Breaking Up a Dog Fight is Risky – Keep Safety First

Keep you and your dog safe in case of a dog fight emergency.
By Karen B. London PhD, November 2015, Updated June 2021
breaking up a dog fight

Lindsey Vonn was hospitalized after being bitten when she tried to separate her own dogs during a dog fight. The bite to her thumb required stitches and looked ghastly—it could have been much worse.

Vonn’s two dogs, Leo and Bear, got into it over a toy, and she tried to break the dog fight up. The gash on her thumb is both bad luck and a warning about the dangers of trying to break up a dog fight. Of course, when you see dogs at risk of hurting one another, it’s natural (and commendable) to want to step in and halt the madness as soon as possible, especially when they are both your dogs.

There is no surefire way to break up a fight between dogs, and there is no guarantee that it can be done safely. There are always risks, but some techniques for breaking up a dog fight are better bets than others, and depending on the seriousness of the dog fight, you may be willing to take a big risk. If you ever have the misfortune to see dogs fighting with each other, consider your options and choose what you think is the best way to handle the situation.

Read: How do you know if your dog is playing or fighting?

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1. Distraction

Some low risk options for breaking up a dog fight are not always effective, but they aren’t likely to cause a problem, either.

Sudden Loud Noises

One option to break up a dog fight is making a loud sound such banging any loud meal objects together or blowing an air horn. Often dogs ignore these attempts, but for dogs who are not that committed to the fight or who actually want to stop fighting, but can’t seem to break it off themselves, loud startling sounds can work.

Sudden Spray

It’s true that spraying dogs with a hose may stop a dog fight, but dogs so rarely fight within reach of one. I’ve heard of cases in which fighting dogs were pushed in a pool and stopped, but again, there’s not always a pool handy when you need one. If spraying them with water isn’t an option, dumping a bucket of water over them can break up a dog fight, but some dogs don’t seem to care. Spraying dogs with a citronella spray can have the same effect as water.

2. Separation

Breaking up a dog fight with direct physical contact has the best chance of stopping the fight, but also poses the biggest risk of you being bitten.

Barriers

Using a barrier to break up a dog fight is riskier than the above distraction suggestions, but also more likely to work. Inserting a cookie sheet, a piece of plywood or even a thick piece of poster board between two dogs can break up a fight.

There is a risk of being bitten but the bigger the barrier, the lower the risk because you can keep your hands further away from the mouths of the dogs. It’s wise to lower that probability any way that you can. That said, it’s a major feat of coordination to accomplish this during a highly active altercation especailly at a dog park. It’s best to call your dog away before the fighting starts.

Wheel Barrow Method

If two people are there, an option is for each person to grab the back legs of a dog and pull them away from each other. Yes, it can work, and yes, it’s awkward to time this right.

Dogs have almost no power when their back legs are not in contact with the ground, which is why this is not likely to lead to a bite to the people. Of course, a failed attempt in which one dog is being held and the other gets away can put everybody at risk. I’ve seen people separate dogs by grabbing tails instead of hind legs. It’s not very pleasant for the dogs, but is generally better than continuing to fight.

3. Last Resort

The worst and riskiest ways to break up a dog fight involve putting your hand near their front ends. That includes grabbing at collars and reaching for an object that is the source of the dispute.

Breaking up a dog fight with your hands (or other body part) so often leads to dogs turning and biting at people’s hands. That’s how Lindsey Vonn ended up in the hospital with a dog related injury, but it’s only fair to point out that reaching into the middle of a dog fight is most people’s natural response to trying to stop it.

Though reaching in is risky, if a dog’s life appears to be in danger, it may be worth doing anyway.

When The Fight Ends

Once your break up the dog fight, the next step is to read body language.

You’ll want to understand why a fight occurred instead of just assuming it was a fluke or hoping the same type of situation won’t occur again. A majority of the dog aggression behavior cases involving bites that I treat have a history of getting into low level spats which over time developed into more dangerous fights. Many fights can be prevented simply by noticing when one dog is tense around another and calling the two dogs apart before there’s trouble and then rewarding your dog for good behavior.

Source: Sophia Yin, DVM, MS - Pet Health Network

One sobering bit of advice I once got from a brilliant animal control officer was that if you absolutely have to use your hand to separate fighting dogs, use your non-dominant hand. That way, your good hand is not the one that gets injured. It’s fine advice that I hope nobody ever has to take.

Have you broken up a fight and been injured while doing so?

Photo: Guillaume de Germain / Unsplash

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life