Fighting Dogs

Chihuahua fighting with cat
Dogs start fights for a number of reasons, but even little dogs should be discouraged from fighting.

If you've been around more than one dog for a long period of time, chances are you've seen your share of dog fighting. No, we're not talking about those dogs who are specifically bred and trained to fight by the Michael Vicks of the world, but rather the every-day dog who occasionally can't control himself and starts a fight with his brother or any other dog who might be in the vicinity.

Why do dogs fight?

Dogs subscribe to the toddler's theory of possession:

  • If I like it, it's mine.
  • If I can take it from you, it's mine.
  • If I had it awhile ago, it's mine.
  • If it looks like mine, it's mine.
  • If I saw it first, it's mine.
  • If you put it down, it's mine.
  • If it's near my parents, it's mine.
  • If it's food, it's definitely mine!

With all of this selfishness, it's no wonder that dogs sometimes get into battles over possessions, as well as other issues. This is worse in dogs than in our human children because the whole issue is drawn up in the quest for dominance. Going back to a dog's ancestors, only the wolves who were the most dominant were able to survive and to pass on their genes to their offspring.

Closeup of dog's paw protecting a red toy

As Darwin observed, survival was a right bestowed only on the fittest members of the pack. Although our dogs now live in the relative safety and security of a warm home with food and water provided for them, the ancient instinct still rears its ugly head now and again.

Any dog, particularly one who sees himself as the leader of the pack, will challenge anyone who tries to take that leadership role away from him. He sees it as his birthright to eat first, get attention first, mate first, and have first choice as to sleeping arrangements.

Dogs who are lower on the totem pole, conversely, may be continually looking for new ways to challenge the alpha dog, and may instigate many fights in the belief that eventually the senior dog will be defeated.

Not all dogs seem to be driven by pack mentality - why do they fight?

Some dog breeds are simply more aggressive than others. Dogs who are valued as guards are specifically selected for their aggressive nature. When a litter of puppies is born, each one is evaluated as to his aggressiveness. Those who most suit the breeder's idea of how the breed should behave are kept in the breeding pool, while those who are seen as too docile are generally sold as pets. The ones that are kept are then trained to bring out their aggressive natures.

The converse is also true, people who don't intend to have aggressive dogs, but who are unable or unwilling to provide the proper training and socialization experiences for their pets, will likely end up with dogs who are more aggressive than others. Most dogs will naturally respond to fear by becoming aggressive, thinking that if they can scare whatever is threatening them, it will leave, thus relieving their own fear.

How do I stop my dog from fighting?

The best way to stop a dog from fighting is to prevent him from becoming aggressive in the first place. It is vital to take dogs into as many different situations as possible while they are still young enough not to cause any real harm to anyone.

Several dogs and owners going for a walk
Expose your dog to a variety of dogs, people and situations starting at a young age.

Puppies should go everywhere you go while they are still small. They should be exposed to loud noises, children, crowds, other dogs, and any other situations they are likely to encounter. This early exposure, coupled with your reassurance and praise may keep your dog from panicking when he encounters similar situations once he has reached maturity.

The next most important thing to do with your dog is to train him so that he is under your control at all times. You have a responsibility to keep your dog, as well as the children and other dogs in the neighborhood, safe. You cannot do this if you cannot control your dog.

Ideally, training should start when your dog is no older than six months, however it is never too late to start. The old axiom about teaching old dogs new tricks is not true! In fact, most of Michael Vick's fighting dogs were quickly rehabilitated and placed in adoptive homes.

With the proper motivation, your dog will be happy to learn anything you want him to. The advantage to starting early is that your dog, no matter how big he will eventually be, is still small enough for you to exert physical control over him and show him what is expected.

All behavior has a purpose. If your dog is getting something in return for fighting, he will continue to do so. This means that if your dog is fighting in order to gain your attention, you must give him absolutely NO attention (other than breaking up the fight). If he is fighting to get a toy, you should try to make sure that he doesn't get it, although you should never put yourself into the middle of a dog fight.

How do I break up a dog fight?

One of the easiest and safest ways to break up two dogs who are fighting is to squirt water at them. This doesn't have to be from a fire hose; most dogs can be redirected using a simple squirt bottle. They don't like the sensation of the stream of water hitting them, and it distracts them from their original purpose.

If the spray bottle doesn't work, you may need to seek help from another person. Each of you should grasp one of the two dogs' hind legs and pull them backwards, away from each other, as if you were in a wheelbarrow race.

Once the dogs are apart, it is important that they not be allowed to face each other again until they are totally calm. Assuming the dogs are well-trained in obedience (as all dogs should be) put the dogs in a down position, parallel to each other. As long as neither is able to establish a superior position such as being above the other one or facing off, neither one should feel challenged.

How do I teach my dog that fighting isn't allowed?

Put both dogs in a sit or down position next to each other, again making sure they are not facing or challenging each other. Praise the dogs for being near each other without fighting. Next, give one of the dogs some attention, and praise the other dog if he remains still without becoming jealous. Do the same thing again, but give the second dog attention first. When both dogs are able to tolerate the other dog's getting attention, up the ante by giving one dog a treat, then rewarding the other dog for not getting jealous and starting a fight.

Frequently review the commands of sit, stay, and down with your dogs so you can head off any fights before they even begin, if you see one dog beginning to challenge the other. When you "catch" your dogs playing well with each other, don't forget to praise them, and maybe even give them a treat.

Weimaraner dog wearing a muzzle
Muzzle your dog if it becomes necessary.

What if I need extra help?

Don't be afraid to muzzle your dog if it's required to keep everyone safe. The muzzle might bug him a little, but it won't actually hurt him. Just make sure he can drink through the muzzle.

If you need extra help, consider consulting a dog trainer or behavioralist. He may be able to point out some things you are doing or not doing that may be triggering your dog to react aggressively. For example, some dogs have been known to become overly protective of the female head of household when she becomes pregnant. You may simply need to have your husband walk the dog until you deliver.

Similarly, there may be things in your home that are setting off your dog. If you have recently made changes, such as bringing home a new baby, a dog trainer may have some suggestions for you that will make your dog happier about his newly demoted status.

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