Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
Learning how to break up a dog fight is important because depending on what you do, you could make matters worse, actually—to the point of putting yourself at risk too.
In order to understand the risks of breaking up two or more dogs fighting, owners must therefore learn more about the risks of dealing with redirected attention. What exactly is redirected attention? And how does it happen? Read on to learn more.
The Risks for Redirected Aggression
Imagine for a second this common scenario that takes place quite often in households with multiple dogs. A dog is passing by a fence, while on the other side of the fence a dog starts ferociously barking at this dog. Soon, another dog joins in and they are now both madly barking at this dog on the other side of the fence.
As the arousal levels grow in intensity—in a matter of seconds—next thing you, know, both dogs who were previously barking are now fighting aggressively. What is going on?
Basically, one or both dogs were in a very high state of reactivity, in technical terms they were "over threshold." These dogs were therefore really focused on this new dog passing by, and therefore, were so overly charged by its presence that they took their anger and frustration against each other.
Something similar may take place when owners with good intent try to break up a fight. The dogs, suddenly interrupted, may attack anything that gets in between them. This is not intentional; it is almost an automated response from being in a fight and flight situation. Therefore, these dogs may bite without even realizing they are actually attacking their owner!
The Importance of Using Caution When Breaking Up Dog Fights
Every year, there are countless cases of dog owners getting injured when interrupting a dog fight. Here's the thing: It's our instinct to want to intervene so no dog gets harmed. We, therefore, think that getting in between and grabbing a dog by the collar is the fastest way to stop the fight. Or maybe we don't even think, we just do so instinctively, just as people jump into rough seas to save somebody struggling in the water.
Regardless of your inner motivation, what you do to break up a dog fight is therefore important and requires some rationality. If you make the wrong move, you will be running the risk of getting injured, even seriously.
There are various methods to resort to in order to break a dog fight. While there may not be a 100-percent safe method, there are some methods that are safer than others.
5 Risky Methods
Firstly, it's important recognizing that some methods to break up a dog fight are less effective or less safe than others and some are downright risky. As mentioned, physically intervening and touching dogs when they are in midst of fighting puts you at risk for a redirected fight. Here are some other risky methods.
1. Yelling at the Top of Your Lungs
Perhaps one of the most instinctive methods to break up a dog fight is yelling at the dogs. Unfortunately, this doesn't always work, unless you have very strongly conditioned your dog to respond to voice commands. Not many dogs though are under this level of control, especially when they are focused on each other.
There are also chances that one dog may listen to your voice and disengage, but the other dog takes advantage of this moment of withdrawal to attack the dog.
In many cases, yelling may make matters only worse. The dogs may perhaps interpret your yelling as you joining in the dog fight or perhaps your tension may only exacerbate things. On top of that, in some cases, yelling accomplishes nothing because the dogs are too focused on fighting to even hear you.
2. Grabbing Dogs by the Collar
This is one of the unsafest methods to break up a dog fight because it puts you at great risk for a redirected bite. When two dogs are fighting they are totally focused on each other. If you grab the dogs by the collar or try to pull them apart, your dogs may startle and get confused and may start biting your hands and arms causing serious laceration wounds.
3. Hitting or Kicking the Dogs
The urge to stop dogs fighting often leads to people acting out in instinctive ways without considering dangers. As with grabbing dogs by the collar, any body parts inserted within the invisible "bubble" around two fighting dogs, can risk getting bitten. Also consider that, when dogs feel pain, some dogs may bite more strongly rather than let go.
4. Cutting off Air Supply
Some owners may have heard about grabbing the biting dog by the collar and twisting it in an attempt to cut off the dog’s airflow. As the dog starts suffocating, he will have to eventually get a breath of air, and in order to do so, he will have to get rid of his hold. However, again, this is a rather unsafe and brutal method as it may harm the dog and requires getting your hands too close to the dog's face which may lead to a redirected bite.
5. Using a Break Stick
Also known as a parting stick, a break stick is an object that can be inserted between a dog's teeth to encourage the dog to let go. While this can be effective, it can sometimes lead to broken teeth, and, as with the other unsafe methods listed here, there are chances that, as soon as the gripping dog's jaws are pried open, he or she will manage to attack the person using the break stick.
