Tips and techniques to prevent or break up a dog fight from experts

PHILADELPHIA — While dog trainer Curtis Kelley would like to say it’s uncommon for dogs to get into fights, it can still happen, and the best way to break one up is to prevent a scuffle from breaking out in the first place.

Dogs have desires, fears, stressors, and sources of joy just like their human owners, said Kelley. They have their own ups and downs. Not that you should expect your dog to get into a fight with another, but it’s certainly something to prepare for as an owner. You can’t predict that every walk, trip to the park or interaction with other dogs will always go smoothly.

To gather some tips, The Inquirer spoke with Kelley, a certified dog trainer and owner of Pet Parent Alliance, and Marlisa Moschella, the owner of Pant Dog Center and former president of the South Philadelphia Association of Dog Owners (SPADO). Both experts encourage doing the legwork before taking your dog out in places where it will interact with other dogs.

Know your dog’s wants, needs and sociability

Dogs are social creatures, and like humans, they have a range of sociability. Some don’t want anything to do with other dogs and humans, while others will want to be friends with anyone or anything, said Kelley who’s been training dogs for more than 10 years. The majority of dogs will fall somewhere in between that spectrum, he said.

A commonly used term in the dog community to determine a dog’s energy levels and need for interaction is called a dog’s “drive.” High-drive dogs are like energizer bunnies that want to explore, run and sniff anything they can find. Low-drive dogs are more mellow, satisfied with leisurely walks and aren’t as likely to venture off on their own.

If your dog is high-drive: Keep a tighter leash or use a harness if they like to pull hard on the leash. Don’t let your dog greet unknown dogs and be mindful of the way they play and interact with others.

If your dog is low-drive: Be mindful of other higher-drive dogs that may trigger stress in a low-drive dog, that doesn’t care for high energy and play.

Kelley and Moschella said that your dog will tell you when they’re feeling stressed or scared, if you know how to look and listen. These physical indications of stress can look like:

1. Body going rigidly stiff

2. Tail sticking straight up in the air like a flagpole

3. Intense staring that differs from their usual neutral or happy gaze

4. Showing their teeth and/or lips curled around teeth

5. Snarling

If you feel unsure or you’re unable to figure out your dog’s stress indicators, don’t be afraid to reach out to professionals, said Moschella. Dog trainers can help identify stressors and triggers that signal when they’re scared or feeling aggressive and teach owners ways to deescalate potentially dangerous situations.

Prevent a dog fight from happening

Dog fights are scary, dangerous and can break out abruptly, which Kelley said can lead some owners to freeze up in the moment. To remove that danger from the equation entirely, put safety procedures in place to not let an altercation get to that level of fighting.

The best way to break up a dog fight is to prevent one from happening in the first place. Kelley and Moschella suggest owners take the lead when walking through areas with other people and dogs. While your walk may be your time to relax and get some fresh air, it’s not a good idea to let your dog do the leading and greeting.

“You should think of them as two-year-old children because that’s what they are — they have a two or three-year-old mentality,” said Moschella. “If you’re with your child at the park and a stranger comes up, are you going to put your child in front and let them decide whether or not to say hello?”

No matter what kind of dog you have, there are some essential rules to follow:

1. Always have your dog leashed: There are no exceptions to this rule. If your dog likes to pull on the leash when walking, use a harness — they allow an owner to have more control over their dog if needed.

2. Be aware at all times: Make note of other people and dogs in your surroundings. Don’t use your phone while walking your dog. Remember, not every dog owner may be as alert as you. While your dog might be on its best behavior, other dogs may not be.

3. Keep away from unknown dogs: While your dog may have had dozens of friendly interactions with others, it can take one wrong interaction to cause a scuffle. Most importantly, never let unknown dogs meet face to face.

4. Make space: When you see a dog on your side of the street, park or trail, simply walk to the other side of the street or area away from other dogs. If your dog is giving you trouble, pick them up (if you can) and carry them away.

5. Ask for space: If another dog owner wants to approach you and your dog, don’t hesitate to let them know you’d like space and that your dog isn’t interested — it’s not rude, it’s about safety, said Moschella.

6. Block with your body: If you do interact with another person and their dog, keep your dog to the side of your body with you standing in between them and the other dog.

How to deescalate and break up a dog fight

Whether your dog and another cross paths or an unknown dog comes out of nowhere and gets aggressive, it’s important to stay calm and focused in this moment. While dog fights are scary, it’s up to the owners to take charge and break up the fight safely and quickly.

There are a few techniques you can use to break up a dog fight, ranging from the safest and least difficult to last resort techniques that should only be employed when nothing else works. Remember, you also want to remain safe in this situation too, depending on the size of the dog, a bite can be brutal.

Another tip to remember that will be relevant for all techniques — both owners should act at the same time. If one owner is able to separate their dog, but the other owner doesn’t — then one dog is effectively being held down while the other continues to attack.

Additionally, oftentimes in a dog fight, there will be one dog who started the altercation and is the most intense. Focus on the aggressor of the fight, and if that dog is able to be separated quickly, it may stop the fight right then and there.

If both dogs are on leashes

This is one of the easier techniques as both dogs are on leashes that can be pulled to separate the two, said Kelley. Both owners should stand directly behind their dogs and pull hard on the leash in the opposite direction of the other dog.

If pulling the dogs off of each other by leash isn’t working, try guiding the dogs into a nearby object like a chair, bench or pole that can separate the two.

If the dogs end up getting tangled in the leashes, you may have to disconnect the leash for a brief moment to untangle them. If that’s the case, try grabbing onto the back of a dog’s harness (if they have one). However, be careful of grabbing a dog’s collar during a fight because your hand will be in the area where a dog could bite, said Kelley.

If neither dogs are on a leash

The most dangerous kind of dog fight is when both dogs are not on a leash, making it more difficult for owners to get them under control. In this situation, both Kelley and Moschella advise using the “wheelbarrow” method.

Both owners should stand directly behind their dogs and grab onto their back legs. At the same time, both owners should pull up and backward, away from the other dog. Continue to back away to a safe distance and secure your dog to a leash, if you have one (which you should).

“I have broken up several dogfights over my lifetime,” said Kelley. “If you have to physically disrupt the fight with yourself, like with your own body, then you are looking for an opportunity to create separation while not getting close to their mouths.”

If only one dog is on a leash

In this scenario, you may have to use a mixture of the above techniques. While one owner is pulling back on the leashed dog, the other owner uses the wheelbarrow method to pull their dog away. If the owner of the unleashed dog isn’t present, then focus on the aggressor of the attack.