Updated: Dec 10, 2022
As a rescuer, as a foster dog mom, as a multi-household dog mom, as a professional behavioral specialist, and as a dog lover, this topic is very close to my heart. I think anyone that has ever been involved in a dog fight can free associate to words like traumatic, scary, awful, terrible, horrid, emotional, disgusting, helpless, and shocked, among other feelings. I have a lot of intentions in tackling this very personal issue. I hope by writing this blog we can have a platform to share without judgment, build a community of support, learn how best to prevent dog fights, helpful tips on being prepared to break them up as safely as possible, and even change our expectations and home situations, so our dogs are less likely to have re-occurring dog fights.
I think the first step in reducing the occurrence of dog fights in our home has to start with our own human expectations. We honestly expect too much human from our dogs. Our dogs are animals. And while you may understand that logically, we have to reflect on the situations we create for them and the expectations of their behavior that we have. For instance, many people do not follow decompression guidelines when fostering, adopting or bringing a new animal into their home. Taking a dog from all they have ever known and forcing another animal into their space, into the backyard together, into the same house with zero consideration for stress levels, fear, comfort levels, smell and sight before touch rule, giving each animal time and inability to remove themselves when tension rises are all very common and unfortunately sources for dog fights to arise. Even, taking a dog that is a few weeks into our household with a few other resident dogs and having family and friends over is expecting our dogs to cope with a lot of loud noise, often small children who move and sound differently than adults that just so happen to be right at the level of the dogs face, lots of energy and commotion and a feeling of being continuously overwhelmed by people and dogs the new dog has zero interactions with. Putting numerous dogs together in a play group, in your home or in a shelter yard and expecting perfect behaviors and communications. How is the dog suppose to feel? How is the dog supposed to behave? Many people would expect their dog to be a social butterfly, take all corrections and react "nicely" in all these situations, but why?
Why do we put our dogs in situations that do not respect the comfort level, feelings, perceptions, and level of learning the dog is at? This is why I want to start here with dog fights. We are responsible for much of the environments our dogs find themselves in. And as Susan Friedman has said, "Behavior is in the environment." So let us start here. Before you move forward with putting your dog in a situation we need to ask ourselves, "Is this environment providing structure, predictability, creating positive associations, building trust, and socializing my dog in a level they are currently comfortable with?" If the answer is no to an of those questions and we still put our dog in that environment, then I would suggest that we are wanting our dogs to behave on our terms, with our own desires and agendas in mind and not what is best for our dogs mental health and behavior.
Your expectations for your dog's behavior plays a role in their actual behavior.
Secondly, let's discuss our homes. Most people that have had dog fights in their homes have several dogs. I think again we expect that for the most part dogs should get along without any major injury. But what if I told you we should actually be surprised when we find dogs that get along very well without issue, rather than surprised when they fight. In a typical home, dogs are given a lot of freedom. Couple a lot of freedom with three dogs in the home and I guarantee you there will be a lot of instincts and impulses being exchanged most of the day. And when things go South dogs communicate with their teeth, their mouth, and their bites. Which leaves us with our topic of dog fights. Our homes are ripe with triggers; too many dogs together, the fence line, food, human affection, resource guarding, play that got out of hand, doorbells and knocks, new four-legged additions to the family, babies, moves, toys, bones, etc. Most dog fights have started due to something triggering one of our dogs. If you have a lot of resources that your dogs value in a small space (small in the sense if these were free-roaming dogs, conflict is typically avoided) we are actually creating situations that are conducive to our dogs fighting. If we are going to have multi-dog homes it is crucial to eliminate as many triggers as possible, create a solid routine with consistency and structure, provide mental and physical enrichment, invest in relationship based positive reinforcement training for individual dog's needs as well as a collective group work with all the dogs. This is actually a lot of work.
Think about your 8 hour work day, kids, school, housework, family time, cleaning, relaxing, entertainment, etc. Where is the time for all three of the dogs to get the individual and pack investment they need to be in a healthy mind frame? Again, we have expected much of our dogs with little expectation of ourselves.
Expecting more from ourselves will shape our dog's behavior in a healthy way.
If we are all in agreement that we are responsible for altering our expectations of our dogs while simultaneously increasing our own expectations of ourselves and setting up healthier learning environments for their behavior to blossom; let us now discuss energy. Energy is everything! If all day our dogs have rested and slept or even if they have played, dug in the dirt, laid outside, and chewed on a few things we have to know that they have pent-up energy that is not being released properly. We want mindful engagements. With purposeful interactions our dogs brain, nose and body get their needs fulfilled, and as the old saying goes, a tired dog is a good dog. Live by this motto. Making your dogs, your whole dog's being, a priority there is less energy reserve to direct to triggers. When a dog is worked they don't have the heightened over arousal levels like a dog that has energy boiling over does.
