FAQ: How do I teach my dog to defend itself against another dog?

One of the most common searches that get people here is, “How do I teach my dog to defend itself?” There’s already a post on how to teach your dog to defend itself against people, but I have people ask me, frequently, how to teach their dogs to defend themselves against other dogs. Time to talk about that!

There are two things we’ll look at here: 1. Dogs defending themselves from annoying dogs at dog parks, and 2. Dogs defending themselves in dog fights.

1. Dogs defending themselves from annoying dogs at dog parks (etc)

I was at the dog park not too long ago, and someone’s perfectly friendly dog was trying to get another dog to play. We’ll call the friendly dog Friendly and the other dog Worried.

Friendly’s owner wasn’t calling him off because he was, clearly, friendly. Worried’s owner wasn’t doing anything, either because he didn’t know that there was a problem, or because he wanted his dog to defend itself. After circling away, rolling over, and trying to escape, Worried finally turned around and snapped at Friendly. Worried’s owner said, “That’s right, just tell him to back off,” and Friendly’s owner said, “Sorry about that,” but glared at Worried and his owner while taking her dog away.

What did the dogs just learn from this? Did Friendly learn to leave dogs alone when they look frightened? Did Worried learn that he can stand his ground, gain confidence, and get another dog to stop being a bully? No.

Friendly learned that this one dog is unpredictable and nasty. At best, Friendly is now going to be rude to some other dogs who might tolerate it, might be traumatized by it and never tell him to back off, might encourage it, or might attack him. There are enough dogs who will tolerate it or encourage it that he’s not going to learn to stop his behavior; he’s only going to learn that some dogs are unpredictable. At worst, Friendly learned that some dogs are unpredictable, he’s now going to be nervous which is going to bring out the other bullies and he’ll either be bullied and traumatized himself, or he’ll turn aggressive to keep the bullies at bay.

Meanwhile, Worried learned that meeting other dogs is scary and that he cannot trust his pack — his human — to help him. Dog packs work together and protect each other. When your dog is being bullied and you don’t step in, they learn that you either will abandon them to monsters and they can’t trust you (worst case), or that you’re useless, and they can’t trust you (best case). Worried also learned that attacking dogs will work. Next time a dog comes up to him he’s more likely to snap sooner and with more violence to get the dog to leave him alone. The next time it happens, he’ll up the ante again. Soon he’s dog aggressive.

This is the method most people use to teach their dogs to “defend themselves.” Now let me show you how dogs actually work.

One of my clients was having a problem with his young dog, A, mounting and playing too rough with more submissive dogs. We brought him to my house along with a submissive dog, Ike. Now, A is like Friendly, above: very friendly, very playful, but just getting full of himself. He could become a bully if we let him. I’ve spent a lot of time working with Cash and Lily so that they have excellent socialization skills, and neither overcorrect nor undercorrect a young dog. They each have different ways of dealing with a bully (Lily leaves the area and ignores them, while Cash plays “dad” and corrects them), but they are both appropriate.

We let A and Ike together. A started harassing Ike, playing too rough and trying to mount him. Ike did all the appropriate things; he tried to duck away when A was too rough, he tried to leave, he tried to lay down and request gentler play. A, being young, was oblivious.

Then we brought Cash in. Cash stood up tall (to say, “I’m not playing, here”) and went trotting after A as A went running after Ike. When A and Ike collided, Cash stood and watched for a moment. When it became clear that Ike wasn’t enjoying himself, Cash made a loud, open-mouthed noise and shouldered A away. He then proceeded to sniff A all over, essentially saying, “stay here and behave yourself.” After a minute, A eased himself away and went for Ike again.

Once again, Cash shouldered him away with a loud noise and they repeated the sniffing/licking/grooming ritual, with it increasing in time as Cash settled into his father role, and A settled into being a younger dog. When A eased away, he went more carefully to Ike. After a minute, he started getting pushy again; once again, Cash stepped in. This went on for about forty minutes before A got the idea and started playing nicely with Ike (who, realizing he was protected by Cash, agreed to play instead of running away), and rougher with Cash (who doesn’t mind playing rough).

What just happened in our pseudo-dog pack? Rather than teaching Ike to defend himself, Cash taught A to have good manners. Ike grew in confidence seeing that he was protected, and came out to play, meeting A halfway.

So in our dog park scenario above, someone should have come to Worried’s rescue, and taught Friendly firmly and persistently that he couldn’t play rough. Simply pushing him gently away from Worried would suffice.

Note also that if your dog is confident and knows that aggression isn’t okay, but they can’t get away from the annoying dog, they’re going to correct another dog appropriately. With a little noise, a shoulder away, and maybe a bark to say, “Hey! Enough!” They’re going to be Cash.

2. Dogs defending themselves in dog fights.

“Okay,” I hear you cry, “that’s all well and fine for dogs who are friendly but rude. What about a dog fight?”

Okay! Here we go.

Lily was doing zoomies around a ranch one day, when the ranch dog, who had some aggression issues, decided she’d had enough. She came charging over to Lily and attacked. I was much too far away to do anything, though I started running over. This was before I started using Lily for aggressive dogs, back when she’d been willing to fight other dogs, which was something we’d been working on. As I ran I yelled, “Lily! Down!”

Lily dropped under the much larger akita like a sack of bricks. The akita continued to stand over her, jaws clamped around Lily’s throat, snarling. When I got there, I grabbed it by the scruff until it let go, then I pulled it off and freed Lily. No one was injured.

