Chemical-free Capture, Handling, and Restraint
(some tips on working with fearful &/or feral canines)
*I'd like to put a strong disclaimer on this article. These suggestions come directly from my own experiences and observations over the years. I cannot guarantee that any/all will work well for your situation, and with ANY reactive animal, there is always a risk of injury to you or the animal. Use your own best judgement when implementing these techniques.
Fearful animals can be a real challenge to work with. Whether they are unsocialised, undersocialised, previously mis-handled, genetically shy, new to you, of a high wolf percentage, feral dogs of any breed, or even newly acquired or feral cats (!)...they have special needs, and require specialised handling. This is all too obvious when the animal reacts badly to human presence or is an "untouchable", but must be captured in short order for transport, examination, or medical care.
In some of the more extreme cases, it may be ideal to chemically immobilise the animal for immediate capture and handling. While I'm not a big fan of drugging humans OR animals, sometimes it bears consideration when balanced against the potential for the animal to hurt you or himself, be denied proper care, or elude capture until a fatal accident occurs. Thanks to the kids (and immature adults) who create a street demand for Ketamine, Valium, and Xanax , appropriate drugs for this are not available unless you have the rare veterinarian who makes housecalls. This sad fact has cost dogs their lives, and continues to do so. However, until it changes, we need to continue to develop (and share) better ways to manage these compromised dogs.
Working with unsocials can sometimes be a puzzle, and the more pieces you have, the better it comes together. Hopefully some of the pieces below will help others with their special-needs friends.
What you want in the long run is to gradually socialise a dog until he accepts gentle handling, leashing or crating, and other day to day interactions. This can be a long process, though (an unsocial wolfdog can take 6 months to a year of careful rehabilitation, in order to become a reasonably civilised companion) and requires much more than a mere article or two to teach. This essay focuses on some short term or "in the moment" techniques that can be used in a pinch.
The problem: you have a dog who runs or slinks off in fear whenever you step into his enclosure—you can't simply walk up and put a leash on him, but you need to catch him up.
If you have time to spare, you might try to acclimate him to a crate.
You will need a very heavy duty metal crate, one that is reinforced at all joints with heavy gauge wire so he cannot bend the bars in a panic and free himself. (Never underestimate the strength of a frightened animal! Even a smallish dog can destroy a sturdy, un-reinforced store-bought crate in seconds.)
Leave the crate in his area 24/7. Prop the door open so he can enter and exit freely, without the door accidentally swinging shut behind him and scaring him.
Each day, place some delicious meat (or something else he loves) way in the back of the crate. In the beginning, you don't need to watch him enter the crate. Gradually, you want to work up to where he will enter with you nearby, and then to where he will enter with you in the pen and eventually with you right beside his crate. (You may need to toss a few treats further away to "prime the pump" and get his appetite involved--then perhaps leave a trail of treats leading up to the crate, to entice him to continue on for the goodies inside it.) When you are ready to transport him, simply close the door to the crate. BE QUICK about it, of course, and be sure to lean firmly against the door while latching it so that he doesn't slam into it and burst from the crate. (Yes, this is dramatic language...when it happens in real life, it is even more dramatic, and very very fast.) Put clips or zip-ties on the latches to keep him from sliding them open.
You can also try building your relationship with the dog by sitting in there every day, with yummy high-value treats such as lunchmeat, freeze-dried liver, liver pudding, cheese, hot dogs, burgers, or other cooked meats to offer. Don't even try to touch him, at first; just be present and toss him a treat for any positive interaction he initiates. Looks at you? Treat. Comes closer? Treat. Even "acting less scared for a second" or lying down in the corner deserves a treat, in the beginning. Also, dinner should be served by hand, especially when trying to bring a shy dog around. All good things come from you, and are eaten in your presence. In the very beginning, if he is too stressed to eat with anyone around, you can try leaving a dirty shirt or sock with him instead so he gets used to your scent and associates it with his food. Don't expect to get any clothing back in one piece, though.
