Fri, 04/14/2023 - 1:14pm

More Bite Than Bark

Dog fights are brawls, pure and simple

Since the 1800s, when a British sportswriter coined the phrase, boxing has been known as the “sweet science,” because it requires the fighters to be fierce, tactical and have a certain amount of anticipation for their opponents’ next move. Boxing matches are conducted under a set of rules, many of which still stem from those written in 1865 by a Welshman, John Chambers Graham, but published two years later under the name the Marquess of Queensberry Rules because John Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, endorsed the code.  

Much like barroom brawls, fights between two dogs have no such governing rules, and the only resemblance they bear to the “sweet science” is that they are invariably fierce, but they are otherwise light years away from fitting that description. When two dogs decide to settle a dispute in a frenzy of teeth, unless you are willing to finance their veterinarian’s winter vacation on Fiji, the only option is to separate them.

In the boxing world, when two fighters wind up in a clinch, all the referee has to do is put an arm between the two and they instantly separate and step back. It definitely requires a lot more than a simple gesture to put distance between dogs engaged in mouth-to-flesh combat.  

Breaking up a dog fight requires the agility of a hockey goaltender combined with the strength of a weightlifter. In the middle of a fight, even the sweetest-natured dog has all the instincts of a sow grizzly protecting her cubs. They will happily bite the hand that feeds them and afterward show the same level of remorse for their actions as did serial killers Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy. Many times I’ve done a pretty fair imitation of a gymnast performing an iron cross on the still rings trying to keep a pair of warring dogs far enough apart to avoid inflicting further damage on each other and subsequently on my bank balance.

There are several ways to break up a dog fight, none of them foolproof, by the way. The trick, with most of them, is to somehow end the fight without being the one who ultimately needs medical attention. I once broke up a fight between my master hunter Brittany and a really affable Chesapeake female I also owned who didn’t have even the faintest trace of an aggressive streak but who would defend herself if attacked. By the time I got the two separated — it apparently started when the Chessie failed somehow to pay proper homage to the satisfaction of her imperial majesty, the Brittany — it was abundantly clear that both dogs and the “referee” would need sutures.  

While the fight occurred on a Sunday afternoon, which made finding someone capable of putting in the necessary stitches problematic, luckily my vet happened to be home and was willing to meet me at the clinic to repair the damage to the dogs. By the time the dogs were sewn up, the bandages on my hands were soaked through and blood was dripping on the examination table, which meant my wounds also required attention. 

My physician at the time was a personal friend, which meant I had his home phone number. When I called to tell him what had happened and it was not only my opinion but that of my vet that I needed stitches, he said he’d be happy to make the needed repairs. But there was a hitch: He had just been called to the hospital, as there was a really messy accident on its way to the emergency room, and since multiple vehicles were involved, it was an “all hands” drill. That meant it was likely going to be at least a couple of hours before anyone was available to patch me up. 

Then he said, “Are you still at the vet clinic?” When the answer was affirmative, he said, “Okay, tell John [my vet] I said to sew you up. I promise I won’t tell either the state medical or veterinary board.” 

And that’s exactly what happened. However, that likely was just a one-time solution to the aftermath of a dog fight, and besides, the objective is to avoid needing the services of any medical professional, be it an MD or a DVM.

Dogs fight for a lot of reason — disputes over territory, toys, food and, with hunting dogs, birds. Some go on the offensive if they feel threatened. Other fights result when a dog is pushed beyond its level of tolerance. And some fights, I swear, occur just because two dogs feel like mixing it up for the hell of it.

Once, when I was judging a master-level spaniel test, a fight broke out between two English Springer Spaniels that seemed to happen for just that reason. One dog was coming off the field having finished his hunt, while the other dog was next to run. As it happened, the route to the field required the dogs to walk over a bridge wide enough for farm implements that spanned a creek, so it wasn’t like the dogs would have to pass close to each other if they met on the bridge. That’s what happened, but despite the space available for them to pass peaceably, with absolutely no warning or even any “preliminaries,” the fight was on.   

The hostilities were quickly extinguished with no damage to either the dogs or their owners, as one guy was quick, agile and lucky enough to grab his dog by a hind leg and pull him away while the other owner tackled his dog when he attempted to continue the battle after the other dog had been yanked out of the fray. Both dogs, however, exited the “arena” with much growling, posturing and threatening directed toward each other, along with snarls, raised ruff fur and semaphore white-of-the-eye messages.  

