Dog-Dog Aggression Between Housemates Part Two: Bites

Last week, I covered the scenario leading up to a devastating incident in which my younger dog, Trout, attacked my older dog, Layla, and the two dogs fought. While the fight was ended quickly with the fast actions of myself and my boyfriend, the injuries that the two dogs sustained took a bit longer to heal. This week, I want to talk about the story the injuries told me.

Where a dog bites another dog is very meaningful. Different bite locations tell us about the dog’s intentions during the fight – one reason why I always ask where one dog bit another when I’m working dog aggression cases. The severity of the bites is also very meaningful and gives a good idea of how safe the dog is to work with. Past history is a great indicator of future behavior, which means that knowing where and how hard Layla and Trout have bitten other dogs can tell us a lot about what they’re likely to do in the future.

IMG_1941After the fight, both dogs had injuries. Trout’s injuries initially appeared worse. She had a gash over her eye that was bleeding profusely and was eventually closed with two sutures, as well as punctures on her cheek and ear that were also bleeding but which didn’t require any medical care other than thorough cleaning. Since she’s a white dog, the blood from her wounds was starkly visible and very shocking. She fussed at her injuries, trying to paw at the gash above her eyebrow, so her paws quickly became red with blood too. She also had blood around her mouth from Layla.

Injuries to the face and ears such as those Trout received are the most typical injuries sustained in dog fights, and they can certainly be alarming at first. Ears and tongues especially tend to bleed alarmingly, and the wounds on ears often have trouble clotting as the dog shakes his or her head, reopening the wound and causing further damage (not to mention the crime-scene-like atmosphere that the splatter of blood such head shaking creates).

That said, injuries to the face tend to be the least concerning to professional dog behavior consultants. They’re the most common, as the skin there is thin and easily torn, and are also indicative that the dog(s) were not fighting with serious intent to harm but rather disagreeing. It’s the difference between a bar-room scuffle and a knife fight in an alley – there may be a broken nose or cracked knuckles in the bar room brawl, but no one’s actively trying to kill their combatant. Dogs who bite at other dogs’ faces or ears are angry, but not usually serious about causing damage.

Next up in the hierarchy of seriousness are bites to the sides of the neck, shoulders, or hips. These bites are a sign that the dog is taking the fight to the next level, but still is not yet intent on causing serious harm. Even more concerning are dogs who bite at the base of the skull, over the jugular, or on the other dog’s legs. These dogs are trying to disable or kill their opponent. The very most serious of dogs, who typically go for the underside of their opponent in an attempt to disembowel them, are intent not on disabling but on causing death, and dogs who injure in this way should never again be allowed in the presence of other dogs without extremely careful management such as the use of leashes and basket muzzles.

IMG_1943Layla’s injuries initially didn’t look too serious. She was missing tufts of fur and had extensive bruising over her chest and breastbone, and a deep gash on her right hind leg just above her knee. However, these bite wounds concerned me much more than Trout’s very visible and bloody battle scars. The wound in Layla’s back leg required the placement of a drain, and the entire wound took eight sutures to close. Layla was not able to bear much weight on that leg for close to 24 hours, and even today after the external wound has healed she still experiences some weakness and trembling in that leg after exertion, for which we’ve made an appointment with a veterinary rehabilitation specialist.

Bruising without punctures - a Level 2 bite.

Bruising without punctures – a Level 2 bite.

So, what do the pattern of Layla’s injuries tell us? Trout began by biting me on the elbow as I attempted to block her attack, bruising but not puncturing the inner part of my arm. This sort of bite is considered a Level 2 bite out of 6 using Dr. Ian Dunbar’s bite scale, which starts with Level 1 bites (snapping without making contact) and ends at Level 6 bites (where the dog kills the victim or consumes flesh). Generally, euthanasia is recommended as the safest option for dogs who cause Level 4 or higher bites, which refers to dogs who bite deeply enough to puncture more than half the length of their canine tooth, and who may grab the victim and shake or tear flesh as they slash.

After launching herself over me, Trout then began biting at Layla’s chest and over her breastbone, again bruising (and removing tufts of fur), but not puncturing. During this time, she had decent bite inhibition, a term that refers to how strongly a dog bites down. Bite inhibition is one of the most accurate predictors of rehabilitation in dogs. A dog who snaps without making contact or who bites without puncturing skin is much less likely to cause serious damage in the future, while a dog who has hurt another dog badly enough to require medical attention is much more likely to cause that level of damage in the future.

The fact that Trout was biting at Layla’s chest and over her breastbone tells us that she was much more serious about “winning” the fight than was Layla, who was biting at Trout’s face in an attempt to back her off. However, initially Layla had worse bite inhibition, actually breaking skin on Trout rather than just bruising. This is something I know about Layla, and one of the main reasons I am so careful when introducing her to new dogs. While she’s never seriously hurt another dog, she’s punctured the skin on a face or ear on a handful of occasions.