Over time, you will progress to getting him to DO things, in order to drive you to give him treats. A dog can be trained without ever having to be touched! Simply wait for a behaviour to be offered, perhaps a play-bow or a Sit, or eventually a bump of your treat-filled hand with his nose. Then say "YES!" enthusiastically the instant it happens (or use a clicker to mark it) and toss a great treat...or a piece of his dinner. You can then pair a command to the action, and start to ask the dog to perform it in order to get the treat. I've had rescue dogs I couldn't walk up and touch who would Sit, Gimme Five, or otherwise interact with me in order to solicit a treat; this is *two way communication*, and it's important. Even coming up close to ask for food can be a triumph for a fearful dog.
Another great trick (a variation on a taming protocol for wild mustangs, actually) is the "Treat and Retreat" interaction. Approach the dog, and the instant he shows ANY improvement in behaviour, toss him a treat and back up a few steps (or even leave the pen). Both the treat *and* your retreat are rewards. "Positive behaviours" on the dog's part can be a change from pacing to not-pacing, sitting down, lying down, making eye contact, wandering around closer to you, sniffing the last spot you stood or the last thing you touched (try to offer this opportunity by touching things or moving around occasionally), sniffing you, play bows, or any sort of voluntary interaction.
If the dog is too afraid to eat in your presence, you can approach at a distance that slightly pushes his current comfort zone--not enough to create panic, just enough that he looks at you warily--then "reward" him for any calm or social behaviours by retreating immediately. (In the beginning, even a lack of reaction can be an improvement over a fear response.) It may be helpful to read this article on 'Constructional Aggression Treatment' for a better understanding of this method. Don't let the name mislead you; it was developed to work with dog-on-dog aggression, but that issue is most often fear-based, and the process works on other fear-based behaviour as well.
Again, if you have time to spend with the animal before he needs to be handled, by all means try these things first.
If the dog won't crate or leash willingly and you're out of time, you will need to corner him. In a small pen, this is easily accomplished; just be sure to maintain NON-THREATENING body language the entire time. For example, don't look directly at him, approach sideways, move slowly and calmly. Don't reach over his head, other than to gently drape a blanket or towel over it...if he can't see you, it can have a calming effect, and the towel also makes it much harder for him to deliver a fear bite. It is very important to read up on, and fully understand, canine body language and calming signals before ever attempting to corner a fearful dog (or any dog, really).
Once he is towelled, he can be picked up and put in a crate...or he can be leashed, if he is leashable or a crate is not an option. I strongly recommend TWO collars and TWO leashes for walking fearful dogs. This way, if he "gator rolls", or one set breaks, or a collar isn't on right, or any other malfunction...you still have the dog. The vast majority of dogs are docile enough to be walked out by one person. However, if he is extremely strong, or gets upset and "climbs the leash" to win his escape by attacking the handler (rare, but it happens) then you can have one person hold each leash, so he can't get to either one.
This also works for more aggressive dogs—and sure beats a catch pole, hands down. A catch pole will almost always trigger a "freaking out" response—the dog lashes out, loses all rational thought, bloodies his mouth or chips his teeth, fights much harder than he would fight leashes, risks biting a person, risks choking himself, and will probably never like you again. He may not even like anyone who vaguely reminds him of you—or he may generalise his experience to a distrust of all humans. As you might expect, I am not a fan of the catch pole. There are circumstances where it may be necessary, but I would consider it a last resort. One can get MUCH better results with the Y-Pole, which will be discussed later on.
