==> How to break up a dog fight?

Yes, YOU will experience several too [sorry]

How to Stop a Dog Fight

Sometimes Dog Play (the last four Periodicals) turns into a dog fight, hence this Periodical nicely continues where our small dog play series ended.

For two reasons (which I detail below) I chose to show you the following video first:

First reason: As dog owner it is essential that we can differentiate between a dog fight and dog play.

> If we can't, we deprive the dog of play sessions that are essential for the dog's socialization, namely to prevent dog behavior problems.

Second reason: As dog owner it is helpful to know why dogs fight.

> If we don't, we cannot prevent dog fights. While some dog fights unavoidably happen out of the blue, many dog fights are preventable when we know what is causing dog fights.

Why dogs fight

The most common reasons why dogs fight:

  1. One of the dogs is stressed, such that the dog is dominant or aggressive* - or appears too dominant or aggressive to the other dog(s)
  2. One of the dogs is not properly socialised, such that the dog's body language is atypical - or that the dog misinterprets the other dog's body language
  3. One of the dogs claims a territory, possession, or pack member - or appears to claim it.
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It seems that this is the very order of what causes a dog fight: Most common seems to be that at least one of the dogs is overly stressed. And then typically because the owner's behavior doesn't allow the dog "to switch off", to find peace - eg from the conflict experienced in the Pack, or from not having a dedicated resting place in every room where the dog owner lingers.

* Note that dominant dog behavior often is an early indicator of subsequent aggression. Dogs seem to sense this development too: We can observe that most dogs will just stand still or try to avoid an overly dominant dog: they don't want to play with that kind of dog. Presumably, because they fear that the dominance may turn to aggression.

When you watch the above video the second time, notice that the Doberman clearly is the dominant dog here - and that the Shepherd mix is the calmer dog and repeatedly alternates between both exit strategies to end the Doberman's rough play:

  • standing still and trying to avoid the Doberman
  • restraining the Doberman.

People do the same: When we feel during Play that one person is too dominant or too rough, we normally try to avoid that person - and when we are unsuccessful, at some point we will explode (I certainly do). Very few people continually put up with a dominant person. No different with dogs.

Conclusion from the first point:

  1. Aim to avoid the Pack conflict experienced by your dog, so that the dog is not permanently stressed.
  2. Give your dog (and all the more the puppy) plenty of opportunities to socialize with other dogs, small and large.
  3. Be careful or at least intervene early when your dog plays with another dog on one dog's premises, with one dog's toy, or close to one dog owner.

Why all this effort to prevent a dog fight?

Obviously because a stitch in time saves nine. We'll add to this in the next two Periodicals.

What is play - What is fight?

The other reason why I chose the above video: We must be able to differentiate what is a dog fight and what is dog play. Can you?

The above video shows nothing but dog play. You may be wondering: "How do you know when it sounds and looks rough that it is still Play?" - and hence that in such case you really shouldn't intervene!

Easy-to-see signs are the core components of Play that you've seen in How to Play with Your Dog. Particularly look out for these three Play signals:

  • Communication (signaling)
  • Fairness (self-handicapping)
  • Reciprocation (role reversal)
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When you subsequently watch the video for the third time (yes!), notice how both the Doberman and the Shepherd:

  • use their body language for a lot of signaling to communicate their continuing intent of Play
  • show fairness, eg they clearly self-handicap their bite force
  • frequently reverse dominant and submissive roles (eg lying down)

Dog fight?

Particularly with dogs of similar strength, dog play can often look and sound like a dog fight. Then the above play signals of the core components of Play allow us to determine whether we have a dog fight or not. If one of the dogs does not show these play signals (one is enough), then we have a dog fight - and we may choose to intervene as discussed below.

The person who shot the above video did not intervene either. Presumably not to show us a bloody "dog fight" (I assume he used the keyword only to get more viewing hits), but because he seems to know that the Doberman and the Shepherd mix are really just playing!

Clearly visible also is the Doberman's body language at the end when the owner calls it a day because thunder rolls in: The Doberman needs to shake off his rough 'Play mindset' to be able to focus again on reality (that the Pack leader called off the play) - while the Shepherd mix doesn't feel the need to shake off anything, she was rather relaxed all the time! This is typical for Belgian Shepherds - more than for German Shepherds.

