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Friday, March 25, 2011

Dog Fights

Question: My 5 dogs get into fights. What do I do?

Fighting dogs can be awfully scary for humans to observe.
Most dogs have a lot of fur and most dogs have thicker skin than we have.
Some times fights look way worse than they actually are. Especially if the dogs are evenly matched. So try not to panic.

The absolute worse thing you can do in the case of dog aggression is to counter with aggression. Never yell, hit, poke, yank, jerk, alpha roll, etc.. This will make the situation worse.

The absolute best thing you can do for dog aggression is spay/neuter.

It’s also very important to not let fights continue and to step in before a fight happens.

Please continue reading for more details:


Until you figure out the root cause and work on that cause, the safest thing to do for everyone is management.  Keep the dogs separate either all the time or when they can’t be supervised - depending on the severity of the situation. Not only is this safer but it also has the added benefit of letting the dogs de-stress for a while. Tension can build and the fights could get worse if not addressed.
Do the dogs fight over food? Then feed them separately until you can fix the resource guarding issues.
Do they fight over toys? Then only allow supervised toy time or let them play with toys separately.
Are they showing displaced aggression?  i.e. if a dog sees a deer or a squirrel that he can’t get to, does she take it out on her siblings? If so, have the perpetrator spend more time in the house.
How do you keep them apart? If they are primarily outside and if your yard is large enough, you can set up a series of chain link “walls” or have separate fencing for the dogs who don’t get along.  This technique will vary according to the dogs.  If  a simple chain link wall causes more frustration, (barrier aggression) then this of course is not a workable management solution.
You can try a privacy wall made of wood or some material that dogs can’t see through.  Once again, it depends on the dogs. Some dogs get more agitated if they can hear and smell but not see.
If the yard is very large, then you can have separate play pens that are spread out far apart.
In the house, you can practice what I call musical rooms or musical crates. Have the dogs who get along in separate rooms or if they all don’t get along, then have them all in separate rooms or in separate crates.  Take one dog or group of dogs out for exercise and/or family time. Then put that dog or group of dogs back in to the crate(s) or the room then bring out the next dog or group of dogs. You will have to do this at least 3 times a day. More is better.
If you use crates, make sure they are the largest you can find to give your dogs plenty of room.  Many experts say that crates should be just big enough for a dog to stand up and turn around.  I say give them plenty of space for playing etc..
If the dogs are separated by rooms, then I suggest baby gates as opposed to closing doors - so the dogs can see the family.  Be aware that dogs can knock down or jump over baby gates so make sure they are secure. There are some gates that can be screwed into the door frame.  Or instead of baby gates, you can make a half door - where the bottom part of the door can be securely closed and the top part can be opened.
Or make the doors secure but transparent - through the use of some type of plexi glass or strong lattice.
Another management technique is for humans to hold the dogs on leash when they are in the same room together.  Never ever leave the dogs tethered unattended. The potential for injury is too great, and continuous tethering will cause aggression.
Holding the leash won’t work if any of the dogs are leash reactive.  And humans must be careful to never jerk the leash when a dog reacts. This can cause aggression.
Videos on managing behaviors:


So now everyone is separate and safe, and humans and dogs have had a chance to relax.  Time to start working on some remedies.  I don’t know the specific reasons the dogs are fighting so I will just list some general info. More specific info can be provided upon request.


No matter what the cause of fighting, spay and neuter is always a good thing.
I can’t guarantee that this will automatically fix the problem, but most experts agree that a dog who isn’t a slave to his/her hormones is a  happier, healthier, less stressed dog.
Some people have reported that immediately after surgery, their dogs’ temperament improved tremendously.  This is probably atypical. Spay/Neuter plus other techniques can be successful though; and spay/neuter can mostly likely speed up the effects of other techniques.
There are many other great health reasons to spay or neuter your pets. Besides, dogs with aggression issues probably shouldn’t reproduce anyway.
Don’t delay.  The earlier the dogs are fixed, the better.  The longer the dogs have their sexual hormones, the more the undesirable habits become ingrained.  Here is a very informative post about hormones and fighting:
So far, we have discussed management and spay/neuter.  These two are imperative for a safe environment. The rest of the info below will actually depend on why the dogs are actually fighting.
Separating the dogs for a while, taking a breath and thinking about some of the fights with a clear head might give you some indication of what needs to be fixed.  If the fights seem to be random and unprovoked, then a positive-only professional behaviorist should be considered (more on this later in the document). Until you find the right person, here are some things to consider/try