In a large fenced area, you could easily chase a dog all day and never catch him. If the dog is only slightly afraid, you might have success with sitting calmly on the ground beside a bowl filled with extra special food (wet catfood, perhaps, or a pile of finely chopped cooked meat...warming it a bit makes it easier for the dog to smell it from a distance) and waiting him out; he might eventually come up and let you clip a leash to him while he is eating. If he has no collar, you can try to slowly drape a slip lead over his head--or use a soft leash threaded back through its own handle, which does not need to slide over his head at all but can be draped over his neck before threading. (You'll want to add a second collar & leash before removing him from the fenced area.) Be sure to move very slowly, and not look directly at him. Also, try to think about something else besides capture—he can feel your "the second he's within range, I'm going to nab him!" energy. I don't know how; they just do. Dogs (and cats) are sensitive that way. Focusing on him will make him uncomfortable and thwart your chances of this working.
Some dogs can even be "talked into" allowing a leash, by having quiet, reassuring conversation with them and sending mental pictures of the dog in a more comfortable or enjoyable situation. I remember one shy wolfdog I went to pick up on short notice, while I was on the road and with no equipment besides a leash. His owner had fallen into trouble and he and his companion had been left behind in a large fenced area, without a steady water supply in the summer heat. I knew that I couldn't catch him without his cooperation, so I sat down and quietly explained to him that I wanted to take him somewhere safe, where he could get regular food and water, and sent him visualisations of him lying under cool shade trees and playing in a doggie pool. Within minutes, he walked hesitantly up to me...still afraid, but willing to give me a chance.
Alternately, you could bring over several friends, and try to slowly corral the dog into one corner of the yard. Everyone should close in gradually, while maintaining calm energy and not staring at him. The person he knows best should do the final approach and leashing.
Mildly fearful dogs may also be improved by feeding 1-2 melatonin tablets (3mg) and/or 1-2 Benadryl tablets (25mg) in a meatball. It won't put them to sleep, but can take the edge off. Wait 20-30 minutes after medicating before trying to catch the dog up.
Some vets will prescribe Acepromazine, if you ask—but I would discourage the use of this drug. Ace rarely works well on serious cases (the ones who really need it). They can work right through it, and will run and run until you finally go away, then sleep it off. Ace can make some dogs more aggressive (they still want to avoid you, but are less inhibited and may fight back) and the bottom line is that it *does not reduce fear*. It simply makes the animal less in control of his body ("doped up")—so he is still terrified, still trying to escape, but out of balance and more likely to hurt himself or you in the process.
If you have an unsocial dog and a large enclosure, you will need some extra equipment, lots of patience, and a skillful technique. I am going to link to a video here, since it is probably the best filming I have seen on the subject and it's exactly how I have had successes myself over the years—using only one or two people, and minus the Y-pole until just recently.
Video: Catching a "Mexican Wolf" using Y-poles
I have now incorporated the Y-pole into my own sequence, for the occasional dog I believe will bite when cornered. Again, most won't—but when in doubt, why sacrifice body parts? This is a brilliant tool for dogs who fear touch. Please note that the dog knows the Y-pole is not your hand, so will bite it even when he would not have bitten you. What the pole does offer is a safe outlet for his instinct to defend himself; he can redirect his anxiety onto it, and you can safely invade his space without taking the risk. It also provides psychological dominance that keeps him passive and immobilised while you are examining him or preparing him for transport.
Also, check out Dr. Mark's blog ...no, really, check it out. This is probably the BEST educational info out there on this specialised and poorly known topic, and his extensive experience really shows.
If you don't have the luxury of a large group, and the pen doesn't have a secure "double entry" or other small area attached to it, then you will need to temporarily subdivide the yard using fencing material. It should be high enough that the dog can't easily jump it--at least 5 or 6 feet.
With large yards and limited fencing, your best bet is usually to cut the yard in two sections, trapping the dog on one (hopefully smaller) side, then run an additional strip of fencing diagonally so you have a small "dead end" he can be corralled into.
The more people you can gather, the less fencing you will probably need—but you still want a small (no more than a few feet wide) alleyway to finish up in, in most cases. This will help convince the dog there is no hope of escape, and he will lie down in resignation.
