When I posted the article last week "A House Divided," I received a whole bunch of emails and facebook messages from people asking me how to stop a dog fight. I have 1,500 people subscribe to my blog and I think almost every one of those people wanted this information. In all honesty, there is no easy way to answer this, because it really does depend on the dog and the circumstances, and, of course, your relationship with him.
Because of the work we do, I have had to break up dog fights, as has any experienced dog handler. Of course in an ideal world, we would be able to steer all dogs away from the possibility of physical conflict using distraction and calming techniques, but in reality sometimes we need to know what to do when the s--t hits the fan.
Just as all heart patients might eat properly and take all the necessary steps to reduce the chance of a heart attack, stress happens, LIFE happens, and so members of the family need to be ready to know how to deal with a heart attack in progress. It doesn't mean they're bad family members and not careful because someone had a heart attack, but they are ill prepared if they don't know about administering aspirin, loosening clothes and calling 911 etc, right?
So it is, my friends, with dogs fights. Know how to stop them, role play it and learn it, then when you need it, the information is right at the forefront of your brain. The reason I am telling you to role play it is because, as with dogs, in a difficult situation, we humans automatically turn to the thing we have practised the most. Think about when you are out on the road, and someone cuts across into your lane. If you're me, out comes a stream of expletives like a drunken sailor, because, well, I'm ashamed to say, that's how I talk when I'm out in the field with the dogs all day! I subconsciously practise it, basically so it's the first thing I turn to when my stress level is heightened and I am making a response to the trigger.
One of my clients is an FBI captain, a few are police officers, and we have talked at length about their training which involves more conditioned response training than anything else. It's knowing, in a crisis, what to do; how to keep cool and make the right decision, and how to produce the best possible result from the worst circumstances imaginable. While you may be scratching your head and thinking "How is this anything to do with stopping a dog fight?" In all honesty, there are many parallels.
First of all, we need to know the players. In this case, I would advise anyone to never try to separate dogs from fighting that you do not know. Many is the well meaning individual that gets their face chewed off or their arm mauled by a strange dog that they tried to save.
Second of all, we need to assess the situation before acting. Never be tempted to wade in if you see two dogs fighting on the street and pull two collars apart. Pulling dogs apart by their collars in an inflammatory situation is just baiting the situation with most dogs. Think about the vile practices of dog fighting -- to bait the dogs to attack each other, what does the handler do? Holds his dog by the collar and makes him feel restrained while the other dog lunges at his dog! As soon as he lets go, the fight is ON.
Third, give things a moment to calmly see where it leads. While most people rush in and take the frenzied rush to stop a dog fight, very often most fights will sort themselves out, just as arguments between children do. It's not unusual to have a nipped ear or a bit of 'snot' after a dog fight, but no one ever died from that. More fights are exacerbated by the involvement of humans escalating the situation with frenzied screams and huge nervous energy.
Here at the Desperate Dogs Ranch we sometimes have altercations between dogs, where there's lots of noise and not a lot else going on. Those situations can usually be resolved by counting to three and seeing what happens, and above all, staying quiet and watchful. If after that, we feel that real damage might soon occur, we take the action best suited to those dogs, based on our knowledge of those dogs. Sometimes, it might take a yell accompanied by a loud "NO!", for some other dogs, it might be to make them "sit" (sound ridiculous? try it before you mock. Most dogs have a supreme conditioned response to that word, which is what makes it ideal to use when the dog is in a state of turmoil and stress). For some dogs, we might need to stride over there and use a tennis racquet between them to cut the physical contact completely and quickly. We take a lot of time getting to know the dogs here before we board them, and then when they are here we are with them, hands on, for 18 hours a day. That depth of relationship, that only time and shared experiences can create, is what is key to knowing how to stop a fight.
So, your dog is fighting with another dog you own (more fights happen in multiple dog families than attacks by unknown assailants) and you're wondering what to do?
