movements? Dog fights are efficient with fast movements, not the exaggerated gestures of play.
Black Russian Terrier playing outdoors.
©Grigorita Ko -

Prevention is the Best Policy

Because there are so many causes and because the consequences of a dog fight can be so severe, the best approach is prevention. Learn how to read dog body language and understand your dog’s signs of stress. Anytime you see that your dog is approaching the edge of their comfort zone, intervene and remove them from the situation. You want to predict a fight before it occurs rather than waiting until it’s too late.

The following list of possible signals will help you recognize when your dog is stressed:

  • Vocalizing. Your dog might growl, whine, or bark.
  • Tucking the tail.
  • Flattening the ears back against the head.
  • Showing whale eye. This is when you can see the whites of your dog’s eyes.
  • Lip licking and/or panting.
  • Yawning.
  • Excessive sniffing. This can be a displacement behavior to avoid confronting the source of the stress.
  • Pacing.

Also be aware of signs of aggressive intent, both in your dog and in those you encounter. For example, a hard stare is a threat in dog language. A dog who is guarding something will often lower their head below their shoulders and stretch their neck forward. Raised hackles are another common sign where the hair on the dog’s back will stand up. Freezing or sudden stillness often precedes an attack. And don’t be fooled by a wagging tail. Although an aggressive dog will often have a stiff or straight tail, wagging just the tip, or short, sharp wags can be a threat gesture as well.

How to Break up a Dog Fight

Even with the best prevention strategy, your dog could still be involved in a dog fight. And intervening can literally be a matter of life and death for your dog. But how can you safely break up a dog fight? First, never put yourself at risk. It’s instinct to jump into the fray, grabbing the other dog or sticking your hands near their mouth. But even your own dog won’t recognize friend versus foe in the heat of the moment. You could suffer serious injuries as a result and still not break up the fight. Plus, if you’re injured, who will be there to care for your dog?

Instead, here are several methods for breaking up a dog fight that will help keep you safe while hopefully diffusing the situation between the combatants:

  1. Distract the dogs. Anything that diverts their attention can potentially allow your dog to escape or you to safely pull your dog away. Try a loud noise like blowing an air horn or banging metal pot lids together. Soak the dogs. Either spray them with a powerful hose or dump a bucket of water on their heads. Throw a blanket or jacket over each dog so they can no longer see each other. Or spray the dogs’ faces with citronella spray, lemon juice spray, or a vinegar spray.
  2. Use an object to separate the dogs. Be certain to keep your hands and face as far from the dogs’ mouths as possible. Options include a metal garbage can lid, a piece of plywood, a baby gate, a chair, or a large push broom. Depending on their size, you can also try to get each dog in a laundry basket or other enclosure you can drop from above.
  3. Physically separate the dogs. This should be your last resort as it puts you at the most risk. If there are other people to help you, you can use the wheelbarrow technique. One person is assigned to each dog involved and approaches that dog from behind. Then grab each dog by the hind legs and lift them so they are balancing on their front legs like a wheelbarrow. Then walk the dogs backwards, away from each other and into separate areas. Keep moving until the dogs are apart to prevent your dog from turning back and biting you.

Hopefully, you and your dog will never find yourselves in this situation. But if you do, get your dog to a veterinarian immediately for assessment and consult an animal behaviorist to ensure there are no long-lasting psychological effects for your dog.

Related article: How to Set Up a Puppy Playdate
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