A dog fight is one of the most frightening things a dog owner can witness. Many owners have trouble determining when a dog fight is beginning and how to tell the difference between playing and fighting. It can also be difficult to know when to step in and stop the interaction between dogs. Knowing how to prevent dog fights in the first place is one of the most important things for dog owners to understand.
Understand Dog Play Versus Fighting
Dog play mimics fighting and can sometimes look rougher than it really is. Any play session can escalate to a fight, but it is less likely when there are two well-socialized dogs playing. Adding a third dog (or more) into the mix increases the likelihood of fighting because multiple dogs may gang up on one dog. If one or more dogs is not well-socialized or has a history of aggression towards dogs, a fight is even more likely to develop.
It can be difficult for the untrained eye to determine when play turns to fighting. A good understanding of canine body language is essential while supervising dog play. Most dog play begins with the "play bow." During a play bow, a dog "bows" with his front legs and chest close to the ground while the back legs are straight and the rump is in the air. This is an invitation to play. Vocalization can be a normal part of dog play and should not be confused with aggression. In fact, the worst dogs fights don't tend to be as loud as some heavy play sessions. Playing dogs are loose and flowing. They switch places as bottom and top dog. They usually respond to sights and sounds around them (or notice but purposely ignore them). They bite each other around the neck and head but do not break skin. When dogs begin to fight, they tighten up and become more focused (even obsessed with one another). The posture becomes rigid and one or both dogs will stand as if trying to appear larger. Sometimes, one dog will be acting more as the aggressor and the other will be pinned down much of the time. As the fight escalates, the dogs may begin to bite hard enough to create bleeding wounds.
Why Dogs Fight
There are so many reasons that a fight may break out among dogs. Play gone too far is just one scenario. When one dog suddenly attacks another, there may be a variety of causes. The attack is sometimes over food, toys or territory. Sometimes, it is a case of redirected aggression (one dog senses a threat and attacks the other dog because he cannot get to the threat). These situations commonly occur in multi-dog households. Two dogs may be the best of friends until something sets one dog off and instinct takes over. Alternatively, two dogs living in the same home may not get along well in general. This situation is like a ticking time bomb. It may take only the slightest issue to set one of the dogs off. Also, two dogs may fight over attention from their owner or in an effort to protect an owner.
Be aware that fights are more common when there are more than two dogs present. Also, two dogs of the same sex are more likely to fight with one another (this mainly applies to dogs that are not spayed/neutered). Finally, any dog that is poorly socialized is more likely to start a fight.
Preventing Dog Fights
Learning how to keep a dog fight from happening in the first place is one of the best things you can do for you and your dog. Understanding the signs of an oncoming dog fight as well as the potential triggers will help you prevent a fight. If you know your dogs are possessive over food, toys or territory, you should separate them when these triggers are present. For dogs that overreact when animals or people walk by the property, it may help to set up visual barriers to your home. Dogs that get anxious when the doorbell rings may benefit from desensitization training. If you have two dogs in a household that are prone to fighting, it is best to keep them separated until you can work with the situation. Some dogs can learn to get along through training and behavior modification. Ideally, you will consult a professional trainer or behaviorist for help in this situation. In some of the more difficult cases, the best thing is to find a good home for one or both of the dogs (typically a single pet household).
To prevent play sessions from escalating to fights, it is essential that your dog have a strong foundation of training and socialization before you allow him to play off-leash with other dogs. You should be able to call your dog away from other dogs and be sure he will listen. This way, if things start to get heated, you will have a better chance of stopping a fight before it really starts.
Go to dog parks at your own risk. Unfortunately, there is no way to know the temperament of the other dogs at the dog park on any given day unless you already know the dogs and their owners. Pretty much anyone can go to the dog park with just about any dog. If your dog is well-trained/socialized and needs the exercise of a dog park, it is best to go during off-peak times. Never take your eyes off your dog. Pay close attention to the body language of each dog that engages with your dog. Leave the park if there are other dogs acting inappropriately.
When to Intervene in a Dog Fight
Hopefully, you will be able to see a fight breaking out before either dog draws blood. In some cases (especially those involving two well-socialized dogs) a fight will be self-limiting. The dogs will "duke it out" until one or both back away and "shake it off." In some cases, human intervention can fuel the fire and it is best to let it fizzle out. If a play session seems to be getting too rough, start by calling your dog in an upbeat, relaxed tone. A well-trained dog should respond to you and heed your command. This is probably a good time to take a break. Note: a dog without a reliable recall should not be allowed to play off-leash with other dogs. You may also try your emergency recall. If your dog will not respond, things are likely getting more serious. Know that shouting, screaming, hitting and kicking dogs usually ignites their rage towards one another. If two dogs seem to be truly fighting for more than 30-60 seconds and it seems to be getting really serious, it may be time to physically intervene. Learn how to break up a dog fight in case the need arises.