Dog fights are scary. I’ve seen them happen and have experienced the shock and “paralysis” from not knowing what to do.
I’ve only experienced close encounters involving my miniature Dachshunds but I’ve heard tragic big-dog attack stories from other Dachshund owners.
Unfortunately, at least one of them resulted in their dog dying.
The risk of damage to your little dog if another small dog attacks them is real but typically not as severe and scary as if they were attacked by a big dog.
Below, based on my experience and research, I share how to help avoid a big dog attacking your little dog and what to do if it happens.
UPDATE: This article was originally published in May 2011.
Where a Big Dog Is Most Likely To Attack a Little Dog
In my experience, dog fights can happen anywhere and between any two (or more) dogs.
Dog fights can occur between a big and little dog that are strangers or between two that have been friends for a while.
However, a big dog is most likely to attack your little dog outside of the home and will not be one your dog has met previously.
Two of the most common places for dog fights are the dog park and at local parks, especially when one or both of the dogs are off leash.
Why A Big Dog May Attack A Little Dog
There are many reasons why a big dog might attack your little dog.
It’s such a common occurrence that veterinarians have coined a term for it – Big Dog Little Dog or (BDLD)?
BDLD attacks are often extremely severe and potentially life-ending for the little dog involved.
So why would a big dog attack your small dog?
To redirect tension
Once I was driving down the road and saw two dogs being walked by the same owner become overstimulated and extremely agitated when they saw a dog across the street.
Suddenly, both dogs turned to what was near them to take out their aggression – each other!
Whether it’s due to overstimulation or tension, a dog may become very stressed or frustrated and look to the closest thing to take it out on.
Even dogs that know each other may fight to help displace stress and tension.
That could be your little dog if you are standing close enough.
Because their prey drive is triggered
The majority of dogs have some kind of prey drive.
It’s just a natural tendency handed down from a dog’s wild ancestors and/or the breed was developed to hunt game.
If your dog runs, the larger dog’s chasing and hunting instincts are likely to kick in so the larger dog may see yours as prey to attack.
The big dog perceives yours as a threat
Dogs communicate via body language and a limited set of noises like barking, growling, and whining.
It may seem unreasonable to you that a big dog would see your little dog as a threat but size doesn’t really matter in this case.
If your small dog is acting in an aggressive manner toward the larger dog – either true aggression or fear and defensive actions that could be misinterpreted – the larger dog may think your small dog wants to fight them and attack.
If one dog perceives that another is going to take something highly valued from them, they will often try to defend it.
This is called resource guarding.
Resource guarding often happens with toys, people, or food.
If an owner throws a ball for their big dog at the dog park and your little dog goes after it because they love playing fetch too, the larger dog could attack in an attempt to claim the ball as theirs.
Or if the larger dog is standing near its owner and your little dog comes too close, the dog could attack yours in an attempt to protect its person.
Their space is threatened
Every dog has a personal bubble that they may not want other dogs to come into.
Dogs, like people, will feel uncomfortable if another dog comes too close.
This often explains why walking your dog within 5 feet another may trigger the other dog to start barking and lunging at yours.
The other dog’s bubble may be larger than 5 feet!
A more obvious “bubble” would be a dog’s yard.
That’s why, even if you are walking with your dog on the sidewalk across the street, a dog may bark aggressively from behind the fence in their yard.
If a big dog thinks your little dog is encroaching on their space, they may attack to defend it.
In the yard, hopefully the fence keeps the dog in but beware because it’s not uncommon for a big dog to jump over a fence to go after another dog.
Proactive Things You Can Do to Help Prevent a Dog Fight
While it’s never your fault if a big dog attacks your little dog, there are some factors you can control in hopes of preventing one and keeping your small dog safe in public settings.
- Being keenly aware of your surroundings to avoid any potential conflicts or risky situations
- Watching for dominant body postures from other dogs such as prolonged eye contact, and high tail and stiff-legged approach, or a small freeze
- Socializing your dog so they know their manners around other dogs
- Teaching them to act neutrally to strange dogs
- Teaching your dog the “leave it” command so they will disengage their attention from other dogs
- Keep your dog on leash unless they have a 100% reliable recall
- Answering “no” when asked if your dog is friendly if your little dog is not friendly to all dogs all of the time
- Advocating for your dog’s space by telling others that your dog doesn’t want to be approached
- Avoiding off-leash areas (either formal or where you have seen a large number of them)
- Not allowing your dog to run around large dogs (either up to or away from)
- Giving large dogs plenty of space
- Staying relaxed (you) even if you are nervous so your dog doesn’t pick up on your emotions and become upset
- As a last resort, pick up your small dog and calmly walk away (but be aware this can result in injury if the big dog jumps up to try and get your dog).
If an off leash dog comes toward your little dog, be defensive.
What I often do is take a step or two toward the other dog and say, “Get!” in a strong and loud voice.
When it comes to protecting your dog, be assertive and don’t worry about appearing rude.
