New Mexico's Pet ResourceFALL 2004

BREAKING IT UP IS HARD TO DO: Ways to Break Up A Family Dogfight

by Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D.

A dogfight is a horrible spectacle. Combatants snarl, growl, grapple, bite and rip without mercy. Fur flies. Blood spurts. You shout and scream to no avail. The dogs are focused on their battle, deaf and blind to your efforts to stop the melee. The scene is all the more horrible as these are your dogs, your beloved companions, who have lived together for years. The cautionary tale of the Gable family (PETroglyphs, Summer 2004) shows how swift, deadly and dangerous a dogfight can be to dogs and humans. During a fight among seven Gable family dogs, three paid with their lives and the 12 year old boy in the family required extensive suturing and skin grafting to injuries suffered while trying to separate the fighting dogs.

Whenever two or more dogs share the same home, the potential exists for a dogfight. The more dogs, the greater the chances of some set of conditions arising that will contribute to a fight. Animal behaviorists, trainers and breeders offer various methods for breaking up fights. Not every method will work with every dog. Size, neutered or intact and breed lineage play into the equation. There are three certainties. Preventing a fight is far better than breaking up a fight. The safety of the family is a primary consideration. No matter how you break up a dogfight, it is a dangerous proposition.

Prevention: As the guardian of the dogs in your family, it is your obligation to be vigilant. Spend enough time with your dogs to know what is going on with the individuals and the group. Take your roll as the head of your family dog pack seriously. Let the dogs know that fighting will not be tolerated. Do this by quelling behaviors that are prequels to fighting. Serious growling, snarling, and snapping should be addressed with a sharp “no.” If scuffles occur, diffuse the situations with a distraction like shaking a penny can* or smacking a fly swatter against the wall. The sudden loud noises that these create are often enough to stop the dogs in their tracks. Squirt bottles filled with water are handy distracters as well, although you need to be much closer to the dogs in order for this to work. Dogs do not like water sprayed at their noses, and will usually stop minor scuffling.

Notice what is going on with your dogs. Is change occurring within their dominance hierarchy? Are younger dogs growling at dogs once their superiors in the hierarchy? Are the younger dogs challenging the older ones for access to food, preferred sleeping beds, or a perch on the family sofa? Spaying/ neutering your dogs helps, as it does ameliorate some of the territoriality. Make sure any aging or infirm dogs are not placed in vulnerable situations with younger dogs. Let the elder dog outside separately from younger challengers. Some shelters and rescues put muzzles on their dogs when they let them out to play in groups. If the play escalates to fighting, no one is seriously hurt.

Safety: If the worst happens and a fight occurs, first and foremost you need to consider the safety of your human family. Teach your children NEVER to intervene in a dogfight.

Teach them to immediately leave the area and report to a responsible adult. Teach them to walk away – NOT RUN. Running can cause the dogs to give chase as if after prey. Do not grab a fighting dog by the collar. Your beloved pet may turn right around and bite your hand or arm. The dog is so focused on the fight that there is no time to figure out who is grabbing the collar. To a dog in the middle of a serious fight, you are nothing more than another adversary. Do not reach between two fighting dogs. They will not respond to your efforts, and you may be seriously bitten as a result. Remember that dogs involved in a serious fight are for all intents and purposes fighting for their lives.

Have a plan. Do you know what you would do if your dogs engaged in a serious fight? Talk with your family and put together a plan. Have various items mentioned in this article easily available throughout your home, in the same way you would with fire extinguishers in your house in case of fire. Make sure your family members know what to do, and are aware of safety issues. If the worst does happen, you can respond with a cool head, and not be overwhelmed by the savageness of the situation.

