Although dogfights look and sound frightening, most of them end with no damage to either party. Because dogs are capable of seriously injuring each other, much of their aggression is ritualized. Arguing dogs might growl fiercely, bark, snap and show their teeth—or even bite each other’s faces or loose neck skin. However, most dogfights, especially those between well-socialized dogs, don’t result in injury. A dogfight is usually the equivalent of a brief, heated argument with a friend or family member. There may be a lot of spit and noise, but actual damage, aside from the odd scratch or scrape, is relatively rare.
Is It a Real Fight or Just Good Fun?
Normal dog play can seem pretty violent, especially to new dog parents. In fact, when some dogs play, they often look and sound like they’re trying to kill each other! Dogs use their mouths to interact, communicate and explore their world, and a certain amount of growling, snapping and gnawing on one another is to be expected during playtime. If your dog is playing with another and you can’t tell if you’re witnessing rough play or an actual battle, watch the dogs’ bodies. Playing dogs don’t look rigid or stiff. Instead, they appear loose and bouncy, usually with wagging tails and happy faces.
If you’re not sure that both dogs are interested in playing roughly, especially if it looks as though one is picking on the other, try separating them. Pick a time when it’s safe to grab the “bully” dog by the collar or noose him with a leash, and gently lead him away. If the other dog immediately follows after the two of you, trying to engage her friend in play again, the dogs were probably fine and you can allow play to continue. You can find more information about appropriate dog play in our article on Choosing Playmates for Your Dog.
Go for Good First Impressions
If you’ve brought a new dog into your home, please see our article on Introducing Your Dog to a New Dog to learn how to do a calm, gradual introduction on neutral ground. You can also use the techniques in the article to introduce your dog to a dog who’s just visiting your home or to a new playmate who lives elsewhere.
Avoid Competition over Food and Valued Objects
If you have multiple dogs in your home, it’s a good policy to feed them in separate rooms or crates. There is no reason to add extra stress around feeding time. Let your dogs eat in peace. It’s also wise to keep track of toys, chewies and other valuable resources. If you suspect that your dogs might fight over something, pick it up when you’re not able to supervise.
When one of your dog’s canine buddies or an unfamiliar dog comes to visit, pick up all toys, chewies and food bowls before he arrives. Even if your own dog doesn’t guard things from other dogs, the visitor might, so removing valued objects is always a good idea.
Be the Referee
If you have multiple energetic dogs in your home, you know that playtime can sometimes get out of hand. As the one who brings home the dog food and pays the bills, you should also be the one who decides how rough dog play can get in your household. You can institute rules like “no wrestling in the living room” or “all dog play must happen outside.” Alternatively, you can simply interrupt play when you think your dogs have become too noisy or rowdy. Teaching your dogs to reliably come when called can help you get your dogs’ attention easily. (Please see our article on Teaching Your Dog to Come When Called for training tips.) After you’ve interrupted the play session, you have a number of options:
- If you’d like to let your dogs continue to play, just put them in separate areas for 30 seconds to 2 or 3 minutes so that they can cool down. Then you can let them play again. Another option is to take your dogs outside so that they can continue their play in a fenced yard, where they’ll have plenty of space to romp.
- If you think it’s time for a play break, you can take the dogs for a walk or engage them in a game of fetch or tug. Encouraging other active behaviors may help them expend some of their pent-up energy.
- Have some quiet time. Sometimes dogs get overly excited and just need to chill out for a while. To help your dogs cool down, give each one something to chew, like a tasty bone or a stuffed Kong toy. (To learn about Kongs, please see our article on How to Stuff a Kong Toy.)
Teach and Reward Calm Behavior
Managing life with multiple dogs isn’t always easy. Conflict can crop up in a number of situations. Many arguments between dogs in the same household happen during exiting events, like going out to play in the yard or greeting visitors who’ve just arrived. Teaching your dogs to remain calm during these events can prevent the excitement from turning into agitation. Good training is key. You can teach your dogs to sit or lie down and stay instead of rushing up to greet visitors. You can teach your dogs to wait for permission to walk through doorways, exit cars or pass through gates. (Instead of using a single word to release all of your dogs at the same time, release each one separately by saying her name.) You can teach your dogs to settle on a mat in many situations—whenever they get too rambunctious. (Please see our articles on Teaching Your Dog to Sit, Teaching Your Dog to Lie Down, Teaching Your Dog to Stay, Teaching Your Dog to Wait at Doors and Teaching Your Dog to Settle for detailed training tips.) All of these skills help dogs learn to control their impulses and can keep them from starting arguments with each other. Please see our article on Impulse Control Training and Games to learn about more exercises that teach dogs to stay calm, even when they’re excited.