The intensity of the fight likely escalated after Layla physically hurt Trout. Trout suddenly became even more serious, biting Layla’s back leg badly enough to badly injure her. This wound was deep and wide, as Trout grabbed onto Layla’s leg with all the force she had and then shook her head from side to side. Layla also had bruising and extensive swelling on the back side of this same leg, and I suspect that had we not intervened Trout would have continued to try to seriously injure or kill her housemate. Note that I don’t think that Trout initially meant for the fight to go so far. The earlier bites where she only bruised rather than puncturing tell a story of a dog who started something she wasn’t able to handle, then likely got scared and began to fight more intensely. Of course, guessing this is anthropomorphic and it’s entirely possible that there were other motivations driving Trout’s actions. However, since we can’t ask her and she can’t tell us, I can make a good guess about what happened based on the evidence at hand.

As you can see, knowing the level of commitment and seriousness that different bite locations and varying bite inhibition levels convey provides a great deal of information on the involved dogs’ intentions. They also tell us a lot about safety, providing insights into the future behavior and possible liability repercussions of working with any given animal. Any dog who has done damage to another in the past is likely to repeat that performance given the wrong set of circumstances, and it’s important to go into any behavior modification program with your eyes wide open to the future possibilities of working with your dog. As sad as it can be, I absolutely believe that euthanasia is an appropriate choice in certain dog-dog aggression cases if your dog’s past history indicates a serious danger to other dogs in the future. And of course, no dog who has injured another should ever be bred, as there’s often a strong genetic component to dog aggression.

However, that doesn’t mean that all dog aggression cases warrant euthanasia, and it’s also important to know that given sufficient management and training, dogs who have a history of causing harm can absolutely live out the remainder of their lives safely and happily. In fact, this is one of the most common behavioral cases I take on, as I love helping people have success with their dog aggressive or reactive dogs.

Next week, I’ll discuss what I did to keep Layla and Trout safe after their fight. In the future, I’ll also discuss what I did to help the two girls learn to live peacefully with one another again. I’m happy to report that, other than some lingering weakness in Layla’s hind leg, both girls’ injuries have completely healed, and they’re back to coexisting well. In the meantime, have you ever witnessed a dog fight? What did the injuries tell you about the dogs’ varying intents? Please share your experiences in the comments section below!

70 responses to “Dog-Dog Aggression Between Housemates Part Two: Bites

  1. Are you still available for discussion about this

  2. Heather Johnson

    Our Shepard mix grabbed our little pug in the mouth and lucky I was close by to break it up by opening Bella’s jaws and getting Bailey out. Bailey is torn up behind her ear and her back is sore to touch.
    We have had Bailey since she wa 6 weeks old and now she is 10 years old. I adopted Bella 2 years ago as the family was putting her down as they had a new baby.. They had problems will Bella running off when when they opened their door. I have had no problems. She shakes hands when I leave and I always bring her a reward when I get home. This is the second time she has grabbed for the head. I would appreciate any help you could give me. I love her and she has everything she wants. Bailey, is the world to me and I was so stressed and shaken all night. I just could not sleep. Thank You kindly.

  3. I have a quick scenario that just happened and would love some insight. Our yellow lab which is such a sweet 7 year old will air snap at my parents chocolate lab if he walks by when they are eating or if he has a bone or treat. They play together all the time and wrestle daily. While we were on vacation the dog sitter came home to find the yellow lab bloody with puncture wounds on the top of his head and a gash on his neck. We don’t know exactly what happened or who the aggressor was but we are assuming the yellow lab started it over food. The chocolate lab drags everything off the counters so we are guessing something was left out and he got it down. This is their first fight and it was a doozy. Should we be worried or just make sure and monitor their actions when food or treats are present. Thanks for any advice

  4. I have 2 dogs for the first time ever and I love having 2 but it’s also a steep learning curve. They’re both cavaliers. Our new pup is a 6 month old male and our other one is a 2.5yo girl. It took a while for her to warm up to him but now they play wrestle half the day. Recently though our girl has started getting nasty towards her brother over toys and treats. It started when I got them goat horns to chew on – she decided both were hers and bit Milo on the face (didn’t puncture), now she does it over ice cubes (which she never liked before we got him), and today she even tried biting him on the face after I gave them both a piece of kangaroo sausage, she inhaled hers then tried intimidating him into spitting out his tiny bite sized piece almost as soon as I’d put it in his mouth by growling and launching at his head (I don’t think she bit him that time though but it looked bad). She is fine with food with me and my boyfriend. I can pat her all over and take away her treats and meals even when they’re already in her mouth and she doesn’t mind. Our friends keep telling us not to interfere so they can establish a proper hierarchy but I’m starting to worry if she’s going to become permanently food/toy aggressive towards other dogs. It’s also hard for me to tell if she’s just nipping his face or if she’s trying to do real damage when she growls and is all over him and he cries out. I don’t want to intervene too late. Do you have any advice for me? :(

  5. Currently, we have two big dogs and two little dogs. Sheila (15 yro Chihuahua), Lala (4 yro Chihuahua), Ebby (4 yro Pittie; rescued 1 1/2 yrs ago) and Greenie (6 yr Pittie; fostering for 4 months now).

