Dog Fights: What To Do When a Big Dog Attacks Your Little Dog
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.
While following dog park rules can help minimize any risk, it can’t eliminate it.
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.
About the Author
Hi, I’m Jessica. I’ve been studying the Dachshund breed since 2007, owned 3 of my own, and shared in the lives of thousands of others through their owner’s stories. When I’m not sharing what I know on this blog, you can find me hiking, camping, and traveling with my adventurous wiener dogs.
We always worry when walking our dogs (on leash-they are never off lead except when running a mark or blind while training and then they have an e-collar on them). Many times aggressive (non leashed) dogs have run up on us. You can tell the owner of the dog over and over to contain their dog, but usually they don’t take it seriously. Having an intact male Chessie, we have to be very diligent. Thunder won’t go looking for trouble, but if an aggressive dog gets in his face he won’t take it for long, (except small dogs, he seems to never mind those running up to him). Of course a warning growl is usually enough to send them packing. Storm is actually less tolerant of an aggressive dog in her face. (That is part of a Chessie being a Chessie and why the breed is not for everyone. They will play nicely with non-threatening dogs, but it is the aggressive ones that they will not tolerate.) Usually we make sure to walk with a heeling stick which can be helpful to dissuade a charging dog. But should a dog fight occur, we would never try to get in the middle. (Thank goodness we have never had to deal with that.)
We have had that happen to us many times — our dogs are always on leashes on walks (only come off-leash at the park IF no one is in sight and at the dog park). Unfortunately, both Diesel and Evee have been attacked by bigger dogs charging us (the dogs were off-leash while our guys were on-leash). It’s very tough to handle those situations. Evee is so little and could easily get hurt or even killed by a big dog and Diesel is a bit fearful and reactive to begin with, so these encounters just further ingrain his anxiety.
But as far as dog parks go, almost every time that we go, there’s a big dog fight. I don’t understand why people bring dog-aggressive dogs to the dog park …
I agree that it is frustrating when people let their off-leash dogs approach your on-leash dog. Chester is super freindly but ANY dog that feels “tied up” while being approached by a dog that is very focused on them can, and usually do, feel threatened. It scares Gretel. When that happens I try to place myself between the approaching dog and Chester and Gretel. That way they can peek out from behind me and approach as they feel comfortable. Sometimes I get so frustrated though I have said something in a rude tone to people like “Please keep your dog away from mine. They are not friendly (even though they usually are)”. Dogs that are illegally off-leash on trails and do that frustrate me the most.
atlanta’s piedmont park can get unruly with intact pitties and clueless owners not paying attention. we’ve had at least one incident of a dog killing another dog, and one nearly killing one. people take their aggressivedogs in as a status symbol, then don’t keep an eye on them. call me biased, but i don’t think intact dogs should be allowed off leash. glad you keep stormy on leash! that is being a responsible owner!
Interesting article, as was the Bedford telegraph article. I do think that we as dog owners know our dogs well enough to know how they will respond in many situations. Just like parents of children, I think we tend to trivialize bad behaviors. I would not take my dog to the dog park because they are not trained well enough and would not listen me. Personally I think I would be irresponsible to do so. I think most dog owners would feel the same way but there is always one bully on the playground.
If faced with an attack, I hope I have the presence of mind to remember the article on what to do and what not to do. I fear I would be the screaming lady with arms flailing to an fro.
We frequent dog parks very often with Bailey and dog fights are always in the back of our minds when we go. We are lucky in that the local parks that we have, the owners are very responsible and on top of their dogs.
However occasionally you get an idiot that brings their dog to the park and it is clear that their dog should not be at dog parks. Some dogs just can’t handle it. They don’t know how to socialize properly in a pack of random dogs and that leads to a possibly aggressive dog. With Bailey being so small and unable to defend himself against a bigger dog, I am always not only watching him but the other dogs around us.
Bailey has had 2 incidents with other dogs at a dog park that I can recall. The first time was at our usual park, that isn’t technically a dog park, just a field at a local university that all the locals, students and university staff bring their dogs to. Because its not a real dog park, we don’t get a lot of random people. You know everyone who comes there and as a result the dogs all know each other. Because of this, my guard is always let down at this park. We had just gotten to the park. I took a seat in the grass and began petting a dog that I hadn’t seen in a while, when all of a sudden I hear a sound from Bailey that sounds like he is being murdered. I turn and he is scrambling to get away from a boston terrier and running towards me onto my lap for protection and comfort. At first I didn’t think too much of it. He knew the other dog very well and sometimes he can be a bit of a cry baby if another dog gets a little rough. Until I looked down and saw that my hand was bloody after petting him. The Boston bit and punctured the very edge of his ear. Luckily it wasn’t anything too serious. The owner of the Boston is actually a Vet so she spent some time looking at it as well. Once it stopped bleeding it was fine. No one really saw what happened. I don’t know if Bailey did something to provoke the attack or not. He was shaken up by it but then 15 minutes later, Gaston showed up and he quickly forgot about the incident and all he wanted to do was play with his best friend.