So, a lot that appears to us human onlookers to be a dog fight actually is nothing but the natural way for dogs to play. Most dogs (including tiny toy breeds!) like to play rough at times: They employ a lot of barking, growling, nipping, pushing, pulling, wrestling, and conquering. They learned this during Litter Socialization when they were 'fighting' for their mum's best spot and attention.

What to do when dogs fight

The above makes clear: First, remain calm and quietly watch for a few seconds. If there is a lot of signaling with accentuated body language involved, and both dogs clearly limit themselves and alternate their roles during play, then what you see is play, not a dog fight. Don't even think to intervene!

Because it would be detrimental to your dog's development and to your dog-human relationship if you broke up dog play. Don't spoil the party just because you can't join it.

Next: If after a few seconds you are sure:

  • that one of the dogs permanently tries to get away but the other dog(s) don't let him/her get away
  • or that one of the dogs doesn't appear to limit its bite force
  • or that the dogs don't swap dominant and submissive roles every few seconds
  • or that your dog appears fearful (for your own dog you will hopefully know the respective dog body language, for other dog(s) you may not always)

then it is humane to consider intervention in the canine controversy. ;-)

This is to prevent harm to one of the dogs - often more psychological harm than physical harm. You don't want for either of the dogs to end up with a trauma: dog fight traumas, like human abuse traumas, are hard to heal!

How to stop a dog fight

If you deem intervention necessary or appropriate, first recall these factors:

  1. If one of the dogs is of the Pitbull class (Pit bull terrier, Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier, or Bulldog) or a Presa Canario, Cane Corso, Dogo Argentino, Fila Brasileiro, Presa Mallorquin, Tosa Inu, or Wolf Hybrid (or a similar dog breed/mix), you stand little chance to break up the dog fight without significant injury to yourself!

    You can picture yourself as a hero while you watch action movies or conquer the last seat on a packed bus, but better don't aim to be the hero during a dog fight involving these breeds. Because Pitbulls & Co have it that they do not let go (you or your dog). They bite and hold and pursue. More on dog bite styles and dog fight styles in the next Periodical.

    If you don't believe your insignificant chance to stop a dog fight involving these breeds, you may want to study this major Pitbull site. Thereafter you may not want to intervene at all, regardless whether you deem it appropriate or even necessary - because you wouldn't be the first person to be mauled by a dog!

  2. If the other dog is considerably smaller than your dog, and if you have behavior-trained your own dog?!? (because obedience-trained dogs rarely leave a dog fight on command!), then you stand a good chance to stop the dog fight without significant injury to yourself or to your dog:

    Walk away and call your dog to you (and, as always, then provide a GREAT experience). Now the other dog owner will hopefully be able to hold on to his/her smallish dog - and even if the owner is not present, a considerably smaller dog will rarely follow a large dog for more than a couple of meters ("to save face").

  3. However, if one or more of the other dogs are of similar size and strength to your dog (and if the other dog owner is not helpful or not present!?), then - regardless how well-trained your own dog is - the other dog is likely to come after yours when you call (behavior-trained) or pull (obedience-trained) your dog away.

    Thus, in this case you may need to (and want to?) break up the dog fight in the customary sense of the word.

    Now what's that supposed to mean?

How to break up a dog fight

[wpsharely id="4431"]

After your first-few-seconds of calm watching (however calm you can be when your dog is in a fight!?), and after recalling the three factors above, now you can consider practical steps how to break up the dog fight, eg:

  • how physically fit and dog-fight experienced are you?
  • are other people present to help?
  • do all involved dogs wear a collar?
  • do you have at hand a leash that becomes a 'dog parking lot' with a single quick hand movement?
  • do you have an umbrella, handbag or other bag?
  • do you have a blanket, scarf, hair-band, bandana, coat or suit at hand?
  • do you have a garden hose, tree-branch, bicycle or other equipment?
  • do you have a break stick, panic alarm, or taser with you?
  • do you carry citronella spray or pepper spray?

