Our story begins a few weeks ago when I was walking past a local off-leash dog park to meet a client. I saw a few dogs greeting in the park and a few running and playing. Suddenly, a conflict broke out between two medium-sized dogs, who both looked like a breed most people don’t associate with aggression or dog intolerance. It really looked like the white dog “started” it by jumping on the brown dog, there was a lot of vocalization from both dogs and teeth flashing, and the owner of the white dog was yelling very loudly. Both owners went towards their dogs yelling, and the owner of the white dog started flinging her leash at him to hit him. The dogs somehow separated eventually. The owner of the white dog grabbed him by the collar, continued yelling at him, smacked him with the leash, and forced him into a sit very near to the brown dog. After a few seconds, the white dog lunged forward again, but the owner had him by the collar. She yelled and again forced him into a sit. It was a very dramatic scene.
The dog fight was dramatic too.
Let’s take a step back and think about what happened here. For one thing, we don’t really know why the fight started, even if the first very noticeable moment of aggression (the white dog jumping on the brown dog) made it seem like it was started randomly by the white dog. We don’t know what led up to the incident, and how much communicating had gone on between the two dogs. Had the white dog communicated discomfort that was ignored by the brown dog? Had the white dog tried to take space but his owner called him back? Was one of the dogs not feeling well that day?
We can’t answer these questions, but one thing I am confident of is that for the owner of the white dog, this was an incredibly scary, frustrating, and embarrassing event. That is why she behaved the way she did. She made things worse for her dog by yelling, hitting him, and forcing him to stay close to a dog he was clearly uncomfortable with instead of taking space as soon as the dogs separated. She most likely did this to save face in front of others at the park.
Let’s face it. Anyone who has a dog may be this person one day, because all dogs (all creatures) are capable of aggression. Any dog may bite or have conflict with another dog. So, what should you do if that person ends up being you?
First, an ounce of prevention goes a long way. If your dog is having trouble with other dogs or struggling in a particular scenario, keeping them out of that scenario is the best place to start. This blog doesn’t cover how to break up a dog fight. If dog fights are happening often for your dog, the environments they are in are not working for them and they need to be removed immediately.
That being said, things happen. In the event that it’s your kid who starts the fight on the playground, it is very important to immediately de-escalate the situation for them. Remember, if your dog has started a fight, they are very stressed. Something has caused them to feel the need to defend themselves, even if you don’t know what that was and don’t think it is legitimate. Yelling will escalate a situation. Hitting your dog is never ok in any circumstance. It can feel tempting to respond to your dog’s behavior in these very obvious ways when in public. But you do not need to look to others as though you are “training” or prevent people from thinking you are being “too easy” on your dog. Scolding them or commanding an obedience behavior won’t help them. When your dog is stressed, it is your responsibility to support them. Simply move your dog away from the other dog, speak calmly to them, put them on a leash, and remove them from the area. Communicate to the other owner that this is what you are doing and that you’ll be back.
Once your dog is removed from the area, go back to the other owner and apologize. But don’t throw your dog under the bus. Hearing that your dog never does something like this probably won’t help in the moment, and saying your dog is a bad dog helps no one. A simple “I apologize my dog was stressed and attacked your dog. Let’s check your dog for injuries” will do.
If you establish the other dog needs veterinary care, offer to go with the owner to the clinic. This could mean taking your dog home first, which will give you a chance to check your dog for injuries as well. Ethically, you are responsible for offering to pay the vet bill for the other dog. If you can’t financially do this, offer to set up a payment system with the veterinarian or the owner themselves in order to pay them back.
Then it is time to help your dog decompress. After a stressful event, it’s not fair to have high expectations of your dog or take them lots of places, especially the scene of the fight. Spend time with them at home, monitor their physical health to see if you note any changes that may have contributed to the fight, and in general, give them the TLC you would give another very stressed family member.
This blog is fairly short, and that’s on purpose. If your dog starts a fight, there are simple, quick actions to take for the good of any dogs involved, any people involved, and the community at large. Getting professional help later on may be warranted, but this is dependent on how manageable you feel it is for you to prevent future incidents. Regardless, if you are taking steps to prevent a repeat incident, you and your dog needn’t wear a scarlet letter for the rest of your lives. Take swift, clear, compassionate action in the moment, and then take steps to ensure your dog feels safe in the future.