Not to mention that when many dogs are living in the same place day in, day out there is more energy. And with more energy concentrated in a restricted environment, there is more probability for energy explosions. We have to not only harness their energy individually so they have therapeutic releases but we also have to teach our dogs how to bring their energy levels down to avoid any of our dogs from going over threshold when they are all together.
Energy is everything.
I am much more interested in preventing dog fights and reducing them rather than being reactive after the fact. However, as I have tried to articulate, our dogs are likely to get into scuffles throughout their life. That is the reality of any relationship I know of and the nature of most animals under certain circumstances. Due to that, I tell all my clients that basic obedience is a MUST! A dog that has worked for you every day has a level of respect, bond, practiced much more impulse control, and a learning history with behavioral choices. I mention this because there are several scenarios where people are aware through their dog's body language that a fight is about to happen; THIS is the second we employ our highly-valued words that our dogs know so that we can cue our dogs to choose the learned behavior over the impulsive one. Timing and conditioning is what make this technique successful. I have seen dogs who have been called away from a potential dog fight by having strong recall. I have seen dogs avoid a fight by a leave-it when the dog was about to try and take a bone from another dog. And "look" through a concentrated focus on a dog's person rather than the other dogs is exactly where we want our dogs energy and attention to go to instead of the other dogs. A dog that has been invested in thorough positive reinforcement that is drawn to their owners presence and words more than their canine counter-parts is a simple and effective preventive measure. But it only happens by putting in the work. I have also experienced dogs being able to stop fighting by their owners. This happens with dogs that have been immersed in respectful relationship based learning with their owner. One dog was able to be called of a fight by the command, "submissive." While not every dog is capable, many are, imagine working with your dog to get to this point. Dogs learn what they live and a dog that has lived a strong obedience regimen is one that is more likely to be able to disengage from fighting once it has started.
There is nothing basic about basic communication cues.
Moving away from prevention and addressing the real scenario of a dog fight already happening we have to realize they are in pure animal mode. It is not personal. It is not hateful. They are in the moment and in that moment they are not the dog that you snuggle up with, co-habitate with your kds or your friendly happy-go-lucky dog. The number one best thing to do is prepare an emergency dog-fight kit with bite proof gloves, break sticks, air horns, buckets with water, citronella spray, dog spray, blankets, leashes and even long handled umbrellas. The more calm you can be the more effective you will be at getting each dog apart. Physically hurting a dog is not effective but finding anatomical opposites are. So if you have a pool, think they cannot fight and breathe if they have to swim. Or they cannot keep holding on to each other if the break stick opens up a jaw. It is of course a liability for our body to get bit or injured anytime we enter the area of a dog fight. But unfortunately, dogs have been killed and seriously injured from fighting so I do think it is in everyone's best interest to have a plan and a plethora of supplies to help get the dogs apart as safely as possible.
If you are not actively thinking about prevention and proactiveness, then, unfortunately, it is a matter of 'when' and not 'if' a dog fight will happen.
I cannot finish this blog without addressing the next question that many people have once a dog fight happens, "Now what do we do?"
Here are some helpful pointers:
Scale down the number of dogs that are free together
Communication cues/basic obedience
Baby gate and crate and rotation exercises
Tangent walks, walking opposite directions, monkey in the middle and other walking exercises
Frequent short, repetitive, supervised, leashed muzzle interactions
Implement structure and boundaries
Patience, dedication, consistency
Observing body language
Fading out secondary reinforcers (treats) relying on natural reinforcers
Lengthening muzzled interactions
Managing energy levels
Taking your time. Trust the process
Success is not measured by quick results, but by lasting ones. Long-term behavioral modification is a process. We have to create small progressive goals that create mutual respect and balanced mindsets. Positive science-based interventions are the most loving choice for our dogs who need a little extra help learning how to dog nicely after an altercation has happened. If you feel overwhelmed or need help, reach out; we offer phone appointments, Zoom sessions and in-person customized behavioral programs. We will support you throughout the whole process. Just remember it is a marathon, not a sprint, and we owe it to our dogs to show up for them in the ways they need us to, for as long as they need us to!
Meet the Behaviorist, Jennifer Caves, M.Psy, CGC:
Welcome dog lovers and all dogs! I am the founder and Canine-Human Educator for REAL Animal Behavioral Solutions. We consider our work to be rooted in science and driven by ethics. Our passion meets purpose mission is unique in that we empower and educate people with a lifelong skill set to help any dog they share their life with currently or in the future. Dogs are incredibly resilient and intelligent and when the humans in their life know the how, why and successful implementation of behavioral principles- our dogs become happy, healthy and healed.
I have my Masters in Psychology and Canine Good Citizen Certification through the AKC. I have literally been rescuing animals since I was 16 years old with 15 years of behavioral experience. I consider it a privilege to work with you and your dog!
Real Animal Behavioral Solutions provides a holistic whole body-whole brain scientific approach to training using positive reinforcement and relationship building principles. Our one of a kind dog-psychology encompasses the mind and body connections that are inherently at work in dog behavior.