Remember, if one of the fighting dogs is a Pitbull, Mr Pitbull says none of the above will work - except: the break stick (if you can and dare to get it between the dog's molar teeth?), the taser (if you get a licence and/or a good shot?), and possibly (sometimes) a strong pepper spray (if you don't get it in your own eyes!). :-(

What the heck is a break stick??

How to use a break stick

Note in particular the following points from this Rambo III trailer:

  • The aggressor in the "dog fight" wears a collar (hurray!)
  • The owner has a leash at hand (helpful!)
  • The owner seems physically fit and dog-fight experienced (are you?)
  • The dog rather is a well-trained 'weakling' than an aggressive dog

Plus these points - but only if your initial calm observation confirmed that you are dealing with a dog of the breeds mentioned above - which hold the bite:

  • Get the dog's body firmly between your legs and stand firmly
  • Pull the collar rather up than pulling backwards
  • Use your preferred hand to twist the break stick between the dog's molar teeth while your other arm's elbow secures the dog's head just behind the back of the jawbone (ie do not put your hand under the dog's mouth like Rambo does).
  • And keep holding the break stick between the dog's molar teeth and your elbow just behind the back of the jawbone - or the dog's teeth may hold your own flesh next!

However, if your initial calm observation confirmed that you are dealing with any other breed or mix of dog - which continually reposition the bite! - then don't do anything that Rambo does above - or you'll likely contract severe bite wounds!

How to control 'reflex biters'

In that case (thus incl. if the other dog is a German Shepherd), your best bet to safely break up the dog fight is to do what Rambo in the above video doesn't want to be done to his 'puppy':

Approach the aggressor in a swift movement from behind just the moment when the dog releases one of its many bites, and pull the dog's hind legs up in the air while walking backwards to a safe enclosure and while slowly rotating around your own axis! I don't think Doggy Dan has a video showing this, but I have seen it safely done by a (strong enough) man, and it was his only chance to prevent being bitten by an incessantly wriggling and exceptionally aggressive dog.

Why the only chance? Because he didn't have - and likely you won't have - a taser, panic alarm or pepper spray at hand when the dog fight suddenly breaks out! - Few ladies (and men) hide these remedies in their slip when they take the dog to the beach. ;-)

Mildly aggressive dogs?

If only mildly aggressive dogs are involved, I would advise against the use of anything that harms the dog permanently, even if that's your only remedy at hand: eg the panic alarm destroys the dog's hearing (and probably your own as well), and the pepper spray destroys the dog's eyesight (and depending on wind direction possibly your own as well).

How do you know if the fighting dogs are mildly aggressive or very aggressive?

See step 1: initial calm and quiet watching! An angry dog, a threatened dog, and a defensive dog soon releases the bite and pauses momentarily, and you see the dog reassessing its situation. That's the behavior of a mildly aggressive dog: (s)he seeks an exit of the dog fight. - More on dog bite styles and dog fight styles in the next Periodical.

Dealing with very aggressive dogs

Conversely, if very aggressive dogs are involved (and you dare to, and you have the strength?), you may aim to limit the more aggressive dog's breathing by putting a strong stick or pen (or whatever you've got) under the collar and twisting it, then leashing the dog to a lamp post or tree. The less oxygen, the weaker the dog within a mere seconds (but also more upset now - hence why this is only relevant for very aggressive dogs anyway)!

Otherwise, as indicated above, except with the breeds mentioned earlier, with a very aggressive dog best seems to be to pull up in the air the biting dog's rear legs the instant the dog releases a bite - and then slowly but steadily swing the dog around yourself while you walk backwards into a safe enclosure where the dog can be contained.

As a general rule: Any action and tool you use is much more effective when you are able to use it at the very start of definite signals of aggression (not to be confused with Play behavior!). Once a dog fight is full-fledged, both the application and the effectiveness of any tool/action may become questionable, depending on your circumstances.

Therefore, best is to avoid dog fights altogether where possible: walk over onto the other side of the road, seek brief eye contact with respectful head nod, turn away/around, perform the Collar Freeze, perform SSCD, ... anything that can ease the tension before it escalates into a dog fight!


