For those of us who frequent parks, we are not unfamiliar with dogfights. The aggression that we witness can occur between two dogs that have never seen each other or between two dogs that have had prior contact.
The reasons why dogs become aggressive at parks are due to dominance and prey aggression. Both types of aggressive behavior can easily get out of control. Correcting the aggressive dog (at the appropriate time) can prevent a disaster from occurring.
Dominance aggression is very common and is usually seen in non-neutered male dogs or dogs approaching puberty. Since dogs are pack animals and packs need leaders, it is not uncommon for a dog to assert himself. A hierarchy of individuals is formed as pack members challenge each other for positions of authority. Though this kind of aggression does occur among females, it is most prevalent among unaltered mature males or those approaching maturity.
One of the ways that a dog asserts its dominance is to assume a physically superior position over a subordinate. Mounting is the most obvious dominant position. Many owners mistake mounting for sexual behavior. Unless the animal being mounted is a female in heat, the mounting is probably a display of dominance. Some owners find this behavior humorous. By tolerating it, the behavior is encouraged. The dog views this as confirmation of its dominant status.
Dogs do commonly warn each other off with snaps or growls. These gestures are not intended as combat, especially when females react toward males. Although most of the time dogs usually work out hierarchy without resorting to actual physical combat, owners do need to recognize situations that can lead to disaster. Certain challenging postures (such as standing very erect, holding the head over another's back, direct staring eye contact and mounting) need to be corrected immediately by the owner.
If these postures continue to persist, owners should keep an eye out to make sure that a fight is not ready to erupt. Make clear to your dog that this behavior is not desired. Remember that gentle crooning does not dissuade undesirable behavior, but rather encourages it. Keep in mind that once dogs learn to fight they may form a pattern that is sometimes difficult to unlearn.
Prey aggression takes a form that is often misunderstood by pet owners and even professional obedience trainers. Prey aggression is not actually dog fighting, but is rather the psychological drive inherent in some dogs to chase, capture and seize prey. It generally occurs between medium and larger size dogs that show an exceptional fascination with smaller, weaker dogs.
The scenario often starts with the larger dog playing roughly with, or chasing the smaller dog. If the smaller dog begins to exhibit fear, this may stimulate the prey drive in the larger dog, causing him to play even more roughly. At this point, the larger dog should be controlled, otherwise the situation can get out of hand. The smaller dog or puppy may scream, and it is not rare for a larger dog to become so stimulated that it will grasp the smaller dog in a "killing" prey grip.
The specific actions described here in both dominance and prey aggression can vary, though most aggressive situations that occur in a place like a dog park generally fall into one of the two categories.
If your dog does get into a fight, try to remain calm and use whatever measured force is necessary to break it up. Be careful: breaking up dogfights can be dangerous. Consider your own safety first. In most cases, injuries sustained by intervening owners are far worse than the dogs suffer. Avoid reacting hysterically and screaming at the dogs and the other people. This just serves to add fuel to the fire. Do not insert a hand or foot between the two rival dogs because their natural reaction may be to redirect the attack to you.
Most dogfights occur between dogs that are owned by nice people who don't intend for their dogs to get into a fight. But you should know that ultimately you are responsible for your dog's actions.
Dogs may be our best friends, but their thought process differs from ours. Understand your dog as a dog. It doesn't mean you have to love him any less.
Mike Herstik (International K-9), is a consultant to law enforcement, military and government agencies. A professional dog trainer for more than 20 years, Herstik is the dog trainer for the LAPD Bomb Squad.