Be a Benevolent Leader

All humans in the household must establish themselves as benevolent leaders.
Being the leader doesn’t mean being mean or yelling or scaring or putting your hands on the dogs harshly. It means letting the dogs know that you will protect them and take care of them.  It means that all good things come from you.
If all of the dogs spend a lot of time together, they might have formed their own de facto “society;”  and some of the bickering could be because some of the lower status dogs are seeking a higher position in the society.
If the dogs know that the humans are in charge, if they know that they can look to the humans for protection, then there is no need to bicker amongst themselves.
Leadership Articles:


The dogs must know that you control the resources.  Do not allow free-feeding.  Actually, as you establish yourself as pack leader, you might consider not using bowls at all.  Hand feed the dogs separately. Ask for a behavior before feeding i.e. sit, lay down. If the dogs have not learned some basic commands, then you can just wait until the dogs are calm before feeding.  Do not feed them when they are jumping around, barking, etc.. More about establishing a calm household later.

Other ways to make the dogs work for their food:

  • Broadcast it out in the yard so that they have to search for it. Make sure they see you putting the food out.
  • Once you have established that food comes from you, you can put the dogs in one room or another part of the yard, then hide the food then let them out to search for it.
  • Food puzzles - like a kong or other food dispensing toy.  See this video for a cheap food dispensing toy:  Here are my dogs with food puzzles:


Always be ready to step in front of danger or perceived danger so that the dogs will see you as their protector. This could be something as simple as not letting visitors or strangers pet your dogs too roughly
Step in between the dogs when one is picking on another. Stop any play that gets too rough.

Break up the society.  

If you are not doing so already, spend plenty of individual time with each dog.  i.e. take one for a walk  or ride without the others, etc.

Life Isn’t Always Fair

Teach the dogs to cope with disappointment.  Occasionally, one dog might get a treat and the others might not.  Two might get a ride and the others might not.  Do this in baby steps. Don't do it in such a way that it will cause tension or stress.

Nothing in Life is Free

In addition to working for food, the dogs should also work for petting, for walks, for rides, to go outside etc.. Make the dogs sit or lay down or at least wait until they are calm before giving them anything that they enjoy

Read Doggie Body Language.

Watch your dogs closely for signs of stress, aggression, etc.. and be ready to redirect long before any type of altercation occurs.

Reactivity, aggression

(more about stepping in and redirecting later in this document)
  • stiff body
  • high and stiff tails
  • quivering stiff tails
  • a tail that wags at the end and not at the base
  • “hard” eyes
  • glaring
  • staring
  • tight lips
  • lips forming an “O”
  • Weight shifting to front legs
  • curled lips
  • snarling
  • teeth showing
  • ears forward
  • One dog putting his head over the shoulder or back of another dog
  • One dog humping another dog
  • One dog putting his paw on another dog
  • Hackles up

Fear, Anxiety, Stress

  • Wide eyes
  • lots of white showing in the eyes
  • Grimacing (it looks like a smile but isn’t)
  • Weight shifting to back legs
  • Tail tucked
  • Legs or whole body shaking
  • lip licking
  • sweaty feet
  • running nose
  • yawning
  • whimpering

Don’t make assumptions.

Just because one dog jumps on or snaps at another, it doesn't mean that particular dog is the perpetrator.  The other dog could have been giving hard stares or showing other challenging behavior.

Maintain Calm

Keep the dogs as calm as possible.  Agitation can lead to scuffles. You can maintain calm by rewarding calm and ignoring excited behavior.  Yelling, scolding, physically correcting hyper behavior will at best make the behavior worse.  This can also make  the dogs more aggressive towards each other.  See my video on rewarding desirable behaviors.
See Kikopup video on teaching calm:

Calm Petting

Pet the dogs in long slow strokes. No vigorous rubbing.  Do not pet on the head.

Keep humans calm

No running and rushing about. Practice good time management so you are never in a rush to get to work, etc..