Checklist * (see note at the bottom)

  • There's always a chance that dog play turns into a dog fight.
  • Essential is that we can differentiate between a dog fight and dog play: see above how.
  • Three prominent Play signals from the core components of Play:
    • Communication (signaling)
    • Fairness (self-handicapping)
    • Reciprocation (role reversal)
  • Also, helpful is that we know why dogs fight:
    1. Stress
    2. Incomplete socialization
    3. Pack leader claims
  • What to do when dogs fight:
    • First, remain calm and quietly watch for a few seconds.
    • If you see the Play signals, don't intervene.
  • Prerequisites to consider intervention: see above.
  • Can you stop the dog fight without getting involved yourself: see above.
  • How to break up a dog fight (you get involved!): consider your options (incl what you have available) - see the long list above.
  • Watch the Rambo III trailer above to learn how to use a break stick - but consider my notes!
  • Know the limitations of a taser, panic alarm, pepper spray, etc
  • Make sure you can differentiate between 'reflex biters' and dogs that bite, hold, and pursue: see above (and in more detail in the next Periodical)
  • Know the difference between mildly aggressive and very aggressive dogs, and adapt your actions appropriately: see above.



==> Next edition: Related: Dog fight styles and bite styles! <==


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  13 Site Comments, ZERO SPAM Add one


    Very helpful information . Too many people don't know the difference between play and fight . I'm glad you stressed the difference.


    The video that accompanied the article was invaluable. I could see how the dogs were self-handicapping, using exit strategies, and the like. Being able to see dogs displaying the described behavior made all the difference.


    A valuable periodical for sure. Its good for people to know what dog play looks like. I think, though, that the best way to avoid dog fights is to avoid other dogs. My dog has two dog friends that she plays with and that is all she needs. She has me, and she has her two friends, and I do not allow her to go near other dogs, and I never, ever go to dog parks. You can trust your dog, but you can never trust anyone else's dog for sure, so I restrict who she plays with, make sure she has plenty of exercise and activities, and she is a happy, and active and fulfilled dog.


      >the best way to avoid dog fights is to avoid other dogs.
      Hm, Maureen, I thought about this. It's good that two people can have two or more views, at different times. In this case, I see why dog owners can easily develop this view (it saves us from a lot of trouble).

      However, I also see (countless!) dogs that have to bear out their owner's belief. One of them lives right opposite here, Strike. In my view, Strike is the loveliest friendliest dog, but his owner believes "he must not be with other male dogs, it makes him aggressive, I let him only go near female dogs", she told me (though, even that I've never witnessed). Now Strike shows signs of behavior disorder. No surprise.

      Imagine you got to mingle with ONLY TWO persons in your life, because some higher instance (not your parents, they can't control you in adulthood) decided that "two is enough". You'd go insane, everyone would. Same with dogs, in my view.

      Socialization means to mingle with MANY. Yes, a few of those interactions will be stressful, but even these (or exactly these) will hone our people skill (dog skill).


        I do see your view, and, as always, I value it. But, as you know, Jordan has been bitten by other dogs (while they were off leash, and she was on leash, and we could not avoid them) and she was pretty traumatized for a while. I had to take her to a dog behaviorist (not a trainer) to get help because she developed her own aggression issues due to these attacks and she is still a work in progress as far as her aggression goes. I have been able to re-direct her behavior, but I would rather avoid any chance at aggressive behavior and just stay away from dogs she does not know, rather than risk a chance of her backsliding and having to start over.


        If you give her the freedom under controlled conditions, I can't see how it could harm more than do good. For example, you just mentioned "while they were off leash, and she was on leash". I never knew that bit. I would have said, what I always say: We must not have our dog on leash when other dogs approach off-leash, that's always leading to a dangerous situation (unless you're lucky). Few ordinary (untrained) dogs can deal with that kind of situation. It typically makes both dogs aggressive, the on-leash one and the off-leash one.

        But I see too many dogs that are "kept away" by their owners and it's the dogs that suffer from that kind of isolation! We can see this clearly in their behavior. It makes things worse, not better.

        But that's just my opinion, Maureen. ;-)


    I should clarify this....she was on leash while out on a walk in the neighborhood, where it is illegal to be off leash. We tried turning around and walking (not running) away from this dog but he would have none of it. We ran into this same dog on two different occasions and two different places and had the same results both times. Honestly, if we were in a safe place with no cars, I would have let Jordan go and handle it, but I was worried about her getting hit by a car. I agree with you there for sure. I think that if I could have released her, she may have at least avoided the bite. She stands up for herself for sure. (She is a German Shepherd after all).
    I will surely consider what you say.....I do absolutely value your opinion!