If Lily had fought back against that dog, it would have escalated the situation. The dog weighed twice what Lily did, and had a thick coat to protect her from bites. Lily would have been injured, possibly both dogs would have been injured, and since Lily is a pit it’s possible the owner could have claimed that Lily started it. Lily, given society’s current feeling about pits, could have paid a very high price. Should she have defended herself at the risk of her life? No.

Here’s another scenario. I had Cash at a dog park, and a smaller dog started attacking him. Cash yelped repeatedly and ran to me while I was running to him. I grabbed Cash’s collar and pushed the other dog away, continuing to push him away. When the owner reached me, she scolded me for not letting Cash defend himself. Here’s the thing: that dog weighed maybe 40 pounds. Cash weighed 110. If Cash had defended himself against the smaller dog, he could have badly hurt the smaller dog without even meaning to. Cash would have ended up paying that price, too, at best being banned from dog parks and forced to wear a muzzle outdoors (at worst being put down). I’d have been liable to pay that dog’s vet bills and would have a dog on the federal “dangerous dog” list (which means an official sign, increased renter’s insurance or unable to get renter’s insurance at all), all because my dog defended himself. Instead, Cash learned that I will protect him, and when it happened again he was more willing to tolerate the bad behavior, less frightened by it, and grew in confidence. Now, that sort of minor aggression doesn’t both him; he swings out of the range of teeth and avoids it. (For major aggression, he’s still smart enough to run!)

It takes two dogs to be in a dog fight. If one of them refuses to fight, the likelihood of an injury drops significantly.

So… how do you teach your dog to defend itself against another dog? Don’t protect it. Consequently, you will:

1. Have a dog who doesn’t trust you
2. Run a far greater risk of injury to your dog and others’ dogs
3. Run a far greater risk of dog fights ending in having to give your dog up or put them down
4. Run a far greater risk of being unable to get or pay for insurance
5. Go against a dog’s nature, which is to work as a team and be protected

Given all this, why would you teach your dog to defend itself? If you want a confident, safe dog, teach them to ignore or walk away from aggression and dog fights, and that you’ll protect them so they feel safe enough to try new things, try playing with new dogs, and tolerate worse behavior than they might otherwise — because they know you’ll have their back.

Jenna

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6 thoughts on “FAQ: How do I teach my dog to defend itself against another dog?

  1. Hey, I have a dog, half pit half lab. He’s about 14 months old all loves to play. I live in the country with wide open space so he’s never on a leash. My mom it taking care of a friends dog who honestly could be put down by how aggressive it is. Early today my mom placed the second dog on a leash outside, for outside time, not knowing I was out with my dog. I didn’t know it was outside and as soon as i go looking for Smokie (my dog) I see him on the ground under the other dog getting dominated. I hated it im not gonna lie is was growling and all that bs. This dog has attacked me before, but at that time it was out of fear. Now, I don’t even look at it to not provoke it because if it happens again ill put it down. Anyway Smokie has never had this happen and If im not there I need my dog to know not to submit to another dog, any advice?

    • Hey!

      Actually, your dog did exactly the right thing in submitting. First of all, you can’t really teach a dog how not to submit to another dog except by abusing (beating) them. Obviously, that’s a bad idea! But even if you could, would you want to? If your dog doesn’t submit, and the other dog is aggressive, the other dog will try to tear him apart. If he DOES submit, 99% of the time the other dog will let him off with a nip.

      Now, the good news: you’re doing exactly the right thing in not looking at the other dog to keep from provoking him, and in keeping him tied up when he’s outside. Most likely, your dog isn’t going to want to go anywhere near him after that. If instead your dog decides he’d like to argue with him and tell him to go away, just call your dog back and praise him for keeping his space. If your dog stays away, there’s no fight, and if your dog submits when he can’t stay away, there’s no fight. I know it’s not what people want to hear, but it’s the truth!

      JB

  2. Pingback: FAQ: Will my dog defend me if I teach it not to be aggressive? Or, How do I teach my dog to defend me? | Jenna McDonald's Feathers and Fur

  3. Awesome. This was really thorough and helps me understand why I shouldn’t actually just sit back and watch my worried dog as she runs around the park with her ears pinned back “making a fool of herself since all she has to do is let the other dog know….”! Makes perfect sense to act as a pack. I’m going to start putting this into practice and hope it’ll build my girl’s confidence in me. My other one is the over-friendly young one (I always call her a bully, but reading this post kind of changes my perspective on that). So new question… How do we correct an over-friendly dog (in this case, my own dog) if we’re at a place like a dog park and can’t run over in time to be like the Cash of the situation to shoulder her away and teach her that she can’t be rude like that? I have the same problem with trying to teach her not to jump on people when I’m at a dog park and she gets petted by the person even while I’m telling her no.

  4. Hey great article. Wanted to as you if you could help identify what’s going on with my pit. Had trouble starting out with socializing him, but he’s made a massive improvement, or so I thought. He seems to have a dominance issue, and will sometimes check other dogs. He never takes it past a snarl thougj. Thing is thougj I’ve had two instances where the other dogs attacked my dog. I do mean attack, teeth and all. He doesn’t engage though just stands there looking scaed/confused. The owners I talked to said they haven’t seen aggressive behavior from there dogs nor did I take them as such after intoductions. Wanted to know is it that they haven’t taught there dog how to react when that situation occurs or do I need to engage in more obediant training. I sort of feel regardless of what my dog does(other than him attacking, which he doesn’t do) that the other dog should not go trying and sinking its teeth into my dog.

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