Teeth-barring, fur-flying dog brawls can break out any place, but the growth of off-leash dog parks creates more opportunities for trouble. Be certain you can control your dog with vocal commands before bringing it to an area where it can run free -- a visit that's a privilege, not a right, says Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz, owner of Merit Puppy Training, which offers classes in the District. Here are tips to tame the beasts before and during a scuffle.
KNOW THE SIGNS. What seems like aggressive behavior at first glance may just be the dogs' way of checking each other out. Closely watch their body language, says Donna Krochak, veterinarian at Alexandria Animal Hospital. Know your dog's personality, and keep an eye out for behavioral changes when he's approached by a new dog. "If their ears are pinned back or the fur along their back stands up like a ridge, that means a dog's on guard." Dogs can often be more aggressive on-leash -- because they are protecting their owners -- than they might be off-leash, Krochak says.
CREATE A DISTRACTION. If it seems like a fight is about to break out, issue a firm command to your dog. Should vocal control fail, consider other ways to interrupt the pups. Some options: Throw water at their heads, or toss a ball at their hindquarters. Loud noises can also be effective -- try clapping, blowing a whistle or banging together trash can lids. Whatever you do, don't put yourself in harm's way. "The first thing I tell people is absolutely never get between two dogs. I've seen owners badly injured trying to break it up," says Marci Streck, a veterinarian at Caring Hands Animal Hospital in Centreville.
SPLIT THEM UP. If a fight does erupt, get the dogs away from each other, but don't grab their collars. Even a beloved pet can bite if you are too close to its head. Instead, find something large to separate the dogs, such as a trash can lid or folding chair: "Put a barrier between them, and continue with lots of verbal commands," Stasiewicz says. If the fight is particularly vicious, consider using pepper spray or a product such as Direct Stop, which delivers a citronella-scented stream.
LOOK FOR WOUNDS. Once the brawl is over, one or both dogs must leave the area or it's likely the fight will resume. When you're on neutral territory, carefully check your pet for injuries, scratches or bites that need medical attention. Krochak says bite wounds "can be deep and you can't always find them for a few days. They can get infected, and the owner may not know."