Red, Amber & Green fight prevention

Most dogs end up in a fight at some stage of their lives, some more often than others. Tips to prevent this happening…

I am often asked how to stop a dog attack when it is in progress. The short answer is: there is no safe way to do so. Many theories abound as to how people have done so. I will not recommend any of these methods because if people get bitten, and they likely will, I shall feel responsible!

I completely understand the need to step in and ‘save’ your dog. That is human nature when someone we love is being threatened. However, this is also when many owners get bitten by their own dog. Let me explain my way of looking at this…

Fight or flight

Every dog attack or energetic / frightening/ intensely fun activity is accompanied by a rise in adrenalin. Adrenalin signals our bodies to be prepared – be ready to fight for your life or to flee and preserve it. This is known as the “Flight or Fight Response” and is common in the animal world. Adrenalin courses through the system, speeding up the respiration (breathing) and heart rate, thereby enabling the threatened animal to run the fastest it ever has or to throw a few punches/kicks/bites as needed.

(As a side effect, adrenalin slows down other bodily processes such as digestion (no point digesting a 3-course meal if you are going to have to fight for your life) and this is why dogs who are stressed or in the midst of an altercation are not persuaded to return to you for treats!)

Another ‘F’ often said to be an alternative behaviour is the ‘freeze”, when the threatened dog will stay absolutely still, almost as if he is hoping the other dog will not notice. Many animals use the freeze stance until the threat has moved away (and this makes sense as many predators are only attracted to moving prey).

The curve below represents the way I think of the adrenalin or energy build up of a typical dog fight. This could also represent an energetic play session. Not all dogs will show this typical bell shaped curve of rising, peaking, falling energy. The peak, of course, represents the time when the physical fight (or full-on play session) is actually occurring. Some dogs may have energy curves that are quicker to rise or slower to fall.

Breaking up a fight

If you step in to a dog fight, chances are the energy is at its peak. That energy is going to be released somehow. Chances are it will be on you! You suffer from what is termed redirected aggression. Your dog (or the dog that is fighting yours) does not mean to bite you. You are simply in the path of attack. Red = only enter fight if you are prepared to be hurt

If your dog has not yet entered the fight – perhaps he has encountered another dog and has run towards it across the park or the other dog is coming towards yours and you think they might end up in a fight (or you just don’t want another play session to begin) – then you may be able to step in at this point and either:

  • distract your dog
  • command your dog

but generally these options are only possible if you have practised them at times other than when the adrenalin is starting to build. This is why I get my clients to practice commanding and distracting their dogs at different times and locations. When they eventually need to use it, their dog will then respond. Amber:  interruption is possible but difficult. Practice makes (almost) perfect

Of course the best time to prevent a dog fight is when the energy levels are at their lowest. This is when your dog will listen to you. This is when he will respond to treats or your commands. Most owners of ‘aggressive dogs’ instinctively know this. They prepare for a chance encounter with another dog every time they enter a park or even turn a street corner. Green = go (best chance of fight prevention)

So, is there anything you can do when your dog is in a fight or about to be?

  • You can turn and walk away with your dog
  • If the owner of the other dog is present, you can ask them to restrain their dog
  • You can break eye contact between dogs (this often helps diffuse any potentially threatening situations
  • Try running away calling your dog to you (but remember you may place yourself in danger is the approaching dog is people-aggressive!). Or some excited ‘happy talk’ to distract.
  • If you are in danger, stay still and quiet until the threat has moved away.
  • Learn more about dog body language and behaviour to be prepared.

More reading:

Is your dog aggressive?

Aggression problems solved Ask Dr Jo


  1. From Flick Bennett-Bremner: Good information Jo, perhaps a mention to owners that many fights are caused by owners anxiety passed on to their dog down the lead. Often, not always obviously, a fight will not even begin if owners allow dogs to sort it out for themselves

  2. i have 2 staffies – always bests of friends, no food agression etc until, the younger dog – 6 years of age attacked the other staffy who is about 8 years old. This has happened twice in the lst 6 months with no warning, no obvious issues and has resulted in the serious injury of the non agressive dog. any suggestions

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