The second incident happened a couple months ago at our town’s official dog park. We had just entered and there was a large pit bull mix by the entrance. It took at interest in Bailey and at first that interest wasn’t necessarily aggressive. When new big dogs are overly interested in Bailey, it freaks him out so Bailey started to cry and back away from the dog. This reaction only excited the dog more and his actions turned more aggressive towards Bailey. It escalated to the dog chasing Bailey in circles as Bailey was trying to get away as the dog started to snap at him, and Bailey crying bloody murdy. As your post said, our first instinct was for Craig to scoop up Bailey. The dog did jump up at Craig once, but the dogs owner was finally able to grab ahold of his dog now that they weren’t running in circles. The dog was never able to make much contact with Bailey and cause damage although if we weren’t able to separate them when we did, he possibly could have.
So in our experience, dog fights can happen anywhere with anyone. The first one happened with a dog that Bailey was very familiar with. The second one a stranger that was a result of a very unsuccessful first meeting. The most you can do is pay attention to your dog and the other dogs in the park, and hope that the other owners are doing the same. We are lucky in that there are many dog parks around us and groups of owners are very responsible. If we ever went to a new dog park and the groups of people and dogs there weren’t responsible, we would choose another park, no matter if that park was the nicest, most state of the art dog park around. Unfortunately, people might not have that luxury of choices when it comes to dog parks, but luckily we do.
I admit that I may be a little more lax with Chester and Gretel because they are small. I never let them off leash if we are not in a fenced dog park. They are hounds and will get fixated on a scent, head off into the sunset and never come back. I know in a fenced area they can only go so far.
At the dog park, Chester is mellow and friendly to the point of not paying much attention to dogs. He gravitates towards people for pets. I tend to pay less attention to what he is doing but I admit that can be bad becaus it also means I am paying less attention to what other dogs may be doign TO him. In 8 years I have never had an incident with him though.
Gretel is a bit of a different story. She wasn’t soicalized properly when we adopted her so she has a lot of anxiety issues. Usually that means she is timid and submissive and ends up running from other dogs. If she feels really threatened though she can turn into a barking maniac. She dows not attempt to engage the other dog and has never snapped or bitten. In fact she always maintains her distance while she is barking but it could trigger aggression in the other dog. Every other time she has great recall but when she sees red like this I can’t break her focus and it always ends in a crazy frenzy of me chasing her around flailing my arms. She has gotten way better, and we have gotten better and noticing the point where she might go into that mode so we can stop it before it happens, but we certainly aren’t as vigilant as we would be if she was a bigger dog. I think we let her get away with more than we possibly should.
I certainly am going to be more alert for potential dog issues at parks now that I have read these articles.
We were one of the readers who expressed concern with dog parks and/or fights. I am probably overly cautious, but I watch my surroundings like a hawk whenever we’re outside with Gus. We had a couple of unfortunate incidents in the past and from then on I’ve always been a bit paranoid.
We only visit the dog park in SA that has a separate small (or timid) dog area. We’ve watched way too many dog fights on the other side of the fence to risk taking Gus in there, who can be reactive.
Great post…and good reader feedback! We always learn so much through other people’s comments!
I wish SO badly that our dog park had a small dog area. Evee is only 10-pounds and I worry so much that she’ll get hurt/eaten by one of the big dogs (yesterday there was a rottie there that was a whopping 165-pounds!!!). Little dogs need a safe haven play space.
I undersstand. The issue of big dogs accidentally hurting my little dogs is a big one for us because dachshunds have such fargile backs and big dogs tend to bat their paw at the middle of their back when trying to play.
We are lucky because most of the off-leash parks here do have a small/shy dog area.
Interesting post. All I know is that I’ve been to our Dog Park, which is a lovely place, 3 times and each time there has been an incident!
The first time someone called the Dog Warden as a Dog was being aggressive with other Dogs and the owner was allowing it.
The second time two people were ‘jogging’ in the Dog park (yep, seems odd! Even I wanted to chase them) – anyhow, one of them ending up getting bitten by a Dog and the police and Dog Warden were called.
The third time a fight broke out between two Dogs and they wouldn’t let go of each other, luckily my Mum had just put me back on my lead when this happened, so happy I wasn’t involved.
I’m a lover, not a fighter, so I get scared and confused when other Dogs are aggressive.
Needless to say Mum isn’t a big fan of taking me back to the Dog park and I usually just have play dates with Dogs we’ve got to know.
Your pal Snoopy 🙂
Sounds like you have a reason to be leery. Your batting average isn’t good. It makes me feel lucky that we have never experienced a serious incident.
Wow. Great comments. Thanks everyone. Its very eye opening to hear everyone’s experiences and opinions.
unfortunately many people are not at all in control of their dogs, and they think the park is a free for all and that this is just a “normal” part of dog play. there are small tiffs or grunts and quick corrections, but anything beyond that is not normal and should not be tolerated. i know people who leave when they see certain dogs come to the park, and certainly the people that patron the park need to be the advocates of it’s fantastic resource, so that it is not lost to chaos. this is a tough call- but it has mostly to do with the people- and carrying squirt bottles, perhaps air horns, slip leashes and some other tools might be worth it. people have to speak up and talk to each other about what goes on there, share stories and police it for themselves. hopefully this preventative aspect will keep the serious fights from breaking out.