This is a tool that requires a certain level of skill and should be used only by experts trained to use it.
7 Safer Ways to Break Up a Dog Fight
Below are listed several methods for breaking up a dog fight, but as mentioned, there is no 100 percent safe or fool-proof method. It goes without saying that you must use the utmost caution.
For sake of convenience, it is best to keep items to break up a dog fight always handy. I know some people make claims that you have time to go grab something, but fights are much easier to break up when they are stopped early before the fight has escalated and you have gone from a squabble to dogs gripping onto each other.
Remember: even if your dogs are very attached to you and you feel they respect you to the point of never harming you in any way, when they are in the midst of a fight, they will be prone to instinctively bite and that includes their favorite humans regardless of their relationship.
1. Make a Loud Noise
Often producing a loud sound may be enough to distract the dogs. You can try banging two pot lids together or banging on a garbage can with a broomstick.
Some dog owners may carry with them an air horn (the ones sold at boat supply stores are stronger than the party types) or a lanyard with a strong whistle around the neck.
Something to consider is that air horns can be very loud and if you use them very close to your dog's ears, you may even risk damage to the dog's sensitive eardrums, not to mention yours as well. So use them at a distance, they are loud enough to work.
These sounds produced may be effective as they cause a startling effect in both dogs so that their focus is no longer on one another.
However, something to consider is that loud noises can sometimes escalate the situation. For instance, yelling at the dogs can make the fight worse, unless you have two dogs who are perfect on voice-control.
2. Use Water
Water can help in the case of a dog fight. If the fight is in the yard, and you have a water hose handy this can help. Simply grab the hose, open the faucet to the max and spray the strong jet of water in the direction of the dogs (if you know the dog who started the fight, aim for that dog in particular.
In some cases, tossing buckets of water may help too. Water guns may not be startling enough as the burst of water is too weak, and on top of that, some dogs are fond of water or can care less.
The goal of using water is that the unexpected burst of water startles the fighting dogs and hopefully extinguishes their anger. However, with strong, persistent, dogs this may not be enough.
3. Use a Blanket
This method is one that is fairly easy because in most homes dog owners have easy access to blankets or large towels. It works best when the fighting dogs are small dogs.
The goal of using a blanket or towel to break up a dog fight is to confuse and disorient the dogs. This method works best with dogs who are gripping each other and won't let go.
Simply grab a blanket, spread it as best as you can and toss it over the fighting dogs, aiming to cover the head of both dogs if possible Confused and disoriented, dogs may finally break up from the fight.
4. Use Sprays
Special sprays may help break up a dog fight and they work in a similar fashion as a strong jet of water. They have a startling effect that should distract the dogs so that they disengage and no longer focus on each other.
I know pepper spray or mace is quite popular, however, these may burn the dog's eyes and if the area is windy, the drift can send the spray your way or towards, innocent bystanders. Incapacitating yourself and others is not a good way to deal with fighting dogs! Fortunately, there are alternatives nowadays.
For instance, there are several types of sprays to break up dog fights on the market nowadays. One that I like to keep in my training center is Spray Shield. Spray Shield is a special spray that emits a jet of citronella-based spray. Make sure you know how to open it and aim it correctly in advance so that you know how to use it when the time comes.
5. Use Air
Using a bottle of compressed air can also have a startling effect to separate the fighting dogs.
Pet Corrector is a product specifically made for interrupting behaviors but can be used specifically for distracting fighting dogs.
A CO2 fire extinguisher that emits a high-pressure cloud of gas is often effective, however, avoid spraying near the eyes due to the great pressure and the fact that sometimes bits of dry ice may shoot out the nozzle, warns Dr. Brenda Griffin.
6. Use Large Objects
If the dogs are in an argument and they haven't latched on, there are chances that using a large object to separate the two may work. The large item may be an umbrella opened in between the arguing dogs, a folding chair, a large trash can or a large piece of plywood.
It goes without saying though that it's best to be at a distance from the object so as to not become a target, therefore the chair should be held by the legs and the large piece of plywood should be held at the farthest edge.
Attaching a couple of handles to a sheet of plywood can turn helpful if you deal with dog fights. This way, you can handle the plywood from the handles, points out Dr. Griffin.
