I have just returned from teaching a very successful compassionate dog handling course in Palau. I am very grateful to the Koror State animal control officers and shelter staff who attended the training with an openness and willingness to learn new and soft approaches. And thank you to Palau Animal Welfare Society who invited me and to the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) who generously provided funding.
The Republic of Palau is a island nation in the Pacific Ocean east of the Philippines and south of Japan. Koror is the only state in Palau with an animal shelter, animal control officers, and state animal welfare legislation requiring licensing of dogs.
Before my class, I spent a day with the ACOs observing them in action. I teach best when I can learn about my students’ attitudes towards dogs, life, and people and learn what tools they use when catching dogs. From the start, I was very impressed with the Koror ACOs. They worked extremely well as a team; they were effective at catching dogs; and they were very hard working – willing to crawl under houses or whatever it took to catch the dogs.
I could also see they were compassionate men even though it did not show in their methods of dog handling. Throughout the world I see “dog catchers” catching dog in harmful ways, creating suffering and even injury and death; not because they are mean but because they do not know any other way. Even when teaching in Ladakh with a Buddhist way of life, there was a need for training because the men did not know the available tools or know the skills for making a fearful dog calm. The ACOs of Koror had never had formal training and even though Palauans are visibly kind, their animal control staff were never guided to handle dogs in a compassionate way or shown the benefits of this.
With their permission I am sharing what I observed before and after the course to show the contrast. Their principal method was using the blowpipe, but the dogs were sometimes handled while the dog was still awake, struggling under the affects of the drugs. One half-drugged dog was carried to the truck by tightening snare poles around the front and back legs and hanging it like a dead animal with the dog howling in fear.
The dogs of Koror, unlike on the main island, were all very fearful of the ACOs, who had a chase and catch mentality, and the dogs quickly barked and ran away. Yet I noticed how most of the Palauan dogs had been raised around people and knew what a kind touch was. I knew that if the ACOs handled the dogs in a softer way, the dogs would respond, i.e. they would relax and soften, and the dog handling would be easier and safer for everyone.
The ACOs were great students willing to learn new methods, tools, and attitudes. In the past, they were always forcing the dog to do what they wanted and the dog was rarely touched which is quite common with dog catchers around the country. Who would touch a dog that wanted to bite you! But the softer methods of capture and handling that I teach, such as nets and leash work, require an ability to confidently handle dogs with our hands. It is an effective way to give compassion to the dog with our hands and give the dog a choice for softer handling. Most dogs will respond by relaxing and creating safer handling for dog and man.
The ACOs were quickly excited and inspired in seeing how the dogs relaxed and cooperated. It quickly learned to first calm themselves and then handle them in a calm and compassionate manner. They were amazed at how the dogs responded to their soft handling and how the dogs relaxed when their heads were covered with a towel. They also saw the value of moving dogs with a stretcher or groundcloth.
They also learned how to work the dog in “waves”. If they were moving an uncooperative dog out of a transport crate with a Y pole, or taking time to do a leash/muzzle wrap/towel, they learned to apply some pressure then stop to let the dog figure things out as they calmed and centered themselves as well. After seeing the dog relax with the pause, they added a little more pressure and so on.
From this course, the ACOs also learned to work more with the people. Their previous harsh methods of dog handling alienated the people and when the ACOs showed up in the neighborhood the people typically disappeared. They had also been using boxtraps in the past, but people would damage the traps with rocks and coconuts. The ACOs learned that handling the dogs in a compassionate way would build good relationships with the people and the people would even help the ACOs gather their dogs for spay and neutering. Dog handlers should not have to catch every single dog. They should earn the respect of the people so the owners will help gather their own dogs for sterilization.
During my last days with the ACOs after the course, I was in awe over how well they worked the dogs and were respectful of the people. Paul is one of the younger ACOs who had been strong on the physical side of dog handling. At the shelter, Paul had to separate three truly feral dogs by moving two to new kennels. He casually stepped into the chain link kennel as his partner stepped in and used a Y pole to protect Paul if any dog complained (which they did not). Paul calmly slide a snare pole around the neck of one dog, smoothly placed a towel over the dog’s head, held the dog with a scruff on the top of the neck and kindly lifted the dog-towel-snare pole as one. He carried the dog to the new kennel and gently released it. The dog never complained or whimpered. It was a compassionate work of art.
On our last day in Palau, the ACOs and shelter staff closed the shelter and gave us a day of lunch and snorkeling around the islands of Palau. The fish, giant clams, and coral was far more colorful than I could ever imagine. And it was so much fun sliding into the warm atoll waters whenever we wanted. Such a beautiful place.
I am extremely proud of what these men have accomplished. I know that it is their true nature to be kind and compassionate; and it was a real rush for them to approach a fearful dog, use it’s personality to guide their soft handling, and convince the dog to relax and cooperate! There was a great sense of pride from one handler when he calmed a dog that had previously bitten a hole in my tennis shoe! He kept speaking to the dog in a friendly voice saying, “It will all be fine but please don’t bite my shoes because they are the only pair I have!” The dog walked into the transport kennel with a leash/muzzle wrap and they quickly and carefully slid it off.
I have the greatest confidence that these ACOs will not only refine their new skills, but also develop new compassionate skills of their own. Since the state of Koror has the only ACOs in the country, these men will eventually share these compassionate forms of dog handling with the other states and create a humane standard for all of Palau.
Even with funding, GWR has considerable expense from this trip. Please donate to support our training and education for animal welfare organizations around the world.
To see photos of my trip to Palau, visit our GWR Flickr photo website Dr. Mark
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