      Huh, the more info you give the more I change my view, Maureen. :-) So your dog was on-leash because of some legal requirement but the other dog was stray or at least the owner didn't care about legal requirements for leashed dogs (nor do I, by the way). Plus, cars nearby.

      Yeah, then I fully agree with how you handled it, and I must say such uncontrolled (or even uncontrollable) dogs shouldn't be left alone on the streets. We have that here too: Countless strays (seemingly).

      So here's what I did, about last week, when one such stray dog doggedly approached us, pursued us. Almost aggressive, the first such case (normally strays here are very calm, because of the heat). I need to add here first WHY I reacted how I reacted: Because I don't want my puppy to mingle with any stray dog, as they sometimes carry diseases here and always are scruffy (which I don't like). Also I will say: Depending on the OTHER dog, my last week's approach may or may not work in other cases (eg yours).

      So, to keep a distance between that "stalker" and my puppy, I pointed my pup to SIT and STAY, and then I myself only went a few steps towards that stray and made a decisive movement and body language in front of him (hard to explain here, sth like "fu** o**). I remember I also was swinging the leash at the same time.

      From that moment the dog kept good distance. He still pursued us, but at a good distance.

      Crucial for such situation however is that your dog WILL sit and stay calmly where you pointed. If your dog (or anyone else's dog) then comes after you when you go towards that other dog, it won't work at all. Then your dog spoils the whole effect your action has on the other dog. Because we want the other dog to understand: The human there, that's the barrier, I can't get to his/her dog, the dog is under full control by that human.

      If our dog is not under full control, the other dog will always seek its chance. (my opinion, my experience)


        I will tell you one more story Tim, and I think you will like it. I have told you that I have been working with a behaviorist. She told me to teach Jordan that there are alternatives to aggressive behavior, and that she will learn to let me handle things. So, one day we are walking just around the corner from my home and a woman who lives there was taking packages out of her car. We are a few yards away from her and her dog jumps out of the car and starts barking like crazy and running at full speed towards us. This dog is not a stray, and never loose...it just was an unfortunate happenstance. I know that Jordan and I cannot get away, and Jordan has notices him of course and her hackles went up and she was preparing for an attack. I remembered about giving her an alternative, and I told her to sit and stay (just as you did). Well, to my relief, she did just that! I stood in front of her and just yelled no,no,no to the other dog, and he slowed down, his owner caught him, and all was well. That one moment was worth every minute and every penny I spent with that behaviorist. I thanked God, and every Saint I could name, praised Jordan and played with her right on the spot, and we then continued on our walk. I believe that this is one of the best reasons for leash laws, and I don't disagree with them. These kinds of things are so easy to avoid if people would leash their dogs unless they are in a controlled environment, or an area where their chances of an encounter with another dog are minimized. Of course it would help if people would train their dogs as well!
        Thank you for taking the time to have this discussion with me Tim, your experiences and opinions are very helpful and informative to me!


        Just quickly Maureen: Thanks!
        And: I believe that if officials who launch leash laws had lived and gained life experience in other places, they wouldn't be concerned about the wrong things. Think just a hundred years back (no, much less in fact), dogs were off-leash everywhere. Did that kill or injure every passer-by or other dog?
        No, of course not. Fact is, in countries where most dogs run around without owner (hence off-leash), it is a nuisance for some people (incl. myself), but to be fair, I have to say, I know of ZERO instances where such off-leash dog just so much as injured someone (person or other dog). Nothing. Nada.

        And that is because all those dogs have NOT been "trained" to be aggressive. Owners who behave in ways that make their dog aggressive, THAT is the real risk. But since officials can't launch laws to leash those owners (the tax-payers that give the officials food on the table!), they launch leash laws for the poor dogs instead. :-(


    We've been involved in a number of dog fights over the years.Wish I'd known back then what I have learned here!


    I enjoy reading things that will make people think and reflect, thanks! Makes everyone safer.

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