Ask an Expert - Breaking up a dog fight

Ask an Expert - Breaking up a dog fight


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.

Pretty Safe

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.

Very Risky

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.

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Comments (33)

I had a dog that was a cross between a doberman and a shepard that locked jaws with an pure shepard who was a trained security dog in it's day. They locked mouth to mouth and neither refused to let go. We could do nothing to breack them up and my granddad got some Amonia and poored on them. When they could no longer breath they finally let each other go so they could breath from thier mouth untill we could get the stuff washed off. Not sure how safe this would be but both dogs were fine afterword.
Thu, 08/30/2012 - 08:51
I had a dog that was a cross between a doberman and a shepard that locked jaws with an pure shepard who was a trained security dog in it's day. They locked mouth to mouth and neither refused to let go. We could do nothing to breack them up and my granddad got some Amonia and poored on them. When they could no longer breath they finally let each other go so they could breath from thier mouth untill we could get the stuff washed off. Not sure how safe this would be but both dogs were fine afterword.
Thu, 08/30/2012 - 08:51
GREAT INFORMATION!! Thank you for sharing this! As a "special Needs" pet sitter ( I've been in these situations. I joke I'm the undefeated Akita wrestler (fight between the Akita I was watching & my uncles Husky/Chow) we had to break up. You have to be able to think quick on your feet, be prepared, and aware of your surroundings. Often time the other person walking the dog is unaware of the situation, the body language of their dogs or other peoples dogs. Knowledge is power - especially in this case!
Thu, 08/30/2012 - 08:54
I had this happen to me and my mellow lab/collie mix. As my daughter and I walked down an alley, I noticed a loose dog, rottweiler,at the other end. My dog is mellow and well socialized with all animals. He showed no signs of stress. I decided to be safer than sorry and pivoted around to leave the alley. In a split second that dog was on top of mine, his jaws locked in my dog's inner leg, piercing the skin. I utterly panicked and started screaming. My dog lay on his back surrendering, whimpering in pain. The other dog just froze in his jaw lock and wouldn't let go. People came out and no one helped. My daughter tried to pry the dog off, but it wouldn't let go. I was hysterical, dragging my dog by his harness to get away. After 10 minutes of hell, the dog let loose and then started chasing my daughter and me! I went straight to the police but didn't get any vet bills paid. It was horrible.
Thu, 08/30/2012 - 09:00
Pulling your dog while the other dog is locked on could have caused more injury - better to restrain and strangle the locked on dog until it lets go (sitting on them if you're heavier works). I often carry a spare leash (chain) for this purpose when walking in areas that have a lot of fighting breeds, but if you don't have a spare leash you can grab the other dogs collar (if it's wearing one) and twist it to cut off its air supply. When it starts gulping and coughing it will usually let go - if not just keep it up until it passes out. It might try to twist around and bite you when it lets go of your dog - sitting on its back with your knees pinning it's shoulders and neck in place while keeping control of its head with the collar / leash should help you avoid being bitten on your face or hands.

If it's a very large dog this might not work but I did this with a GSD that was attacking my border collie and the dog couldn't twist around to bite me once I was on top of it like this (it bit me twice before it got to my dog who I was shielding when it charged). The problem I had was my border collie was furious and kept attacking the GSD while I had it pinned (I had let go of his leash by this point). The other owner did nothing either, just stood there and watched until her dog started choking and she eventually took him off me.
Thu, 10/05/2017 - 04:30
I have dachshunds, and have had several occasions of having dogs charging at us while we were out walking. I use a cane, and have avoided the fights by pulling my dog behind me, and keeping the cane between me and the other dog, holding the cane at an angle, and turning as the dog attempted to get to my dog. This proved effective at keeping the attacking dog from reaching mine, and keeping the dogs head up, and away from me. Fortunately, there was an owner running (or in one case, walking leisurely) after the dog, usually going, "my dog won't bite, my dog won't bite". Yeah, right. Ask me if I believe that. Now ask me what you are wondering....would I use the cane on the attacking dog? If it got past me and sank teeth into my dog....yes, I would, but I would not try to beat it to death...just get it to stop. What I would NEVER do is reach between them. I like my hands, arms and face just fine.
Thu, 08/30/2012 - 09:09
These are a few things that I have seen work for me! For very large breed dog fights the ones I had to help with were Akita's and there were Newfoundland's. If two people arproch from opposite ends trying to grab the back legs of both dogs and pull. We have had to pull them thru a door way trying to squees the door shut. My own dogs a pack of aussies I have found the second the dog is lifted off the ground the dogs will let go. yet this is most dangerous unless you know what you are doing.
Thu, 08/30/2012 - 09:21
I had a pit bull jump a fence and lock onto my labrodor's head. The pit bull's eyes rolled back and nothing worked to get him to let go until it's owner starting hitting him in the head with a large rock until he opened enough for me to yank my dog out. My dog's head was torn open. He's ok now, but none of these suggestions would have worked .
Thu, 08/30/2012 - 14:16
Don't you think a break stick might have worked?