1.) Stay calm.
2.) Check the noise level. More noise means less actual biting in some cases, very often the quieter the altercation, the more serious. From your observations at this point decide whether you are going to weigh in or leave it to disperse naturally. Not always a silly idea -- many dog behavior counsellors and trainers will tell you that sometimes its better to allow one fight, let it play out and then the dogs can establish a top dog and a true pecking order between them and then most likely will not need to do so again. Of course, if this needs to happen between the dogs, then you yourself are not a firm competent leader in the dogs eyes, as dogs only argue about status when there is no clear leadership, as happened with me when I was a complete emotional wreck, and the very subject matter of the blog that started this conversation. With firm, clear, calm competent leadership in place, dogs know their status in the pack, have a clearly defined role and respect the authority. It's not to say that spats will never happen; dogs are like humans in that they have rich emotional lives and so are prone to get antsy or feisty just like us, but the spats will not normally rise beyond that.
3.) You decide to stop the fight, what next? Noise aversion is a great tool to use, I have used air-horns (a sound that in some cases is useful because its never been heard before by the dog) or metal baking trays bashed together, I have also used a metal bowl clattering on concrete. With the wrong dog, sound can escalate the situation, so hence the need to really know your dog. If one is being bullied and the other dog is not protecting itself, then I would suggest pulling the aggressor off as soon as possible to minimise damage and also to let the victim know that you are not going to allow bullying and that you've got this. Pulling both dogs apart by their holding them each by their back legs and raising them up from there is a common tool. I have found it effective with dogs who are unwilling fighters but who are going through the motions so to speak and neither wants to be first to break it off. A hose down with water works in some scenarios unless the dog is a complete water junkie and is not phased at all by a dousing. Sliding a large flat object, like a huge baking tray between the dogs (which is the same premise as the tennis racquet of course) if they are not in a firm grip and can easily be disconnected, is hugely effective. Asking for a sit from a dog with a cast iron response to that word is an option as I previously stated; lots of dogs cannot hold anything in their mouth when they sit as they can't often multi-task.
The old British dog trainer reviled for her cruel methods, Barbara Woodhouse, actually knew a thing or two about this subject and suggested pinching the skin between a dog's eyes to stop an attack. I have used it once, and yes it worked, however I knew both dogs and was absolutely confident and calm in the situation. Putting your hands in the middle of two fighting dogs is downright disastrous unless you know what you're doing. I always laugh when well known TV behaviourists say "Don't try this yourself at home, refer to a professional" about techniques to end dog fights because, in all honesty, why would they show them if not to help the public make informed decisions about what to do? Karen, our assistant at the DD Ranch says they say this because of liability issues, so in that vein I will say "Don't try this at home, refer to a professional," but I know as a dog owner, I would always want lots of different options to consider if my dogs were at risk of fighting. Do your research as with all things; don't just take my word for it, do what feels correct for you and your pack.
We always need to be careful to keep the dogs separate for a while after a fight, to give everyone a chance to "come down and cool down." Reintroducing them in neutral territory with you being firmly in control and both with trailing short leashes is an excellent way to keep you confident (most of the battle) and the dogs firmly in check.
At this point do not use treats at all as food is an inflammatory subject for almost every dog, as is the owners bed, the doorway, the kitchen, the dog food bowls and toys. Be prepared to monitor your dogs for some time afterwards and remember that dogs who get into the habit of fighting are more likely to fight because in actuality, biting feels good to a dog, power feels good to a dog and a seasoned fighter with lots of practise becomes better and better at it. (It is for that reason alone that we do not encourage wrestling at the Ranch in any escalated from; gentle wrestling yes, but nothing more and even then we break it up after a very short time as we don't want the dogs to become used to this type of behavior). Clearly this is not a situation you want. So, from then on, you will need to practice preventative measures at all times -- another subject for another article if anyone wants it.
Stay safe and be cool, calm, confident leaders.