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Breaking Up Dog Fights in a Shelter Setting

Jacque Lynn Schultz, CPDT


Breaking Up Dog Fights in a Shelter Setting

If you house more than one dog in your facility, there is a potential for a dogfight to occur. While prevention is essential, having an action plan and the proper tools on hand will be invaluable if, despite all precautions, a dogfight breaks out.

How to Avoid Fights
Some dog breeds are more pack-friendly than others are. Hounds, sporting dogs and many toy breeds are quite good around other dogs – both their own breed and others. Terriers, some spitz breeds (Akitas, Chows), and guarding breeds are often combative with other dogs, particularly those of their own sex. That said, there are always individual exceptions. Genetics, maternal nurturing, litter experience and early socialization all contribute to dog-to-dog social behavior.

The safest course is to kennel adult dogs in separate cages unless they came in together as bonded companions. If space limits demand that cages be double occupancy, avoid the following volatile combinations: a female in heat with another adult female (It goes without saying she should not be caged with an intact male either.); two dominant adult males; two unneutered males near a female in season; a second dog in the kennel with a cage-aggressive dog; a second dog with an easy-to-arouse dog; or a second dog with a dog who guards its possessions.

Always remove dogs from cages on leashes or kennel ropes. Do not allow dogs to run loose in kennel rooms, as they will arouse the other caged dogs. Aroused dogs are more likely to direct their aggressive energies towards whoever is available. When passing another handler and dog face-to-face, make sure the dogs are both on the outside of their handlers to avoid contact.

If your shelter exercises dogs in groups, the make-up of the playgroup should be carefully considered. Dogs of similar play styles, ages and sizes should be grouped together – except when this would result in a highly aroused pack. For instance, once pit bulls reach late adolescence (> 15months, some even younger), they should not be in same sex, same breed groupings. However, they may do fine in a playgroup including Boxers, retriever mixes and other sturdy, hard-playing social dogs. All playgroups need proper supervision. No fewer than 2 animal handlers should be on hand, so that if a fight breaks out, it can be quashed immediately. Better still, experienced handler/observers should actively monitor play and identify dogs that need to be redirected or removed before fights erupt.

When Dogs Fight
Not all dogfights are the same. Some fights among male dogs employ much posturing – lots of noise and spit flying everywhere — but little real injury. While females don’t fight as frequently as males, they are likely to do serious damage when they do engage. Fights between mixed sexes aren’t common but may result when a mature female reprimands a younger male upstart and he doesn’t offer the appropriate submissive response. There are predatory attacks meant to quickly dispatch a smaller animal. And then there are the bloodbaths where two dogs engage in mortal combat.

In light skirmishes, a booming “cut that out!” or a blast of the citronella aerosol spray Direct Stop! may stop the action before it gets heated. (Anyone chaperoning a play group should always have a can of Direct Stop! on hand.) Unfortunately, more serious fights may demand more painful intervention. Smelling salts, pepper spray or a blast from a pressure hose (without detergent, please) may stop a serous fight. When considering pepper spray, keep in mind that it may inflame aggression in some cases and can be detrimental to the handler if breathed in. Shouting or a bucket of water thrown on the competitors will not have any effect on serious aggression. In some cases, even the aforementioned tools will be ineffective. Only the separation of the two combatants will ensure the battle ends.

Any time humans get near fighting dogs, humans can get seriously bitten. Most dogs in fight mode will strike out at anything within their reach – even the people with which they usually have a good relationship. There is no failsafe method of breaking up a dogfight. To engage is to take on a certain amount of risk to personal safety. However, the method that appears safest requires two handlers to simultaneously grab the rear legs of the combatants and lift their rear ends up off the ground while moving backward in an arc away from the other dog. Instead of twisting around and redirecting aggression toward the handler, the dogs will be forced to focus on sidestepping with their front feet to keep their chins from hitting the ground. Move the dogs to different rooms or cages, making sure more than chain link separates the two opponents. These dogs should never have access to one another again, as they are likely to resume where they left off.

Should you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of having to break up a fight alone, start by getting a slip leash around the loin (waist) of one of the fighters, tighten it and then tie the leash to a fence, cage door or other immovable object. Second, grab the rear legs of the second dog and lift up and move away in a backward arc until he can be secured. Then, return to the first dog and secure him.

Always wait until the dogs have settled down before attempting to assess injuries unless bleeding is profuse and injuries appear life threatening. Muzzle the dog with the leash, rolled gauze or whatever is readily available before handling any dog in pain or you may end up another victim of the melee.

Breaking Up a Pit Bull Fight
Unlike other dogs, the traditional fighting pit bull should not redirect his aggression toward people when in the heat of battle. (The same may not be true of the urban street fighter.) The use of a break stick is often necessary to “break” the pit bull’s hold on his adversary. A break stick is an 8-10 inch wooden lever, a little thicker than a broomstick with a pointed end. (Break sticks are available for purchase at ( In order to use one effectively, the dog must be straddled and the collar grabbed, at which point the break stick can be inserted ½ – 1-½ inches into the dog’s mouth just behind the molars. This will open the mouth enough to remove the flesh of the opponent. This is very risky and should only be attempted when there are two experienced handlers working in concert to break up the fight.

By Jacque Lynn Schultz, CPDT
ASPCA Companion Animal Programs Advisor
National Shelter Outreach

© ASPCA, 2004

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