Keep talking at a minimum

Especially excited chatter

Feed Quality Food

Too much sugar, carbs, and preservatives can make a dog hyper and agitated -- which can lead to fights. Review your dog food at
Do not feed any wheat, corn or soy.  Many advocate no grains at all.  Makes sure the diet is high protein. Make sure any treats are also high protein and healthy.

Homeopathic Remedies

Check with your own vet or a homeopathic vet about some natural remedies for maintaining calm.  Here are some homeopathic remedies that have been suggested by some experts (be sure to check with your vet before trying any of these. Tell your vet about any medications that your dogs are already on)
  • Tryptophan
  • Bach Flower Essences
  • Lavender Essence
  • Valerian Root
  • Dog Appeasing Pheromones

Stepping In

If you see any body language that signals a scuffle is about the ensue, here are two things you can try

Splitting up

Dogs do it with each other.  Humans can do it as well.  Simply walk between the dogs.  If that doesn’t seem to be enough, you can walk towards the dog who appears to be the aggressor.  As soon as the dog backs off, then you do the same thing. Don’t keep walking towards the dog.
Here is my dog splitting up his siblings when he thought a game of fetch was getting too rough:


As soon as you see trouble - like a stiff tail, happily call the dog and engage in a game of fetch or do something fun to make the dogs forget they were about to fight.
See video on stopping unwanted behavior before it starts:
See Kikopup on video on a positive way to interrupt undesirable behavior:

What NOT to do

Never yell, or use your hands or any part of your body. Try not to scold. This might just teach the dog that bad things happen around the other dogs, and it could increase the level of aggression.

If a physical fight occurs

Easier said than done - but don’t panic, try to remain calm.  Take a second to take a breath and remind yourself that if dogs are about the same size, dog fights are usually much worse looking than they actually are.

What NOT to do

-Don’t Yell, Scream

  • Yelling while dogs are engaged can make the fight worse. It will just sound like barking to them, and it can the be the equivalent of “cheering on” the dogs. Instead of hearing “Fluffy!! Stop That!!” Your dog probably hears, “Get him fluffy!!”

- Don’t Put your hands or any part of your body into the fight

  • You will probably get bitten. Too much adrenalin is flowing during a dog fight for the dog to be able distinguish your flesh from his opponent’s
  • A small dog bite can cause a serious injury. And even if the injury itself isn’t serious, the potential for infection is high.  If you wind up going to the doctor for an infection, the doctor is obligated to report your dogs to animal control
    • Keep your dogs' rabies shots up to date and keep their certificates handy just in case.  Also make sure you are current on your tetanus shots.

- Try not to pull the dogs apart while they are biting

  • Puling a dog out during biting can turn a minor nip into a tear. Especially if a dog is biting and holding

- Try not to hit the dogs.

You could make them more angry. During a fight, their adrenalin might be so high that they won't feel pain.  Hitting the dogs hard enough to make them stop could cause a serious injury.  And hitting could escalate the fight.

- Do not grab by the collar

You will probably get bitten. Also pressure on the neck can create aggression.

What TO Do

You will need to try to distract the dogs long enough to get in between them. Once you safely get them apart, stay calm and benevolent; step in between, use body blocking  (no touching if possible) to keep the dogs apart. If you can, put them in a down stay. If you can’t get them to stay, then separate them with baby gates or crates so they can see each other.  Don’t spend time with either of them for a while. Let them know you are displeased but don’t yell, scream, hit.  Just don’t pet them for a while.
So, what can buy you a couple of seconds to get the dogs off of each other?  This question is best answered by a professional but here are some things you might consider

A loud weird noise

An air horn works well.  Have one in your pocket ready to go at all times. The noise you use has to have the element of surprise. If you use an air horn a lot, after a while, it will not work.  Or it might make the dogs more aggressive since they will begin to associate the air horn with fights.