If this is a dog you need to catch more than once, perhaps for behavioural rehabilitation or ongoing medical care, you can install a semi-permanent "capture zone", such as the one pictured below:
Beware: once in a while, you get a dog who will come AT you when cornered, rather than surrender. If you get this dog, by all means get out of his way and let him pass—if you grab out at him or try to pin or block him while he is in a panic, you are very likely to be bitten. (He probably won't mean to, but panic is a funny thing. It gives you "tunnel vision" and impairs your better judgement--even when you are a dog.) Try again next time, and more slowly or with a better plan. Usually when a dog bolts, it's because you didn't allow him enough time to calm himself before your approach. If he is still spinning in circles, running into the fence, trying to climb or dig, or otherwise showing escape behaviours, he is NOT ready for you to close in and towel, leash, or Y-pole him yet. (!)
Be sure to allot plenty of time to the effort, because it will probably take much longer than you think. Don't do this sort of work when you are time-pressured; if you are angry, impatient or anxious, it will rub off on the dog and make things worse.
Once the dog goes down, you are free to leash, crate, or examine as needed. Just remember to move slowly and maintain a non-threatening posture.
At this point, you may find that you can set the crate in front of the dog (with the open door towards him) and push it towards him slowly—and he will walk right in. This works especially well in an animal shelter, in the kennel runs. If the dog glances furtively OVER the crate, you might need to set something on top of it so he doesn't sail it. If you have a specific corner in mind, you can also set the crate up ahead of time in that area, and corner/towel/scoop him up right in front of the crate if he doesn't walk in on his own.
If you have an animal who refuses to crate, and picking him up is not an option, you can also thread his leash through the bars of the crate, and use it to guide or pull him in. This is more of a last resort, since it is confrontational...but if the dog cannot be lifted, or will fight off the blanket and try to bite, it may be a workable option.
Here is a working example of a large-area capture, with a very fearful older dog who has a low bite threshold when cornered. He also will "hamstring" if you turn your back on him—that's the stage of fearfulness and semi-socialisation to strangers that he came here in. Merlin needed to be transferred to another enclosure, so chainsaw work could be done near his initial one. I was unable to film, having only one other person to work with, but will describe in detail. (Be sure to watch the film above on "use of the Y Pole" before continuing, so the description will make more sense.)
Size up and prep the situation:
Merlin was in an oblong pen with another dog, a social female. She was removed prior to rounding up Merlin, to prevent her from playing into things in any way, and to prevent her from escaping while he was being removed from the enclosure.
The fencing is 8' tall, so there should be no concerns of escape during capture. There is a 6' tall semi-permanent "capture zone" in this pen, along with a standing fence panel strategically placed to keep him from running circles around the doggie-clubhouse...so additional fencing did not need to be brought in.
As mentioned, he is a bite risk in close quarters—so is a prime candidate for the Y-poles.
Merlin was to be leashed, not crated. Transporting the crate would have been very difficult under our conditions, and Merlin had been leash trained as a pup. The two leashes needed to be held by two different people, because of the bite risk.
All materials (Y-poles, blanket, collars, 6 foot leashes) were gathered in advance and placed into the enclosure.
The pen he was to be transported *to* was prepared, and a clear route from one pen to the other was verified. Meanwhile, Person 2 entered the enclosure in advance, simply to stand with him and let him acclimate to the idea of people in his enclosure.
Both people slowly and calmly walked towards Merlin, allowing him space to run around and blow off some excess energy. After minute or two, Merlin ran up the alleyway that leads to the capture zone. Both people moved smoothly in behind him, blocking his exit but not advancing any further than necessary. You want the atmosphere to remain as casual as possible when cornering. Direct stares or excitement are very counterproductive. This is not a confrontation or a battle of wills; you're simply standing in the dog's way, and since he wants to get further from you, he'll walk closer to the capture zone or corner. As Merlin moved forward towards the desired area, we slowly closed in behind him. The Y-poles were held down low and somewhat sideways, to provide extra "size" to our presence. Any time Merlin showed panic or escape behaviours, we stopped moving and averted our eyes until he relaxed. Eventually, he walked into the small corral area and sat down. We moved closer, little by little, until near enough to touch him with the poles (perhaps 3 feet).