I am thinking of getting an air horn or loud whistle to help break up a dog fight if it ever happened or so I can use it to distract Gretel if she goes into one of her barking fits. The loud noise may also startle the owner into actually doing something to control their dog too :0
Thanky Thanky for all this good ionrmfation!
I’ve run into a few aggressive dogs (seriously, if your dog isn’t dog-friendly to ALL dogs, then answer “No” when I ask if your dog is friendly and answer “No” if i ask if my dog and I can come up to you), but I only ever got scared for gwynn once when he was at a dog-park. A dog that he’s met a few tiems before and always played nice with sent him bolting for rescue. strangest thing – it was like the other dog was just having a bad day of it and decided Gwynn was the cause! His owner had him on-leash and out of the dog park so quickly she just aboug carried her near-100lb dog out of there, and she was so apologetic about it.
I admit, when I was a newbie dog owner I didn’t really ask if my dog could come up to someone else’s dog. Now I always ask. As for my reply when people ask me (because Gretel is not freindly to ALL dogs) is to say yes but let them know that Gretel is anxious and to come slow. I also let them know she might bark or growl but has never bitten. As a person that owns a reactive dog I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it when people hear that she isn’t always friendly but are still willing to cautiously let our dogs meet. Gretel needs that in order to learn what is approprate behavior and that not all dogs are threats. I understand why but it doesn’t help me if you hear what I have to say and then pull away and skuttle off. However, if your dog also tends to the reactive it is probably better to do. It’s up to the owner of the other dog to decide. I am just saying if you have a freindly dog please give Gretel and chance.
I am always willing to try approaching when a person makes it clear that their dog may or may not be happy to meet Gwynn. Sometimes the other dog makes a bit of noise (meh… Gwynn doesn’t react too much to barking) or just backs off and avoids him, but other times they’re playing and sniffing each other cheerfully. I meant more that if your dog might attack (in an ‘i’m going to hurt your dog’ way) my dog, or some dogs, or certain types of dog, then definitely don’t tell me that your dog is friendly. The dog I ran into whose owner said ‘yes’ when he should have said no tried to take a chunk out of gwynn’s neck, and I was lucky that gwynn reacted to the snarl and snap by jumping back and behind me. The guy then tried to grill me about why my dog was causing his dog to react unusually (Him – is your dog male? me – uh-huh… him- unneutered? me – nope… (and why didn’t you ask these questions before bringing your dog close to mine, if these things make him reactive?) him – Oh… well, my dog just doesn’t like male dogs sometimes – your dog is probably just too dominant. and I’m left thinking, Yeah, my wimpy puppy is so dominant that your full-grown dog who weighs at least 30 lb more than him felt the need to try to tear his throat out, that is clearly the explanation here), as if it were my fault that his dog was aggressive.
It sounds like you’re making the right moves, and trying to give Gretel a chance to become less nervous around other dogs without alarming the other dog owner. That type of nervousness is part of why i ask everyone if their dogs are friendly/if Gwynn and I can come up to them… that way I know if i should entirely avoid you, or if I should keep gwynn on a tighter leash so that he can’t follow the other dog if it retreats behind its owner.
Wow, what a topic. We don’t have a dog park near us so we are usually alone running up the mountain. we’ve been to the one in Park City a couple of times without a problem. I have to say, if a pitbull was aggressive toward one of my dogs, with no owner to control it, I wouldn’t hesitate to try and stop it. I don’t know if I would kill it….
Thanks for the great info.
Just FYI…according to the article the dog who was shot didnt actually die. The article said the owner “took it to the vet for medical attention”. I don’t know if that was intentional or just good luck.
My mommy is afraid to take me to a doggie park — I would love to go! When I was a little puppy, my furry sister Nala and I were taking a walk around the neighborhood, and a really BIG dog broke free of the stake that was keeping him on his leash. Nala freaked out and the big dog nipped her ear, and I didn’t know what the heck was going on… all while mommy was getting tangled up in our leashes and yelling for help. Thankfully, the big dog really didn’t do any real damage, but it scared mommy a lot. Nala doesn’t join us for long walks anymore (she’s a delicate doggie of 12 years), and she doesn’t walk far with me. She’s also leery about other big dogs. I think mommy should walk with a big stick and put the past behind her.
Woofs & hugs,
Jessica – I’m so glad you wrote this article. I’ve been thinking of writing on this exact topic, and now you’ve saved me the time. And more importantly, you’ve given me the info I needed. Here’s hoping we don’t ever have to put your great tips into action –
Karen, Phoebe, and Scout
One of my biggest fears is Summit or Gretel getting attacked by a big dog but I admit I didn’t know exactly what I should do in that case. It’s always difficult to do all the right things when you’re in a panic but I’m going to try and commit these things to memory.