I've seen videos of people hitting dogs on heads during fights, and I've seen it done in real life, and your story is the first time I ever heard of it working.
Fri, 01/08/2016 - 09:36
I had to move out of NYC, my home where I was born and raised because people wouldn't keep their dogs on their leashes and would constantly attack me and my German Shepherd. I got into fights with the owners many times, they couldn't care less. I carry doggie mace and had to use it several times. And ppl say neutered dogs are less aggressive, my dog NEVER attacked another dog without being attacked first and most of the dogs who do the attacking are all neutered. I stopped going to dog parks cause ppl just let their dogs go and just mingle with eachother. I stopped cops several times and they did nothing, I called 9-1-1 almost everyday to the point where the operators knew my voice but the cops never came, wrote letters and nothing. So we moved. It's the people who are irresponsible dog owners, the laws should go after them and stop them from owning any animal period.
Thu, 08/30/2012 - 14:21
1 word. Mace. It has save my dogs life from people who don't care about appropriate leash use. You don't have to worry about water, air horn, or anything. 3 secs and spray in their eyes and its over. Get quality mace which is to do no long-term harm.
Thu, 08/30/2012 - 14:33
What are fighting breeds and what the hell is up with a comment about getting the, "uality mace which is to do no long-term harm." Seriously, the goal is to separate and do less harm to both dogs and not to do long-term harm to either dog.
Thu, 01/17/2013 - 14:10
I had my newly adopted pit attack a smaller dog. It was traumatising! I punched her in the head alot (not recomended as i snapped my ring finger in half), tried twisting the collar to no avail, after a few min. or seconds, who knows, I bit her ear as hard as I could and pulled back. She let go. I don't recomend this! I knew she wouldn't hurt me and I was right, but it was a huge risk! She was fought and beaten before we took her in. I was and always will be an advocate for the breed. If she had just been loved from the start this wouldn't have hapened.
Thu, 01/17/2013 - 18:08
Attacking and killing dogs is excellent fighting dog behavior.
No training or aBuse needed, just as no training is needed to have beagles bark that annoying bark.
Fri, 12/29/2017 - 07:52
I have a rescued pit bull, and I'm very careful. Even though he is very gentle and lives with 2 other dogs, and I take him to my mom's house and he plays with her dogs (one another rescued pit bull), I know that if he is attacked in a public space by another dog, it's going to come back on him. I just don't risk it. He has enough socialization with my other dogs, and the dogs of friends and family. I steer clear of other dogs in the park, and I do this for HIS protection, not because I fear he will start a fight or is dangerous. There are too many instances in which an off-leash dog of another breed has started an altercation with a pit bull, and the pit bull bull is the stronger dog and ends up fighting back and doing more damage, and the pit bull gets blamed simply because of his breed. I simply don't take the chance. My dog is too important to me.
Thu, 01/17/2013 - 19:56
This article pretty much already stated things I knew, but I think it's still great information. I have two rescue bully breeds - an American Bulldog mix and a Pittie mix. They had always been the best of friends, but the Pittie mix had issues with reading the Am. Bulldog's cues to back off. One day, the Am. Bulldog had enough and gave a warning bite to the Pittie, and, being unable to get his "back off" cue, he attacked him. My roommate attempted to break them up by grabbing the Am. Bulldog, but the Pittie overshot his bite and nipped my roommate on the arm. At that point, the Am. Bulldog went into attack mode, since one of his humans had been hurt, and they were finally broken up with the hose (luckily they were outside). The cold water on them cooled them down both physically and mentally, and they paused long enough for their adrenaline to drop and the fight stopped immediately. If anyone else is ever in that situation but they dogs are inside, I would strongly recommend a splash of water - yeah, it'll get the floor wet, but even a small amount on their faces is enough to cool them down and make them come to their senses.
Thu, 01/24/2013 - 18:37
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Wed, 04/03/2013 - 18:26
From personal experience, I have found the easiest way is to grab both animals by the scruff, pull then apart and hold them up - shoulder height and as far apart as possible, until they get the message!
Yes I did. It was 3 o'clock in the morning
Fri, 05/03/2013 - 13:44
More of a clarification than a comment.
One was a shepardess and the other a first generationbwolf hub.
Fri, 05/03/2013 - 13:49
There is not such thing as locked jaws. I'm a vet and I'm honestly telling you that there is NO SUCH THING. and a break stick is a terrible idea unless you want to break a dogs jaw.
Tue, 05/07/2013 - 09:47
Respectfully, you have told us what NOT to do, now PLEASE tell us what we should do.
Thu, 05/15/2014 - 14:40
While you're lucky that you haven't yet witnessed a "good" game insane pit/fighting dog bite a victim and not release, that doesn't make you an dog bite expert, it means you are ignorant of what good fighting dogs were and ARE intentionally bred to do.

