Here’s what you should do to avoid a fight, stop one that’s underway, or handle the aftermath of one that’s just taken place.


Warning Signs of a Fight About To Happen


Before dogs fight, they send signals that they are angry and or tense.   The hair on the back of their neck and spine rises; their ears fold back, they avoid eye contact with their intended victim, they close their mouths, and they freeze. Just because dogs adopt these signs doesn’t mean that they will fight, but pet owners should be vigilantly watching their dogs during these periods and be ready to pull the leash in case things start to overheat.


This excellent video shows the warning signs leading up to a fight in a dog park




Growling is another sign of anger and tension, but is also demonstrated during play. Play is the way that dogs safely explore dangerous, but important skills like hunting and fighting, so it’s not unusual at all for dogs to growl during play. The difference is that the dog’s body is much more relaxed during play and does not show the other signs of anger described above. One sign that dogs are engaged in play is the ‘play bow’ when dogs crouch down on their front paws, wag their tails, and press their ears forward.


Dog in play bow at East Side Animal Hospital

Classic play bow pose

Introducing Your Dog to Another


Dogs have degrees of dominance. Dogs that try to mount other dogs, place their paws on other dogs’ backs, that avoid being investigated by other dogs, and strive to urinate on top of where another dog has just urinated are all telegraphing their interest in dominance. Dogs that roll over in the presence of other dogs, submit to investigation or lie down before other dogs and wag their tails are demonstrating their submission to another dog. Typically fights do not break out between dominant and submissive dogs because the dominant dog’s position is not being threatened, but all dogs have their limits.  Overly aggressive dogs can tax the patience of even the most submissive dogs.  In dog parks and in the streets, watch your dog’s behavior and intervene when your dog becomes too dominant by grabbing their leash and giving them time to reset. Conversely, pull your dog away from dogs that are coming on too strong.


Do not allow your dog to rush up to another dog. Rather control your dog’s leash so that the two dogs can meet slowly.   Many dogs are nervous about encounters with a new dog and will quiver, stand erect, and wag their tails in a fast, agitated manner. Lazier tail wags indicate a dog that’s more comfortable with meeting. You see this behavior in many retrievers.


It is not necessary for your dog to stop and interact with all the dogs she meets on the street in order for her to be emotionally satisfied.  Strange dogs can be as much of a source of anxiety as they are a source for play.  If you have an adult dog that is new to the neighborhood, you can allow her to walk the block for weeks before formally introducing her to other dogs.  In the mean time, your dog is slowly learning about the dogs in the neighborhood as she sees them on her walk (but doesn’t spend time physically investigating them) and by smelling their urine on her daily walk.  This slow introduction can decrease anxiety levels when the dogs finally get a chance to have physical contact.


When physically meeting, allow dogs to investigate one another by smell, but pay attention that more dominant dogs may dislike being smelled despite the fact that they are actively trying to smell the other. Again, pay close attention to your dog and be ready to pull your dog away before heightened emotions spill over into a fight.


We don’t have the luxury of an extended introduction like this in New York City, but this video does a good job at demonstrating dog body language as tensions rise between two dogs and the what to do to correct things.


Talk To The Other Pet Owner


Teach each other what kind of behavior you can expect from one another’s dog. Things like, “My dog gets overwhelmed if other dogs come on too strongly (most do, by-the-way)’ or ‘Is it okay if my dog approaches yours?’ go a long way in avoiding fights, but as you know, many pet owners are paying closer attention to their cell phones than they are to their dog when out walking.  It is up to you to keep an eye out for warning signs from both animals to avoid a fight.


What To Do When Dogs Fight


Most dog fights last only a few seconds and frequently sound much worse than what’s actually happening. During most street and dog park fights, dogs rush at each other with a roar of growls and wrestling, but neither will bite seriously enough to puncture the skin. If your pet is on a leash, you have nothing more to do than to pull (not jerk) your dog away from the other dog. In a dog park setting, the scrap should be over before you can get to your dog, but once you do, attach a leash to your dog, and lead your dog out of sight of the offending party.  Take time to walk your dog back and forth to calm your dog and allow him or her to reset.  Reintroduce your dog to the other animals only with the leash left on your dog.  By keeping your dog on a leash during dog park play, you are teaching your dog to not come on so strongly.  Reward positive, calm, gentle interaction with food and praise.

In rare cases, dogs will seriously scrap and any dog involved in the fight is at risk for bodily injury. Dog owners that try to break up dog fights are at risk of being bitten themselves. In all cases, the safest way to break up a dog fight is with a loud noise.  Shouting and clapping your hands should do the trick or carry a whistle and blow it if a fight breaks out.  The sound will startle the dogs into stopping.


What To Do If Your Dog Was In a Fight


Dogs that have been involved in a serious dog fight should be taken out of sight of the dog with whom they fought, and then carefully examined for bite wounds. When dogs bite, their teeth puncture and pull, often ripping a pocket of space between the skin and the underlying connective tissue. This space almost always gets infected from bacteria on the offending dog’s teeth and must be treated by a veterinarian. Bite wounds rarely heal on their own. Instead, the injured area will swell, fill with puss, and potentially cause systemic infection.   If your dog has a bite wound, do not try to treat it at home. Bring your dog to East Side where we can examine the bite wound, determine the extent to which it invades the space beneath the skin, and treat it properly.


New York State Has Laws Governing ‘Dangerous Dogs’


Owners of dogs deemed to be ‘dangerous’ who attack a person or a companion animal are legally liable for the victim’s medical and/or veterinary bills. Anyone that is involved with or who witnesses what they believe to be a ‘dangerous animal’ can report it to a police or animal control officer. You can read a copy of the New York statute on dangerous animals by clicking through this link.