Breaking up the fight: The focus of breaking up a dogfight is to get the two (or more) dogs to let go of each other, and then to physically separate them. Separating the combatants is the only sure way to stop the incident. First it is usually necessary to get the dogs to let go of each other. This is not as easy as it may sound. Dogs are tenacious in the way they hold on to each other during a fight. They have tremendous strength in their jaws. If you are outdoors, a hose is the best choice. A strong stream of water aimed at the mouth/nose of the dogs will most certainly cause them to let go. You can keep the dogs away from each other with the hose allowing you to separate them. Separate them by letting one dog into the house (or nearby parked car, garage, etc.) while keeping the other at bay with the hose. It is much more difficult to separate multiple dogs who are fighting, especially if you are alone. A hose can be used to keep them apart until you can get some help separating them.

In the house, a hose is not likely to be available. A spray bottle may help, but often the stream of water is not strong enough to cause the dogs to let go of one another. A spray bottle prepared with half water and half vinegar may be a greater deterrent than just water. Often in a home environment, objects are available which can be used to get the animals apart. Two people can use large blankets thrown over the heads of the dogs. This will both startle and physically break apart the fighters. Keep the blankets securely over the dogs as they are pulled safely to separate places – any room with a securely shut door. Dogs can also be pulled apart using chairs. Make sure the chair legs, not you, are placed between the animals. If you have to, you can drag one of the dogs along by the chair until you can push it into another room and shut the door. I have heard of people breaking up fights involving small dogs by lifting one up by the tail, and removing it to a safe place. Similarly lifting by the rear legs may work. The risk in these attempts is if the dog can turn far enough around to bite your hand or arm. Often the dog is so startled to be hoisted by its rear legs or tail that it does not strike out. This is a more dangerous approach and is not recommended as a first resort. Large cardboard boxes, laundry baskets, trashcans and other “anything available in a pinch” containers can be used. If you get the dogs under an up-righted laundry basket or head down in a trashcan, they cannot fight. If any of these tactics sound harsh, they are nothing compared to the injuries, even death, fighting dogs can inflict.

Some people advocate the use of chemical deterrents. These would include things like pepper spray, mace and some of the newer dog deterrent sprays on the market. There are mixed reports as to how effective these are. Some people have reported that the sprays are not enough of a deterrent to break up a fight, that the animals ignore the spray in the heat of a combat. Another concern is whether these products will do any permanent damage to the animals’ eyes. Ask your vet about the use of such products with your dogs before you consider using them.

Breaking up a fight may mean breaking up the family. Occasionally two dogs will just not get along. They seek out every opportunity to go at each other. If one dog is healthier or stronger than the other, considerable damage can be done to the weaker dog. Using baby gates in the house to keep the dogs separated may work, but it only takes one mistake, forgetting to close the gate, for the dogs to get to each other. In order to be fair and humane to both dogs, and to create a safe home environment for all, it may be best to find a new home for one of the dogs. In such a case, a new home where the dog will be the “only child” is usually best. As difficult as it may be to choose between two loved companions, it is in the best interest of the dogs to find one of them a new home.

Obviously there are no sure, completely safe ways to break up fighting dogs. The best solution for a family with multiple dogs is to try to prevent the fights, and to be prepared with a plan and equipment in case one does occur. You will save your family and your dogs a great deal of heartache, injury and pain.


*To make a penny can, thoroughly wash out and let dry an empty soda can. When dry, place a dozen or so pennies in the can. Cover over the hole securely with tape. Keep several cans around the house to use with your dogs. When a dog is doing something you do not want it to do, shake the can. The loud noise startles the dog, sending the message that the dog should stop doing the behavior. Most dogs do not like the sound a penny can makes, and will learn to stop the offending behavior. The advantage of a penny can is that you can use this from a distance.

(Names and minor details have been changed to protect the identity of the family.)

Part I

Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D. is an animal behaviorist and educator who worked at the Boston Zoos for 15 years. She lives in Cerrillos with her husband, five rescued dogs (three greyhounds, two terriers) and three horses.

Dogs love their friends and bite their enemies, quite unlike people, who are incapable of pure love and always have to mix love and hate. - Sigmund Freud

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