This will often catch the dog off guard and cause them to turn around and head the other way.
It also, hopefully, is loud enough for the owner to hear so they come get their dog under control.
Also consider bringing something for defense (that won’t permanently harm the other dog but will scare them) like a walking stick, pet corrector, or pepper spray, or whistle.
I admit I don’t consciously do this but I do carry a walking stick when we hike and sometimes an air horn for protection against wildlife.
Both of these things would also work as deterrents if a large, aggressive dog approached us.
The sad truth is, you can’t always stop a big dog from attacking a little dog.
In over half of the stories I’ve heard, the owner of the little dog says, “the big dog just came out of nowhere”.
Being surprised and rushed by a dog gives you little or no time to prevent the encounter or react.
How to Stop Big Dog From Attacking Your Little Dog
You may have heard several conflicting theories about what to do during a dog fight.
The bottom line to me is, try whatever you can until it works while trying to keep yourself as safe as possible.
Also, keep in mind that the “best” recommendations for stopping a dog attack may not be relevant or appropriate when there is a significant size difference between the two dogs.
I can say from experience that the #1 thing you should do if a big dog attacks your little dog is also the hardest to do – remain calm!
Adding stress and panic to the situation can escalate it and cause the big dog to double-down on their efforts to harm your little dog.
Staying calm also helps you remember and execute the proper way to respond to a dog fight.
Do not try to separate the dogs as you are likely to get bitten and you can also injure your dog further if the other dog will not let go (pulling encourages the other dog to keep hold).
It’s so difficult not to get into the middle of the dog fight when yours is being injured but it’s the safest thing to do.
Here are some things you can do to minimize any harm to your dog and try to break up the fight:
- Let go of your dog’s leash so they have a chance to run or fight back
- Yell for help – both for the other owner to control their dog and to enlist help of passers by
- Try to distract the other dog from a distance with a loud noise like a clap or sharp whistle
- Hit the attacking dog (it’s best to do this with a stick or object, not yourself), which may surprise them and cause them to release your dog
- Use an object to physically separate the dogs safely or at least temporarily break visual contact, which may help the dogs to break apart, like a backpack or stick
- Throw a blanket or jacket over each dog so they can no longer see each other
- Slide a “break stick” – a strong flat stick – horizontally into the larger dog’s mouth as close to the back of the throat as possible and twist. This will force them to release their grip.
When enlisting the help of others, beware that they may not know what to do, may be uncomfortable intervening, and could do more harm than good.
Therefore, it’s best to ask them to do something specific.
One of the most helpful, and safest, things people can do to help if your dog is being attacked is to form a tight circle around the dog fight.
This will help to limit the space for movement of the dog doing the attack.
It may prevent the dog from thrashing the small dog back and forth, which does more damage than a bite.
You may have heard of the wheelbarrow technique where each dog is grabbed by the back legs and lifted so they are balancing on their front legs like a wheelbarrow.
The dogs are then walked backwards, away from each other and into separate areas.
When it comes to breaking up a dog fight, I say try everything you can.
However, I didn’t specifically recommend the wheelbarrow technique here because it may be extremely difficult or impossible to grab onto the back legs of the small dog.
Attempting to grab a little dog’s back legs, because they’re short, could put your face right in the middle of the fight, which is the last place you want it to be.
The wheelbarrow technique for breaking up a dog fight isn’t really effective when one dog is significantly smaller than the other.
Also, because some small breeds like Dachshunds are known for back issues, you don’t want to further injure them by yanking on their back legs.
What to Do If Your Little Dog is Injured in a Dog Attack
Once your dog has been separated from the attacking dog, assess them for any visible injury.
If you can, attend to that right away to stop any bleeding or stabilize any broken bones.
If your dog is injured, your first priority is likely getting them to an emergency vet.
However, if you can, you should do these things first:
- Collect details from the other dog’s owner such as name, contact information, and whether they have third-party pet insurance or homeowners insurance (both may possibly cover any damage done by their dog).
- If the big dog’s owner is uncooperative, at least take a photo of their face and their dog.
- If there were any witnesses, try to get contact information from them.
- Take photos of the location of the fight and of your dog’s injuries.
- If your dog has been injured, report it to the police or animal control.
Even if it doesn’t seem like your dog was hurt, you may want to consider taking them to the vet to get checked over.
Many bite injuries are a lot worse than they look due to damage to the muscles and tissue underneath the skin and internal organs.
What causes one dog to become aggressive towards another is often unclear to us, and the reasons vary.
The best thing you can do is try to minimize risk and prevent a dog fight in the first place.
But a lot of times it’s not under your control. The big dog might come out of nowhere and surprise you.
Or maybe the big dog is one your little dog has met before and is on friendly terms with.
Even dogs that know each other can fight because of external stress, resource guarding, or because the large dog’s prey drive is activated.
That’s why it’s important to know what to do if a dog fight occurs and how to break it up so you are always prepared.