Although they never actually came to blows, something similar occurred between my Brittany and the one owned by my Nebraska hunting partner. The souls of cooperation when they hunting together, their spectacular teamwork vanished the minute both arrived back at the truck at the conclusion of the hunt. They’d instantly go toe to toe, mouthing the most vicious canine threats imaginable. They were like diplomats rattling their nations’ sabers in front of the United Nations General assembly or two boxing opponents trash-talking, flexing and posing at the weigh-in.

Still, it didn’t take more than a couple of these preliminaries to convince both Bill and I to grab both dogs the second they got to the truck and stuff them in their crates without so much as a pat or a “good girl” until both were secured. Under no circumstances would either of us ever take a bird out of our vests until there was no possible way for the dogs to actually carry out their threats.

There are almost as many ways to break up a dog fight as there are reasons why dogs fight. A friend of mine once broke up an altercation by pouring beer on the noses of the two pugilists. While most dogs actually like beer, they don’t like it poured on their nose. My friend said he wasn’t certain if the fight broke up because the dogs were wheezing and snorting from the beer in their noses or because they wanted to lap up the beer that had spilled on the ground.  

Another pal barely lifted a finger to successfully stop the fracas when his dog and his hunting partner’s decided to dispute the ownership of a mallard in the bottom of the duck boat. They came together amidships, which also happened to be where one of my friend’s legs was. When they started snarling under his leg, he grabbed both but lost his balance, and both he and the dogs pitched overboard into some really gawdawful marsh muck and water. He said it was amazing how quickly the fight went out of both dogs being submerged in that reeking marsh under a 200-pound man trying his best to get back in the boat before he was totally soaked by the odious mix of foul water and rotted marsh crud.

Actually, water is as good a way as any to break up a canine donnybrook. I have broken up a number of dog quarrels in my yard by turning the hose on the belligerents. I also once used a five-gallon can of water to cool off a spontaneous brawl that erupted between one of my Chesapeakes and a hunting partner’s Golden Retriever, with the Golden, surprisingly, being the one who started the dustup. 

I’m not sure why he wanted to duke it out with my dog because Mike was 20 pounds heavier and three years younger, but it wasn’t long before it was apparent that things weren’t going the Golden’s way. While he may have thought he was ahead on points since Mike’s ear was bleeding from the Golden’s initial attack, the “referee” (me) awarded a TKO to Mike because the Golden was definitely losing. Five gallons of cold water dumped over their heads magically separated the two and cooled their ardor for any additional combat.  

While dog fights are definitely not funny, one time I did witness one that was hilarious. Or it was for me, since it was between two Labradors, which meant I had no dog in the fight and thus was not expected to intervene. One of the dogs was known to be testy around other dogs, and the other wasn’t much better. For a breed known for its warmth and affection, those two must have been behind the door when the genes for those traits were being distributed.  

So, on a really slick and muddy Alberta wheat field, as both dogs headed for the same dead goose, apparently forgetting the rules about being steady and also developing instant deafness to their owners’ bellowed “Here” commands, I knew this would not end well. When their paths intersected, a battle royal erupted.  

By the time the owners arrived, the war was in full snarl. While one of the owners somehow managed to get a hand on his dog’s collar, the fight knocked the legs from under both owners before they could get the dogs separated, and all four went down in a tangle of arms, legs, dogs, mud, growls, slashing teeth and barely coherent yelling. The men were as helpless as turtles turned on their backs in the slick footing, and the guy who grabbed his dog’s collar had his hand trapped between the collar and the dog’s neck. The pile rolled over and over as dogs and humans alike skidded around in the mud.  

I enjoyed the melee as long as I could, but it finally became apparent that if I continued to stand there laughing, I’d either have to call 911 or drag the owners from the field myself, because it was clear they were losing. Gefion, the old Scandinavian goddess of good luck, must have been smiling on me that day, as I somehow managed to grab the collar of the dog whose owner’s hand wasn’t trapped in it and twist it until it turned the dog’s attention from trying to kill his opponent to trying to breathe.

When his owner was finally able to regain his feet, he reclaimed the dog from me and proceeded to address him in terms that certainly are not found in the AKC’s Labrador Retriever standard or the breed’s history. I suspect the other owner may have made similar comments about my ancestry when, still laughing, I suggested that if he ever got tired of hunting he might want to try mud runs for recreation. 

However, I could never be sure what, exactly, he was saying since it’s very difficult to understand someone who is trying to talk with a mouthful of mud.



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