Dog fights: inter-dog violence wreaks havoc in otherwise loving homes

Patty Khuly, DVM
February 28, 2007
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If you’ve never experienced a dog fight, consider yourself lucky. For loving owners of two or more pets, a serious row is grounds for a nervous breakdown.

Imagine two dogs you adore tumbling violently over one another as they make horrible sounds you’ve never heard before—from a dog or from anything else, really. Saliva and fur is flying and—in the worst of cases—blood, too.

What’s a parent to do? Step in and grab the dogs by the collar? Omigod, NO! The neck is the exact target for their teeth. And if you did commit this [potentially] mortal sin, what will you do once you’ve grabbed two dogs by the collar? Hold them apart? That’ll only work if you’re dealing with two five-pound Yorkies. Two dogs lunging for one another with all the force they can muster is not exactly within the average person’s strength capacity.

I have owners who have separated dogs physically by pulling on one collar only. So which one did you pick? The one with the bigger teeth? The weaker one? What exactly was your rationale, there? For starters it’s dangerous—to both you and the pulled dog. Secondly, for me it’s like Sophie’s choice. I’d never know which one to sacrifice to the other for even one brief instant.

The reality is that we don’t think when our dogs fight. We panic. Our heart races. We can’t consider our options clearly—that is, unless we have a plan of action.

Most dogs will eventually tussle at least once. Usually it’s no big deal. But when dogs really go for one another, especially when one or more dogs are unknown to you, the key is to break it up remotely or simply walk away. Yes—even walking away into another room is an option sometimes employed in specific cases (when fights occur over human attention and/or pack position relative to humans). Never undertake this option, however, without the advice of a trainer.

Remote breakups can be as simple as introducing a broom handle into the melée, or as difficult as whacking them with the wider end of the broom. Distraction is the key. I’ve heard use of hoses trained on mouths (this can work), whiffle ball bats (harmless and often effective even on horses) and other foreign objects. Even shaking a can of pennies or blowing an air horn can have the desired effect—distracting them with noise.

In some rare cases, two well-matched, highly dog aggressive or predatory aggressive dogs will kill one another. More commonly, big dog-little dog interactions will end in the death or severe maiming of the smaller creature. Most often, puncture wounds or crushing injuries are the extent of the damage, if any. A trip to the vet for evaluation of the wounds and antibiotic therapy will generally do the trick.

Once successfully separated, assuming no severe harm has been done, the hardest part comes later: preventing the fight from recurring. And this is where the real nervous breakdown comes in. Some fights lead to continual aggressive behavior (growling, bristling of the haircoat, etc.) and non-stop fighting. A good trainer or veterinary behaviorist is your obvious next stop.

Neutering males is widely considered imperative to the process by turning down the volume on the trigger level for the aggression. Finding the trigger for the fighting is also critical to success. Other solutions are not quite so obvious. That’s why a trained professional—usually beyond your vet—is in order. I usually refer to a veterinary behaviorist for severe cases. In the very worst of cases, medication will be prescribed for one or more of the dogs.

Last week I saw Samson, a three year-old English bulldog, after he’d sustained severe puncture wounds to his neck from fighting with his sibling, a one year-old Great Dane. After surgery to insert drains beneath the skin, thereby addressing the inflammatory drainage of the crushed subcutaneous tissues, Samson’s owner was in tears. She’d been told by a busybody in the waiting room that either Samson or his fighting partner would have to find a new home.

One week later they’re still separated. The trainer is coming to the house this afternoon. If this doesn’t do it, Samson’s parents are prepared to take him and his brother to the veterinary behaviorist fifty miles away. Sometimes, hard work and conviction can get you a long way, even in the most nerve-wracking cases of interdog aggression. Thank God for conscientious, responsible owners.