Once he was sitting calmly before us, the first Y-pole entered Merlin's space. He had been Y-poled once before, and had bitten it viciously and repeatedly...but this time he felt less threatened by it (familiarity, perhaps?) and only wrinkled his lip and air-snapped at it. After he had settled enough that stroking him lightly with one prong did not get any response, the pole was placed on Merlin's neck, and we waited calmly until he lay down at our feet. The second pole was used to gently pin his flank, and he did not even attempt to move at all after that, until we removed both poles.
Person 2 held both poles in place while I laid a blanket carefully across Merlin's head, then threaded the two collars around his neck and snapped them shut. The collars I used were quick-release chain martingales from Cetacea. These are incredible tools for working with a dog who is not wearing an inescapable collar, and is likely to object if one is slipped over his face and head. They constrict to some degree when pulled, to keep from being thrown off if the dog panics (not enough to choke the dog)...and the only accessible part is the chain, which cannot be chewed through in seconds the way a nylon martingale strap can. The leashes were already attached. I handed one leash to my partner and took back one of the poles, and we stood quietly for a minute to prepare for our exit and let Merlin recover from being touched.
With our exit carefully planned to keep both people out of harm's way (in the event Merlin had sprung to his feet and bolted away snapping), we withdrew the poles and stepped backwards and out of the corner in opposite directions. This positioned Merlin directly between us, without enough slack leash to reach either one of us. He stood up, and we walked slowly towards the gate, one step at a time, keeping Merlin halfway between us with little to no slack in the leashes. He was walked out of the enclosure and into the waiting temporary pen, which he ran into on his own, given the chance. After a few minutes' recovery time, we entered that pen and poled him a second time, to unsnap the collars. Upon our leaving the pen, Merlin was actually quite calm. The next day, I was able to sit with him and see unusually calm behaviours, as well. If anything, this method IMPROVED our relationship instead of destroying it.
A few general tips to come away with:
-Plan your capture carefully and 'rehearse' it before involving the dog.
-Body language is PARAMOUNT; telling the dog what you're doing (via clear and non-threatening body language) makes all the difference in gaining his cooperation.
-Use appropriate tools. Different dogs may have different needs.
-Double collars, double leashes. Consider heavy duty hardware and chain martingales.
-Wire crates should always be reinforced. (Standard duty airline crates can be destroyed by pulling the door in, or by chewing out through ventilation holes or gaps at the door, so they are not necessarily a better solution.)
-Melatonin and Bendaryl may help take the edge off a moderately nervous dog.
If your unsocial or fearful dog has escaped from his fence and is at large, you are in a much tougher situation.
If he has a penmate or is bonded to other dogs on the property, and has been with you for a while, he probably won't go far. You can try leaving the pen open and putting tempting food in there; another dog—especially a puppy!—tied to the far side of the fence as "bait" can also draw him back in. You may be able to sneak up from behind and close the gate, or rig up a string to close the gate from a distance. (High test fishing line makes a great, invisible string.)
If he's not too terribly shy, you may be able to lure him back into the pen with high value food/treats. If you sit or lie down quietly, you may also get him to come close enough to you to clip a leash on him. Having another (friendly) dog with you on leash can help a lot with that.
-NEVER chase a loose dog! You won't catch him and he will only run further and faster, and be more afraid. (However, if you run the other way, the dog may actually follow *you*.)