7. Grasp the Dog's Rear Legs
Also known as the "Wheelbarrow Method" this method is often suggested on many websites online, but it's important to point out certain risks. It may be better to rely on other methods first that don't require direct physical intervention.
This method consists of grabbing the back legs of one of the fighting dogs and having a helper grab onto the rear legs of the other fighting dog. In an ideal situation, unbalanced, both dogs should let go and should be dragged away from the scene into a safe place far out of reach of each other, however, there are also risks.
If the dogs aren't gripping and holding on to each other, it means that their mouths are free and therefore one will need to watch for dogs twisting their bodies and turning in an attempt to defensively bite the person holding them.
If the dogs are instead gripping and are therefore latched with their teeth on each other, pulling them from their rear legs may rip the skin. There have been cases of torn dog ears or major rips and lacerations that needed to be repaired with stitches.
What to Do Once the Dogs Are Separated
Once the dogs have disengaged, it's important to find a way to safely escort the dogs away from each other considering that, when dogs are separated from a fight, they often want to go back to fighting. Escort each dog to a separate room quickly (where they cannot see or hear each other) to prevent this.
If you don't have help, it may be best to escort firstly the aggressor to a neutral area behind a closed door-if you are able to identify him/her. If you escort the victim dog first, you risk increasing his/her state of helplessness, points out veterinary behaviorist Karen Overall. The aggressor may attempt to re-attack .
Assess for Physical Injuries
Once separated, carefully assess each dog. Even if your dog presents with fairly small puncture wounds, consider that these may be just the tip of the iceberg. Sometimes there may be damage underneath the skin that is far more serious and extensive. Have your dogs evaluated by a vet for safety, especially if they show signs of not feeling well.
Use caution: Remember that an injured dog can be in pain and frightened. Both of these circumstances can cause him/her to bite you instinctively, without being malicious.
Assess Your Dog's Emotional Wellbeing
Even though your dogs may seem fine after a dog fight, also consider their emotional wellbeing. Being in fights can cause lots of tension and stress. Here is a guide on helping your dog recover: How to help your dog recover from a dog attack.
Once again, consider that separating fighting dogs is serious business that can lead to severe and even fatal injuries impacting both humans and dogs. To prevent future fights, please consult with a dog behaviorist.
- Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats, by Dr. Karen Overall.
- How to Break Up a Dog Fight by Dr. Brenda Griffin, University of Florida Health Science Center
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2009 Adrienne Farricelli
Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on October 16, 2011:
Great suggestions here. May come in handy in an adverse situation.
Mrs. J. B. from Southern California on February 02, 2011:
Seen On TV on July 01, 2010:
Loved the hub. The image at the top of the dog is great, but scary. Great info.
Bediveare from Cambridgeshire, United Kingdom on May 11, 2010:
Thank you for your story about advice on breaking up dog fights.
I have (5) show dogs cocker spaniels (3 boys and 2 girls)
I know all about dog fights and have got injured myself trying to
stop one and as you say they are solely focused on the fight and seem to go totally deaf to what ever else is going on around them.
It all seems to be when the girls are in season and around that time I have to separate the boys so I have no problems.
I also live at the back of a conservation area where a lot of dogs are taken past the house walking of which they smell maybe other dogs in season.
Generally as a family they all get on very well, luckily I don't have a constant problem it is only occassionally.
I like your pepper spray method, I have never tried this, as long as this does not hurt the dogs in anyway.
Thankyou for your information I shall definitely try this pepper spray method when next I have this problem.
Gypsy Willow from Lake Tahoe Nevada USA , Wales UK and Taupo New Zealand on July 13, 2009:
brad4l from USA on July 13, 2009:
These are some great tips.
Personally, and I fully realize this isn't a good way of breaking up dog fights, I typically loudly insert myself in between the dogs, well my leg anyway, and administer some light kicks to the chest of each dog. I feel comfortable doing this because I usually know both of the dogs pretty well and usually they are not really biting each other anyway.
My major concern is usually the other dog will do, because I know my dog will listen and stop fighting, but I don't really know what the other dog will do.
Once I have their attention, I can usually grab a hold of the other dog and pull them off of my dog.
Melinda Winner from Mississippi on July 13, 2009:
you never know when this will come in handy , I have broke up quite a few , just one the other day. Thanks great Hub !