I have just returned from working “in the field” with horses in South Dakota. Actually I was working around horses and was helping Dave Pauli of Humane Society of the United States dart captive wild mustangs with an immunocontraceptive called PZP. It is always a pleasure working with Dave and I love being around horses.
In high school, my dream was to be a cowboy and as soon after I graduated high school near Minneapolis, MN, I started working on a ranch near Red Lodge, MT. I worked on several different ranches that still used horses to round up the cattle. And when I was a veterinarian in private practice, horses were often my patients.
Now I work more with wolves and dogs. At times when I teach about dog handling, people remind me how similar it can be to working with horses.
There are times when we have to work with dogs that are loose in
large rooms or pens. This might be a hoarding situation with large pens or in a disaster response or with captive wolves. Some trap/neuter/release (TNR or ABC-Animal Birth Control) programs around the world cannot build individual kennels and have to keep their dogs, recovering from surgery, in one or more large rooms. And then they have the difficulty of re-catching them for transport to return them to where they were caught. It can be terrifying for the untrained handler to work dogs in these rooms.
One of the calmest ways to gather up a dog from a room is by slowly and calmly moving the dog toward a transport crate and guiding the dog into the crate. (For safety, it is good to have something in your hand like a Y pole, but do not use it to threaten the dog unless he challenges you. Remember it can be very effective even when used in a minimal way.) Unfortunately a lot of people tense up and try to force the dog into the corner and into the crate and it not only increases the frenzy and craziness, it is also usually unsuccessful or a fight.
The best pens for captive wolves typically have a small pen or kennel attached to the bigger pen and handlers will move the wolf into the smaller pen where it can be encouraged to enter a crate or handled with Y poles (see my wolf handling video on this blog.). I have worked and taught at many different captive wolf breeding facilities or zoos and have seen how many people try to push these wolves too hard. The harder they push the wolves, like dogs, the more stubborn they become.
Move in Waves
I have come to learn that the best way to move or guide dogs (and wolves) is by putting on a little pressure, then easing up, then adding a little pressure again, then easing off. The energy is like waves on a beach. Many people have reminded me how this is just like working horses from the ground. You put on a little pressure, then release. A good horseman will repeat that ebb and flow in a rhythm that builds a wonderful relationship and connection with the horse.
If you are working in a large area and trying to move a dog (or wolf) remember that the canid needs time to think. If you continuously put on pressure, they are only reacting to escape or protect themselves. First give them a little pressure to guide them to where you want to go, then stop, and let them think of the best way to do that. Often the dog will stop to face you if you are too strong a threat and if you keep putting on pressure, they will only stay facing you to protect themselves. Allow them to feel relaxed enough to look around. Back off just a bit and keep a calm energy and mannerism (and extend compassionate thoughts). Seeing the dog looking around for an escape is a good thing. That escape might be the crate you are encouraging them to enter.
This can even work in a very small space. Sometimes when we are trapping dogs, like in the photos to the right, we like to move one dog into a connecting trap or into a connecting crate. The first photo shows the dog facing the handler and creating a stand-off. That is the wrong time for the handler to put pressure on the dog. My friend, Sonam , removed the pressure just enough so the dog felt safe enough to turn around and while the dog was facing the crate, he added a soft pressure to move him into it. So with very little effort, and a lot of patience and compassion he was able to encourage the dog to cooperate.
Many people handling fearful dogs do not realize how intimidating they are to the dogs. Remember: You are scary. Sometimes a line of people are needed to move a wolf to another end of a large pen, but they do not have to do anything extra to scare the wolf. I have seen a line of people at a captive breeding facility who each had a rake or shovel in their hand and were waving it around. It is their fault that they were not working with a calm and manageable wolf.
The same is with the dog. Dogs and horses are both very sensitive. My continuous lesson when riding horses is learning how to give softer signals to the horse. And my continuous lesson in working with fearful dogs is to be quiet and calm when I am not applying pressure. You do not need big movements nor do you need to swing large objects to move a dog. Practice using the least amount of stimulus when moving dogs.
Give It Time
Sometimes you have to capture and handle a lot of dogs in a short time. So be it.
But whenever possible do not rush things. A very common reason why we cannot catch or handle dogs successfully is because we are rushing ourselves and rushing the dogs. Time and patience is one of the most valuable tools we have for catching and handling dogs in a calm, humane, and effective way.
Horseman will never rush when they train or work a horse. They let the horse set the pace and they take as much time as it takes to make progress in building a connection with the animal. Most of the time you might be simply snatching a dog with a net and there is no connection to be made. But often we are so close to sliding a leash around their neck or cornering them in a corner and needing to close the space.
When you can, allow the dog time to calm down. It cannot stay tense forever. It is a good time for you to calm down and breathe as well. Many people think they must hurry, but then they take much more time trying to catch the dog.
So work with dogs the way a good horseman works with horses.