Google break stick. It's a breed specific tool for prying open a jaws "good' pit to free the victim pet/person. It was invented by those who created pits, the UK and NA dog fighters. They are the true experts of UNPROVOKED PROLONGED DEADLY dog aggression.

Watch the video of pit love Richard Stratton, who recommends break sticks and also describes the sudden unprovoked attack on a horse.

Always be prepared for a pit to attack ...and then not stop.
Fri, 12/29/2017 - 08:07
I would just like to put this out there, I understand the idea behind labeling any breed as a "fighting breed" but doing so really doesn't do any breed or type justice as I think every dog owner knows that their dogs are still animals and all animals can bite and get into fights.

Maybe the specification should be for dogs forced into fighting or who have been brutalized into attacking other animals, since those descriptions are more accurate and reflective of what happens to dogs forced to fight.
Tue, 05/07/2013 - 13:06
Re: "forcing" dogs to fight.

Google Chinaman game dog.
Then Google Tom Garner's pit bull kennel and videos. He breeds for deadly dog aggression.

The CRUELTY BEGINS when people resist breeding bans on THE dogs created to mature to maul and kill dogs.

You don't have to make them fight just as you don't have to make beagles bark. They just do it.
Fri, 12/29/2017 - 08:20
walk behind the dogs and pick themup by the hips, most dogs will let go and look around to see whats happened.
Tue, 05/07/2013 - 14:41
In regards to liftng the dog's back legs-I've heard of dogs twisting around to bit the person who lifted their hips. Also, you can injure the dog that way. There is no one right way to break up a dog fight-it depends on the situation.
Fri, 01/08/2016 - 09:34
Twice I have used this method when my mastiff was attacked by 2 different shepherds both large, once while tied up in my front yard. Both times I grabbed the attacking dogs tail and pulled for all I was worth, both times the attackers quit almost instantly and the owners could grab their dogs One shepherd I even walked home as he was with a young boy who could not control him. my hands were never near their mouths.
Tue, 05/07/2013 - 22:40
I am disappointed how this article repeatedly says "fighting breeds". Yes- some dogs may have a natural tendency to instigate a fight, but a poodle is just as likely as a pit bull to do so. Most fights are able to happen when a dog is off-leash. Dog parks are awful places. And irresponsible owners are worse. Follow leash laws to protect those around you. And there is no evidence of a locking jaw- it is a false fact and a myth. Dogs have different bite pressures,but a bite is a bite. This article offers a few ok tips with breaking up fights, but repeats phrases like fighting breeds, so it looses creditbility for me...
Thu, 05/09/2013 - 15:50
Fascinating that so many people try to monger fighting dogs as normal, and then blame everyone else when victims get mauled and killed, and pits suffer and die as well.

It's not possible to be educated, honest and compassionate and at the same time support dog fighters breeding more of their fighting dogs. It cannot be done.

Google "Chinaman game dog". He became the foundation sire for Tom Garner's pit bull kennel.

Tom breeds for deadly dog aggression. No training or abuse nyawrnecessary.
On one of his puppy videos he casually brags, "we have to work to keep them from killing each other."

He sells and ships dog aggressive fighting bred pups far and wide.

Fri, 12/29/2017 - 08:37
The twisting collar trick works well.
I have a rescue basset that was very aggressive to my beagle when I first brought him home. One day a fight ensued where the basset chomped down on the beagles neck. Since I always have my dogs wearing collars, I was able to get him to release with a twist.
Wed, 05/15/2013 - 06:07


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