Dealing with a dog that attacks other canines can be frightening and stressful. Follow these 5 principles to help avoid or defuse a dog fight.
Donna was mortified when her recently adopted shepherd mix got into a dog fight at the local dog park. Not surprisingly, the other pooch’s guardian wasn’t very happy either. Luckily, Donna was able to get her new friend under control before anyone got hurt, but she ended up slinking home with him and hasn’t returned to the park since. “It was so embarrassing,” she says. “You can’t help wondering if people are thinking you must be abusing the dog for him to act that way.”
If you’ve ever had an aggressive dog yourself, you know how stressful and upsetting it can be. You face the daily dichotomy of socializing your canine in an attempt to reduce his aggressive tendencies, without anyone getting hurt in the process.
Here are five principles for getting on the road to recovery. But first, be sure to take your dog to the veterinarian to check his behavior isn’t caused by a medical problem.
Principle #1: Study your dog like a scientist would
Don’t attempt an interaction between a dog-aggressive dog and another canine without first becoming an expert in dog communication. Get out a notepad and observe every slight movement in your dog’s face, torso, tail and extremities. Engage him with a ball, favorite toy, or hide some kibble for him to find as you are taking your notes. You will be surprised how much you learn in just 15 minutes of objective observation and note-taking. By understanding the subtle signs your dog is giving you with his body, you will be better equipped to prevent a dog fight next time he is with another dog. For instance (and this illustrates just how subtle body signals sometimes are), right before a dog attacks another dog he will often push forward the corners of his mouth. I first read about this in Dr. Patricia B. McConnell’s book, For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend, and have witnessed it firsthand on many occasions. This signal doesn’t mean he is definitely going to attack, but it’s a warning that he is feeling territorial. When combined with other body signals, he may very well be telling you his next move is to attack.
Here are some other telltale signs, which when combined, should alert you that your dog might be about to bite another dog:
• Erect, motionless tail (though spastic and erratic wagging could also signal the same impending dangerous situation)
• Curled lips (yet sometimes dogs do “smile,” so context is very important)
• Raised hackles
• Pursed mouth corners
• Focused, squinted eyes (unless his eyes are naturally squinty)
• Entire body frozen in place, or moving as if in slow motion • Head held high above the other dog (or low, if stalking from a distance)
• Turning around sharply to snarl/snap/growl/bite when another dog attempts to sniff his anal/genital region
Principle #2: Learn how to safely break up an altercation
You were distracted at the dog park by your friend’s juicy story about her ex-husband, and didn’t notice when your dog raised his hackles, right before attacking another dog. What do you do?
Never reach into a dog fight with your hands, or try to get between the animals. You will get bitten. Luckily, there are some tools you can keep on hand when introducing two dogs for the first time. A large bucket of water, for example, is a great way to break up a dog fight.
During my recent visit to Kanab, Utah, where I volunteered at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, I watched closely as two male dogs started to play together. As their energy and rough-housing elevated, I calmly walked over to a large bucket of water, just in case. Sure enough, within seconds, their playful romp turned ugly, and I splashed a torrent of water on them. They stopped dead in their tracks, frozen like two embarrassed lunatics. The volunteer coordinator ran over and thanked me profusely, adding that it was exactly what he would have done.
I suggest keeping the following items close by:
• A jar of pennies for shaking and making a loud noise to startle fighting dogs (a blow horn works as well)
• A bucket of water or a hose for dousing the dogs; they will instantly become more focused on getting dry than on fighting
• Citronella spray, which the volunteers at Best Friends also use; just don’t spray it into the dogs’ eyes or faces!
Principle #3: Don’t set your dog up to fail
Gain a thorough understanding of your dog’s triggers, and modify his environment accordingly. Many fights are avoidable, and it is your responsibility to sidestep as many as possible by being acutely aware of what sets your dog off. For example, leaving a bowl of favorite food out and allowing a canine houseguest to stick her muzzle in it will most certainly trigger some dogs to violently attack the intruder. If you know your dog has issues surrounding food, put his bowls away when you are expecting a visit from another canine. The same rule applies to his toys.
Principle #4: Provide physical and mental stimulation
My favorite part of yoga is the sense of calm I get after challenging my body for an hour. It inevitably wears off as I drive home from the studio in LA traffic, but the first 20 minutes are blissful.
Exercise has the same effect on your dog. Mental stimulation is also important, especially if you are unable to sufficiently exercise your dog. As the owner of a dog daycare, I discovered that dogs really like board games – yes, there are board games designed for dogs, with varying degrees of difficulty, that I play with my pack of daycare pups. I also like to play “find the kibble cups”. They love whizzing around the living room and kitchen looking for overturned plastic cups with kibble inside. This game is perfect for rainy days when the dogs are feeling cooped up and want some release.
Always supervise your dog when playing with others, since the last thing you want is for him to become territorial about the game or food! For dogs with a history of aggression, these mentally stimulating games are best played solo. Once again, always try to avoid situations that set your dog up to fail.
Principle #5: Don’t hide out
While it is tempting to retreat after your dog gets in a fight, becoming a hermit will only increase the risk that he will fight again. Dogs live in the moment. If you introduce two dogs in a safe manner, and you employ the preventive strategies I have discussed here, there is no reason to discontinue his socialization training. Remember, a dog fight today does not beget a dog fight tomorrow.