Toss a blanket or towel or shirt over their heads

Douse them with water

Have a super soaker handy if necessary

Starting Over

If the fights are bad or happen often, you will do well to start the socialization process over from the beginning.
For less severe cases, I suggest separating the dogs with baby gates so they can see each other and be close but not close enough to become reactive.  Give both dogs tasty treats at the same time so the dogs will eventually associate each other with good things.
You can also take the dogs on a walk together (one person, two or 3 leashes).  Note I have not heard of this technique from any professional or any book, but I have practiced it with my dogs.
For more sever cases, you will need more than one human (one human per dog) to walk the fighting dogs together (I have read about this technique_. During the first walk, the dogs should be far enough away from each other so that they don’t aggress.  It might even be best if you start in neutral territory - some place away from home.
If the dogs do fine on a walk, then start walking closer and closer. Watch for doggie body signals. If a dog looks anxious or aggressive, you have moved to fast.  Back off some.  Practice this day by day until the dogs become more comfortable with one another.  This can’t be done in one day. It could take weeks or months.  When they get close enough, then one person can walk both dogs and that person can give treats to both dogs - as long as there are no food aggression issues.
No tight leashes during socialization. This can cause aggression.
If the humans are scared, the dogs will pick up on that and become more agitated.
Sometimes using a basket muzzle can make the humans feel better.  But be aware that although muzzles are safer than no muzzle, they can come off.  So they aren’t 100 percent safe.
Do not leave muzzles on for too long and do not use a regular cloth muzzle, use a basket muzzle.
Video on Muzzles:
Videos of my dogs socializing.
The one most likely to react is the one wearing the basket muzzle.  This was after a month of slow introductions - walking apart, etc..
Here is an earlier video:  As you can see, I’m letting Matt-Matt drag the leash just in case i need to grab it.   You can see Matt-Matt displaying some classic dominance behaviors - quivering tail, putting his head over Murphy back.

Talk to your vet

If the dogs weren’t fighting before, then a physical ailment could be the culprit. Many issues could make a dog become aggressive - like a thyroid condition. Also if a dog is sick, he could be attacked by his pack mates.
Have your vet do a full work-up on all the dogs.

Picking a Trainer/Behaviorist

If you use a behaviorist to help you figure out the problem, be sure to thoroughly interview him/her.  Under no circumstances hire a trainer who advocates any type of punishment after the fact.  No leash corrections, no shock collars, no hitting, alpha rolling, poking, kicking in the butt, etc... Actually, don’t use any trainer or behaviorist who would have you use your hands in any way to solve the problem.
You need a professional who will examine the home life of the humans and the dogs and find ways to prevent fights long before they happen.
Run away from anyone who offers quick-fix solutions. Asked the behaviorist about classical and operant conditioning. If she/he seem to not know that that is, then do not use him/her.
Don't be taken in by anyone who "talks with authority." Just because someone sounds like they know what they are talking about, it doesn't actually mean that they do.

Obedience Training

It can sharpen and focus the mind. Creating a more relaxed, balanced and calm dog.  And a calm dog might be less likely to fight.
Obedience training is needed to break up a fight. If you can teach the dogs to focus on you, you can call them away and put them in a down stay when scuffles happen.  When picking a trainer to help with obedience training, use the same guidelines as picking one to help with the fighting.  Don’t take a class unless it’s fun and enjoyable for you and the dogs.
Note: you will have to take the dogs to training one at a time.

Other things that can mentally stimulate your dogs and create calm and focus:

A change of scenery – take them for rides and walks
Exercise is extremely important and running around the back yard is great for that. But dogs need so much more.
This is a great blog post that addresses this issue:

Examine Home life

Dogs are very perceptive and will pick up on any stressors in the home.  Is there tension in the home?  A new family member? A family member who has left or passed away?  An illness in the family?

Other Things That Can Cause Tension, Frustration, Aggression:

Electric fences, hot wire fences, shock collars, prong collars


I have mentioned several remedies that will require expenditures. Especially fencing and doors to keep the dogs separate.  If money is tight, consider all the things that are less important than your dogs. Click the link for suggestions.


All of the above definitely looks like a lot. But don’t be discouraged. Stat with the most important stuff like spay neuter and management then start trying some of the other things one at a time.
Some of the above suggestions can be practiced while you are watching TV or reading a book.  Take all the data in pieces. Don’t try to look at everything and get overwhelmed.
Even if it does turn out to be a lot of work, the fur kids are worth it.  They’d do anything for us.
Best of luck to you! :)

Books and other producs that might be useful:

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