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Dog Behavior 101: Playing or Fighting

Written by Jessica McCawley

Dog fights can be terrifying to experience. While many fights are brief, they have the potential for serious injury. Here are some tips on preventing fights, recognizing when play gets too rough, and what to do if your dog is in a fight.

Playing vs. Fighting. Pinned ears, an erect tail, growling, and showing teeth are all appropriate signs of communication that dogs can use during playtime. This may make it hard to tell the difference between playing and fighting. The key is to make sure both dogs are engaging at similar levels and do not look stressed. If both dogs are play bowing, bouncy, or seem to exaggerate their movements and vocalizations, it’s likely a play session. Another good indication of play is sneezing. Dogs sneeze as a way to communicate to their play partners (human or canine) that they want to keep things safe and fun. Dogs often take turns being dominant or submissive and will take small breaks between bouts of play. It is very important not to “punish the thought” by correcting appropriate communication signals. Never use a correction until there is an actual negative behavior to correct. More often than not, the dogs are successfully able to work through altercations or interactions on their own!

Fights have their own set of body language that can help you identify when an intervention is needed. Tense body language such as a tucked tail, stiff movements, deep growling, and snarling are cues that the dog is under stress. Most dogs will try to get away from the situation if they are uncomfortable. If you see any of these signs, this is the time to calmly remove your dog from the situation before things escalate.

Preventing a fight. As mentioned above, know your dog’s body language and recognize when they are in uncomfortable situations. There are a few cues that will help you recognize when dogs are in an uncomfortable situation:

  • When the play is, in general, not mutual.

  • When one dog is having fun at the expense of another.

  • When an actual fight breaks out.

If playtime starts to get too rough, separate the dogs for a few minutes until they have calmed down. Another method of prevention could be to work on your dog’s recall command so they consistently respond to it in a variety of environments.

Stopping a fight. Many fights are spats that are primarily noisy and only last a few seconds. These usually do not involve biting. If your dog is involved in one of these skirmishes, quickly and calmly approach your dog and leave the area.

First and foremost, if a fight breaks out, keep calm and focus on the safety of the dogs and people involved. If the dogs are not responding to verbal commands or reacting to other noises such as clapping, air horns, or car horns, it may be necessary to step in with different methods. Never physically place yourself between fighting dogs or reach for their heads or collars. It is very likely you will get bitten if you do. Depending on where the fight is taking place, try to find an object such as a chair, an opened umbrella, or a heavy blanket that you can try to use as either a barrier or distraction. A hose or bucket of water may work, as well. This may give you the opportunity to remove the dogs safely. If the dogs are still engaged, grab the dog’s leash or their hind ends.

The “wheelbarrow method” may work to physically remove dogs from each other while minimizing risk to any handlers. However, this method works best when there is at least one person per dog. Each person should grab the hind legs of the dogs, lift their back end off the ground as if you’re moving a wheelbarrow, and walk backwards to separate the dogs. Once the dogs are separated, each person should steer their dogs into a 180-degree turn so the other dog(s) are no longer in sight.

After a fight. If your dog is involved in a fight, get to your vet as soon as possible. Even if you do not see any visible injuries, it is better to have your vet take a look for any internal damage and to ensure that there are no external injuries that you may have missed.



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