Anatomy of a Dogfight
For a moment, set aside what you think you know about dogfights. I’m not talking about sport dogfighting, which is horrific torture, but your run-of-the-mill dog park dogfight. Buckle your seatbelt, chappies, I’m going to lay some knowledge on you.
Here’s a YouTube video of a dogfight at a dog park. There’s a yellow dog on a leash, and an unleashed husky. I’ll tell you in advance that nobody gets hurt but it is a little scary, and the way the husky's owner chooses to treat his dog (after 1:14) is probably a reflection of why the husky is a little freaky, but unfortunately not uncommon. I'm going to dissect the section from 1:10 to 1:14, four crazy seconds of dog fight action. Don't watch the whole thing unless you want to see an example of some not-great dog management and handling. And to the makers of the video, thank you for allowing us to analyze what happened here in the name of science.
The beginning of the fight is annoyingly obstructed by a lady with soft animal carrier over her shoulder, so we can’t be totally sure why this began. If I had to guess, one or both of the dogs are leash reactive, and there was probably some other rudeness in canine body language that sorta triggered the husky to turn up the douche dial. So we begin with our doggy friends in full-on fight mode, standing on hind legs with gaping maws making ferocious sounds.
OMG WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE. No we’re not. Dog fights are highly stereotyped and are mostly noise. The reason for this is that, evolutionarily speaking, the cost of a bite is considerably higher than the cost of a fight. Think of two male elk sparring in the forest. And yes, occasionally an elk is terribly, even fatally injured. But don’t think fight=bite. Let’s continue.
The yellow dog’s owner freaks out and yanks the leash. Look at that yellow dog’s face. This is why dogs become leash reactive. Had the owner not been panicking, he would have realized that you can’t pull your leashed dog away from an unleashed dog. Does not work like that.
The yellow dog gets down on all fours again, since he has no choice. The owner attempts a body block. Not a good idea for this situation--the body block is for before the fight begins. Not only is the unwitting owner plopping his family jewels into this situation like his nards are some kind of impenetrable barrier, but his own dog is challenging the husky to a rumble with a direct stare, hard eyes, forward stance, stiff body, and closed mouth.
And, predictably, here comes the husky.
Amazingly, the owner is unharmed. Yellow dog stands up, teeth bared. Owner shoves the yellow dog back by the neck while continuing to attempt to hold the husky back, inexplicably, with his junk. I’m sure this seemed like a good idea at the time.
The husky stands up too, and the yellow dog thinks about chomping his owner’s arm, probably because he’s overstimulated, distracted, and scared and doesn’t realize where his teeth are at.
BUT HEY, amazing creatures that dogs are, the owner does not get his arm torn to shreds. That’s bite inhibition right there, one of the most important skills that dogs learn (hopefully) as puppies. Meanwhile, the owner swings his arm out like a meat baseball bat to push the husky back.
Predictably, the husky thinks about chomping the offending arm.
Again, no bite.
Bite inhibition, guys. It’s a beautiful thing. Bite inhibition is a vital skill that puppies learn in their first 3-4 months of life. It starts at birth, where the puppy learns from his siblings what kinds of bites hurt based on hardwired feedback: high-pitched yelps. The human caregiver must communicate and support proper mouth-manners when dealing with humans, which are usually more physically sensitive than dogs. This is one of the vital skills that puppies learn during their critical period.
Back to the video dissection. The husky zips back down through the owner’s legs to attack the yellow dog again. The husky’s owner shows up and the view is blocked, so I'll end the dissection here.
This entire interaction lasted 4 seconds. That was an action-packed 4 seconds and everybody just did the best they could. It’s human nature to yank on leashes and get physical during a dog fight. It’s just not helpful and you might get bitten. And obviously everyone here could use some additional animal behavior knowledge.
But the take home message here is about how most dog fights are mostly noise and inhibited bites and everybody is fine. Don’t take this to mean you should let them “work it out”. Fights do escalate and occasionally somebody sustains more than an inhibited bite. If you see a “hold” type bite, especially with head shaking, that’s not cool and things just got real.
So how do you stop a dogfight? First, let go of that darn leash. Move away. Don’t yell, as that just adds to the arousal. Make the loudest, highest pitch scream you can muster. Or blow a whistle as loud as you can. People will look at you funny, but whatever. They’re welcome to fling their junk in between the dogs instead if they want to. The reason for the scream is that attacking dogs are programmed to back off when a dog screams. Many people have never heard a dog scream, but I assure you that they do, and the appropriate response from the other dog is to stop attacking.
Of course, there is the unhappy teeny-tiny percentage of fights in which one of the dogs genetically aggressive or have been purposely trained to ignore distress, as in the case of many former fighting dogs. Unfortunately, the best way to end this kind of fight--the kind where one dog screams and the other dog continues attacking, is mace. It’s extremely uncomfortable for both dogs, but it will keep you from getting mauled and keep your dog from getting killed. Dog mace is legal in most places because it’s more diluted than human mace, but still unpleasant for the dog while not causing permanent damage to either animal. I know it’s nearly impossible to not get involved physically because that’s what WE are programmed to do. But remember, chances are that a true killer won’t hesitate to maul you too.
Tell us about your experiences with dogfights. What did you do? Tell us in the comments!