If he has escaped your car, or otherwise ended up too far from home, check to see if there is anyone in the area with a securely fenced yard (or even a garage) who would let you use it to lure him into. There may also be a tennis court, baseball field, or other "corral" nearby that you can use. Again, consider using a friendly dog as a lure. Some loose dogs, even fearful ones, will follow a leashed dog almost anywhere, so you may be able to lead him into a fenced area or even a building. In fact, ferals and primitives tend to adore other dogs, especially puppies. They also tend to be more fearful of men than women, and to pick and choose who they decide to like--they may come closer for a small woman than for a big burly man, for example, and a lone person is less intimidating than a group of people. If the dog is considering approach but can't quite bring themselves to do it, you might try having a different person handling the food, "lure dog", and/or leash. Also, remember to "make yourself small", face sideways, and otherwise appear as non-threating as possible.
Long distance loose dogs need to be caught up almost immediately; you have very little wiggle room with this most of the time. Ask your local Animal Control or animal rescue if you can borrow a "live trap", or buy one if you can't borrow. (ACES animal equipment sells traps, as well as many other tools for catching and handling fearful animals.) Set up feeding stations if the dog is lost in a wilderness area, to keep him coming back to the same spot so he can be trapped. Animal Control may also be willing to tranquilise the dog at this point, since it is an urgent situation.
"Field capture" is often your worst case scenario, and you may not get a lot of chances to get it right. If you have access to someone with experience, so much the better! If not, be sure to set up a careful game plan, with backup plans, to give you the best chance of bringing the dog home safely. You might also want to watch some of Eldad Hagar's excellent videos! Some show more technique than others, of course. (I thought this one was really good--it also shows how a perfectly nice animal can act aggressively at first, if they're frightened enough.)
Acclimating a frightened animal usually goes much smoother and quicker if he is kept in the house, where there is far less external stimulation. If this is an option, so much the better--just remember that fear strongly inhibits behaviour, so you won't know his true personality (and how he acts with other dogs, cats, and children) until he is less afraid, or you are not present. It is not uncommon for a fearful dog to do nothing but lie around while you are watching, then fight with another dog or kill the family cat as soon as you leave the house. His behaviour in your presence is NOT necessarily representative of his behaviour alone, nor his future personality once he is socialised.
Indoors, a feral or frightened dog must be carefully watched. They can climb up on things to reach an escape route. They're attracted to any window left open, and on rare occasion have been known to open the window themselves! They can also tear out the screen, or even break the window glass if they are unsupervised (read: uninhibited) and want out badly enough. I would not leave a desperately scared dog alone in a room with a big picture window, for example. Even the second floor may not be safe to leave unsecured, as some will jump quite a distance.
If crated indoors, the crate should be reinforced with heavy wire at all joints to prevent him from collapsing it, and a snap hook or clip put on the latch to keep him from sliding it open.
If you leave him home alone, be sure to go over & above in "dog-proofing" the house—and if you're feeling unsure, take the dog back out to a heavily reinforced yard or holding pen instead.
When carrying a (smallish) dog or unsocial puppy in your arms, be sure to always have him on a leash attached to your wrist, for backup. If he kicks off and tries to run, you will still have hold of him. If you are walking a larger dog, remember: two collars, two leashes. Safety first! The one time you fail to latch a gate or double-leash the dog, may be the time that counts...and if he gets away from you, he may be gone forever.
Here are some additional resources for working with shy or fearful dogs.
"Spooky Dogs" article on the WolfdogProject
Some body language slides
More on body language
Fencing security--troubleshooting and repairing weaknesses in your containment.
Secure containment is critical when working with fearful dogs. They are a high escape risk, and sometimes you only get one chance to get it right.
As you can see from this article, highly fearful dogs can be an enormous amount of work. Extreme care must be taken in deciding who to give such a dog to, even if he is partially rehabilitated...and much thought needs to go into the decision to adopt or foster him. I really feel for shy dogs and it's wonderful to see them blossom as they learn that the world isn't such a terrible place...but it can take a lot of time and energy to get them there; there are no quick fixes.
If you have a fearful dog in your world, I hope this helps you to understand him better, and be more able to lead him into a better life.
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