For more useful techniques that help pet parents manage multi-dog households, we recommend reading Dr. Patricia McConnell’s booklet “Feeling Outnumbered?”
Breaking Up a Fight
How to Stop a Scuffle between Two Dogs
Sometimes, despite your best efforts to monitor their interactions, dogs get into fights. Luckily, most fights last less than a few seconds, and you can often interrupt them by simply shouting at the dogs. If the fight continues, however, you should be prepared to physically separate them.
Breaking up a dogfight can be dangerous. To reduce the likelihood of injury to all parties, follow the guidelines below.
- Have a plan. Decide in advance exactly what you’ll do if a fight happens. If you live with multiple dogs and other people, make sure everyone living in your home knows about the plan.
- Don’t panic. Remember that most dogfights are noisy but harmless. If you stay calm, you’ll be able to separate two fighting dogs more safely and efficiently.
- DO NOT grab your dog by the collar if she starts to fight with another dog. It seems like the natural thing to do, but it’s a bad idea. Your dog might whip around to bite you. This kind of bite, called redirected aggression, is like a reflex. The dog simply reacts to the feeling of being grabbed and bites without thinking. Many pet parents get bitten this way—even when their dogs haven’t shown any signs of aggression in the past. Another reason to avoid grabbing your dog’s collar is that it puts your hands way too close to the action! You might be on the receiving end of a bite that was intended for your dog.
Plan A: Startle the Dogs or Use a Barrier
Before you physically separate two fighting dogs, try these methods:
- A sudden, loud sound will often interrupt a fight. Clap, yell and stomp your feet. If you have two metal bowls, bang them together near the dogs’ heads. You can also purchase a small air horn and keep that handy. Put it in your back pocket before taking your dog somewhere to play with other dogs. If you have multiple dogs who get into scuffles, keep your air horn in an easily accessible place. If a startling noise works to stop a fight, the noise is effective almost immediately. If your noisemaking doesn’t stop the fight within about three seconds, try another method.
- If there’s a hose or water bowl handy, you can try spraying the dogs with water or dumping the bowl of water on their heads.
- Use a citronella spray, like SprayShield™ or Direct Stop®. Aim for the fighting dogs’ noses. If you walk your dog in an area where you may encounter loose dogs, it’s wise to carry citronella spray with you. If an aggressive dog approaches, spraying the deterrent in his direction may stop him in his tracks and prevent a fight. If he attacks, spraying the deterrent on or near his nose may break up the fight.
- Try putting something between the fighting dogs. A large, flat, opaque object, like a piece of plywood, is ideal because it both separates the dogs and blocks their view of each other. If such an object isn’t available, you can make do with a baby gate, a trash can or folded lawn chair. Closing a door between the dogs can also break up a fight. Throwing a large blanket over both dogs is another option. The covered dogs may stop fighting if they can no longer see each other.
Plan B: Physically Separate the Dogs
If other methods don’t work or aren’t possible, it’s time for Plan B. If you’re wearing pants and boots or shoes, use your lower body instead of your hands to break up the fight. If they’re covered, your legs and your feet are much more protected than your hands, and your legs are the strongest part of your body.
If you feel that it’s necessary to grab the dogs, use this method:
1. You and a helper or the other dog’s pet parent should approach the dogs together. Try to separate them at the same time.
2. Take hold of your dog’s back legs at the very top, just under her hips, right where her legs connect to her body. (Avoid grabbing her lower legs. If grab a dog’s legs at the knees, her ankles or her paws, you can cause serious injury.)
3. Like you’d lift a wheelbarrow, lift your dog’s back end so that her back legs come off of the ground. Then move backwards, away from the other dog. As soon as you’re a few steps away, do a 180-degree turn, spinning your dog around so that she’s facing the opposite direction and can no longer see other dog.
After the fight stops, immediately separate the dogs. Don’t give them another chance to fight. It’s important to make sure that they can’t see each other. If necessary, take one or both dogs into another room or area. If the dogs are friends and you’ve interrupted a minor squabble, keep them apart until they calm down.