Q: A friend of mine was walking her dog when a terrier-cross bee-lined towards them, attacking poor Bedlam. Being a typical Beagle, he didn’t fight back—just screamed the whole time she was clamped onto his face. Eventually, they pulled her off, and Bedlam was left with pretty bad punctures. He is recovering fine, but it sounds like he could have ended up dead if the fight wasn’t stopped. I’ve never had to break up a fight, and don’t know when I should try to, or that I even could. Any tips? —Apprehensive in Alberta
A:Gladly. Not all fights are created equal. In fact, most spats between well-socialized dogs do not require any intervention at all. Like human arguments with shoving and swearing, spats can appear nasty even though neither party intends serious harm. Dogs with a long and broad socialization history, and who have a good track record of no damage during scuffles, are pretty sure bets for being able to resolve their own disputes safely.
At the other end of the spectrum are attacks like Bedlam’s, where there is a clear aggressor, and a victim who is being seriously injured. Sometimes the victim will try to fight back, and at wo-way fight will ensue. You are right—without intervention, attacks like his can end up being fatal.
Somewhere between these two extremes are fights between dogs that might do each other harm, and warrant some level of intervention. It can be tough to determine if and when they do, but here are some rules of thumb: (1) Dogs who tend to get more and more riled up the longer they scrap, who won’t walk away, or who have done physical harm in the past, definitely warrant a break-up. (2) Fights between dogs of extreme size difference or two females in heat should raise intervention alarm bells. (3) Any fight involving a fighting breed should be stopped unless both dogs are known to be safe scrappers. Fights involving these breeds have a much higher risk of serious injury—these dogs have trouble reading social signals, and often have their own “rule book.”
Intervention always carries the risk of injury, but there are safer and riskier methods for meddling. Here are some options.
Any method that allows you to break up the fight while keeping your distance is pretty safe. If you can get a hold of leashes without being near jaws, you may be able to pull the combatants apart. If one dog is locked onto the other, you and a helper will have to keep the leashes both taut until the locked dog tries to regrip—you won’t have much time, but if you both pull fast during a regrip you can split up the sort of situation Bedlam was in. Shouting and clapping your hands will sometimes do the trick, but this won’t have much effect in more serious fights—the very ones that need intervention. Failing that, a bucket of cold water or spray from a hose often shocks warriors out of battle. However, most fights don’t take place with cold water on hand. Citronella spray can work, too—but you have to get in a bit closer to use it. And an air horn may startle dogs out of fisticuffs; at the very least it will attract attention, and hopefully some help!
As soon as you move into biting range, you are at greater risk of injury. You can try placing an object between the dogs—even a piece of cardboard or netting can buy time to get hold of leashes and move them apart. If the dogs are off leash, then they can be grabbed and lifted off each other by the hind legs or tail—but be warned—dogs can twist quite quickly to bite! Grabbing the jewels of an intact male is highly effective… if you are up to the task. And trying to slip leashes under their waists is another solution for off leash dogs, but, again, even an Olympic athlete cannot react quickly enough to avoid a bite attempt.
Finally, it is very risky to grab collars—they are so close to teeth! For locked-on dogs, twisting the collar cuts off their air supply,and they will eventually release. Another high-risk option for those Bedlam situations is a break stick, a short stick that is inserted from the side between the jaws, and wedged in until the attacker lets go. This is sometimes the only way to get a fighting breed to release his grip. However, this requires expertise.
Breaking up fights is a risky business, but knowing a little bit about judging when and how to intervene can only make the prospect safer for you.