Cordova_iStock_000028058734_LargeIt is a scary experience that, unfortunately, many pet owners have experienced first-hand: Dog fights. Be it between your own pets, at the dog park, or with a stray animal coming into your yard, dog fights are one of the leading causes of injuries that we see.

It is important for pet owners to be know how to help prevent aggression problems where possible and know what to do when dog fights do break out.

The Drive to Fight

Inter-animal communication can be a complicated thing, and sometimes fighting is a way for pets to sort out issues. In order to prevent fights where possible, it is important for dog owners to understand why dog fights occur.

Some of the most common reasons inter-dog aggression occurs include:

Social conflict teamed fighting – Dogs are social animals and they use body language to display appeasement and distance-increasing signals in order to naturally live peacefully within a group. Growling is a way to say “please get back.” Confusion and aggression may occur when a dog is not skilled at “speaking dog”. Normal canine communication is best learned as a puppy from the mother and litter mates. A severity of bites and level of impulsivity influences whether dogs that fight are able to remain in the same household. Aggression between dogs of the same-sex may be most severe. Elderly dogs or those whose senses are impaired may be victims as their ability to read complex body language and canine signals may be diminished. It is a common myth that aggression between housemate dogs is related to dominance and this misconception is unfortunate and sometimes leads to harsh correction methods. Dogs should not be punished or reprimanded for aggressive displays. Dogs should never be alpha rolled. Never. Resolution of social conflict between housemate dogs depends upon a true understanding and appreciation of canine communication.

Dominance fighting – Dogs are pack animals, and some degree of fighting is a natural way of sorting out who is on top. Sometimes, however, pets are unable to come to an agreement. This happens particularly in same-sex pet households. In a dog pack, males and females have their own ranking order, so a very dominant male and female may live together relatively peacefully. If you happen to have two dominant animals of the same sex, however, there is a higher likelihood that one of the two pets will refuse to submit to the other.

Items of value – Items such as toys, food, affection, or even a highly prized resting spot may trigger problems. Dogs will often defend resources that they find valuable.

Instinct – A dog with motherly instincts will often have a strong drive to protect her pups and may even strike without provocation if she feels that she or her young ones are threatened. Likewise, a male dog may feel the urge to protect his pack if he feels it necessary.

Fear – A fearful animal may be on the offensive. This is particularly true of pets who have had bad experiences and feel the need to defend themselves.

Play – Sometimes a dog fight isn’t a fight at all. Some doggy play can look rough but, if you learn a little about dog behavior and body language, it isn’t hard to tell the difference.

Preventing Problems

Not all dog fights are preventable but, with a little effort, many can be avoided. Be on the lookout for fight triggers, and be sure to:

  • Assess potential personality conflicts before acquiring new pets
  • Take time to properly socialize new puppies
  • Spay or neuter to take hormones out of the mix
  • Supervise your pets when giving toys or treats
  • Separate pets during feeding times if this is a trigger
  • Avoid dog parks and other dog areas if you have a pet who is prone to fighting
  • Don’t allow your dog to approach another dog without the owner’s permission
  • Use appropriate restraint when taking your dog in public to head off issues
  • Keep dog to dog interactions to a nice, controlled, leash-free environment. Interactions on leash can increase the tendency towards aggression

Using a little common sense can go a long way towards preventing problems.

When Dog Fights Happen

Sometimes, though, despite our best efforts, dog fights happen. It is important to keep yourself safe during these incidents. Many times fighting dogs are not even aware of your presence and you could become an unintended target.

Should you find yourself in the middle of a fight, take a moment to observe. Many dog fights die down quickly and will not need your interaction.

If the situation is escalating, remember that hitting, grabbing, or yelling may escalate the situation. Protect yourself and don’t use any of your body to intervene if possible. Instead, place a physical barrier such as a chair, board, or even an umbrella between the dogs to distract the situation. If a physical barrier is not available, a loud noise or a water hose may do the trick as well. If a body part is your only option, use a well-booted foot, never your hands, and keep your face well away from the action.

When the fight subsides, inspect your dog carefully for any injuries. It is important to have your dog evaluated right away if any are found as seemingly minor punctures and bruises can actually be quite serious. At Oakland Veterinary Referral Services, we are always here to evaluate your pet in our 24/7 Emergency area, day or night.

Most dog fights look pretty scary, but thankfully very few are serious. Dogs, however, are quite capable of inflicting some pretty intense injuries to one another. Prevention of fights when possible is ideal.

If you have any questions about your pet’s behavior or your are having a pet-fighting problem you would like to discuss, please contact your veterinarian. If needed, your veterinarian may refer your dog to our behavioral medicine experts who can help you adjust and manage fight-prone behaviors.