    Things have been great with the exception that Greenie has been a little food aggressive which we learned to handle and he has snapped at Sheila 2-3 times but never making physical contact.

    Last night, the dogs were wanting to come in the door and we could hear Greenie scratching at the door. Then I heard growling and a quick fight (which I immediately thought was just the big dogs getting annoyed with each other like they usually do) but then I heard screeching from the little dog. One of the big dogs bit Lala over her face and she has 4 puncture wounds. Greenie ran off and hid. Ebby immediately wanted to lick Lala’s wounds.

    While we didn’t actually see what happened, we are making assumptions based on what we heard.

    Does anyone know of a good way to tell which dog might have attacked?

  6. Kirsty McGregor

    We have just introduced a 5 month old rescue pup into our family. We have two other dogs and Arthur, an 18 month old lurcher keeps attacking the new pup over resources. We manage resources as much as possible but yesterday there was an attack over a spider/grub found in the garden. There is no question he is bullying the new pup which we are working on but in the meantime I’d like to understand a bit more about the intensity of Arthur’s attacks. He’s never drawn blood but the attack is rapid with very little warning – the first verbal cue is the snarl of the attack. When I pull him off he’ll try and go back for more and seems to particularly go for the pup’s legs but I’m not sure if that’s just because the pup is on his back screaming. It sounds awful and looks scary but no injuries have been sustained… yet. It’s certainly not harmless as Arthur looks like a dog possessed and always wants to go back for more. Like I said, I’m working on the bullying aspect and am trying to ensure these attacks don’t happen as I don’t want new pup to be a victim but it would be good to understand the level of Arthur’s ferocity and his long-term rehabilitation chances. I should also say that he attacked our second dog in a similar manner when we first got her but they’re fine together now. He’s domineering though and still sometimes steals her toys but we correct the bulling that we see.

  7. Hi,

    Your post is very helpful to me, because we had a similar incident occur. I have 2 dogs and yesterday, my border collie pup bit the other dogs face and he needed stitches. We witnessed the incident which was a quick bite, triggered by a suet cake (it was hanging off a chair, the border collie​ was interested in it, and the hound came over to investigate and that’s when he bit) i think he thought it was a special dog treat, of which there was just one, because it smelled like a rollhide bone which they love. I have since removed all suet feeders from the back yard (to the front yard which is not accessible or visible to the dogs). they usually get along great- the only other times the border collie pup has lashed out at him has been when one of them has a rawhide bone, and I want to say it’s infrequent but now I realize it may be because the hound backs down so readily. My border collie has growled and sometimes even trembles when he has a rawhide bone and the hound comes over towards him, which I respond to by telling him no and taking away the rawhide and storing it out of sight. The border collie seems almost relieved when I do this. Am I right to stop giving my dogs special bones except when they are each in their crates? Seems like my border collie just can’t handle it.

  8. Hi … i am also experience some trouble with my two dogs they are both male and the older one keeps on biting the younger one in the face …. he will stand on top of the younger one and bite him a few times.

  9. The hard part is two females can seemingly get along fine until some defining moment over food dropped on the floor sets off the near death or even fatal explosion. It’s important to see if that the case in a controlled situation. Leashed. Big dogs big damage. It’s also critical you don’t panic but take aggressive action to separate the two. Usually the one on top needs to be tackled if need be They cool off fast but waiting for it to end is deadly.
    I just had a friend’s happy rescue pit bull go for my dog over dropped food. Day two and my lazy pocket pit rescue is in major pain. The friends dog was in a deadly fight.
    The owner stood and watched. I did not.
    It took a soft kick though for her to disengage. The pocket didn’t have a chance. Had I not she would be dead today.
    So ya never know when other dogs come by the farm.
    Never ever mix food at the barbecue with dogs who do not know each other running around. Talk about a bummer when someone’s loved pet has to be put down or yours gone too. Be safe. Read up at Caesar Milans site and we can all be happier
    Good luck all. 5 dogs. 2 horses. Lol

  10. I just broke up a dog fight. Two English Bulldogs. One 5 years old the other 6 months old. The older dog would often corner the younger, to which I would have to pull them apart. However the younger dog has been running after the big after I pull them apart.

    In the most recent case, the aforementioned happened again, accept I had the older by the collar and the younger ran around me to bite the dog on the back leg. The blood was bright red and, naturally, the cut was not deep enough for any sufficient blood flow. In fact bleeding ceased within the minute. However, it concerns me that, after the situation is diffused, this younger one has the need to bite the other dog. Another note: this older dog is much bigger than the younger and has shown aggression on several occasions. Although the older never bites, her aggression towards such a smaller animal is unnerving.

    These situations arise when the older is trying to put the younger “in his place” so I think of it as natural. Still, I don’t want the younger to get used to this situation. The younger is coping with these confrontations tooth and nail.

    Any advice is appreciated.

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