Using Non-Physical Tools To Catch Dogs

Dr. Mark teaching at MN Zoo.

A few weeks ago I taught a short customized wolf capture and handling workshop to the animal caretakers at the Minnesota Zoo.  We first spent an afternoon in the classroom and the following morning handled their gray wolves, coyotes, and dhole (an Asian canid) in the pens.

As I was half way through my afternoon presentation I realized that all I had been talking about was how to use physical methods and tools for catching the animals.  I spoke about how to use the facilities like utilizing the shape of the pens, the smaller holding areas, and the den boxes.  I covered nets and Y pole and calm physical restraint and as I was talking I realized it was all physical so I shifted into the following advice.

As we are using our physical tools, add your non-physical tools as well. Lower your energy.  When you are walking up to the animal or holding the net or Y pole, gather up compassion, kindness, and respect within yourself and send it to the animal.  They will feel it and in most cases it will change them, calm them or make them more tolerant of you.  They will often be easier and safer to handle.

There is a reason we are doing this work with fearful or feral dogs.  We want to make a difference in the world.  We want to make the world a better place.  I want to make Life better for both animal and people and I believe that I can do it one dog and one person at a time by interacting with them in a kind, respectful, and compassionate way.

 “…to know even one life has breathed easier because  you have lived.

This is to have succeeded.”            Ralph Waldo Emerson

Handling Coyote in Den Box

Early the next morning, when the dry July air was still cool, I gathered with the zoo staff and a veterinary team to handle the animals they live and interact with almost with every day.  The coyotes quickly went into their den boxes and we handled each animal in a good way as I showed them the techniques for using a Y pole in a small den box, holding with the scruff and using a headcover, and hobbling the animal so the veterinary team could quickly weigh each animal, conduct their annual physical exams and give vaccinations.

Adam with Black Wolf

The two gray wolves had never been handled with a Y pole in the pens.  The white female was socialized – previously owned by someone who hand-raised her.  When staff tried to use the Y pole in the den box she had no fear and fought back.  The black male was aloof and distant and would not enter into the holding pens and was hard to catch in the large viewing area.  With a small crew and a row of burlap we entered the large viewing pen and calmly moved the large male into a small area of the pen.  Once cornered he quickly settled, accepted the Y pole, and the zoo staff now have another humane tool for catching him.  We tried the Y pole with the white female in the holding pen and although she stood quiet against the chainlink fence and tolerated us putting 2 Y poles on her and towel, she stood with all of it in place like a saddled horse not really caring.  Although we could not go safely further to pick up her feet and lower her down so she could be handled, the zoo staff learned she would stand for the Y pole and use it, if needed, to help drug her with a syringe pole.

Dhole at Minnesota Zoo

And then we handled the dhole.  These were new animals to the zoo and the staff had not had the opportunity to catch up the animals and see how they responded to their catching efforts.   There were reports from other zoos that dhole were not easy to handle.  They did not accept any handling at all and the catching operations were often a high energy and unpleasant rodeo.  We all wanted to see how they would respond to the Y pole.  When I first arrived at the zoo, I spent time watching the dhole in their exhibit to learn about their personalities and behavior.  They are extremely intelligent and curious.  They were wary like a fox and confident but not in an aggressive way.

We brought an adult female dhole into a holding area and four of us stepped in with the lowest energy possible.  We knew that even the smallest unnecessary movements, like moving our arm, or blinking too loud could make her panic.  First entering the pen we stopped, settled our energy,  calmed our self and formed a line.  We stepped forward a few steps at a time then settled.  When we first started and was farther away she lay in the corner – quiet and watchful.  Then as we closed the space, she started pacing and looking for a way to break through our line.  We stopped and settled.  She calmed just a bit.

In unison, we each took one more step forward.  We had formed a circle with her in the corner  and we were two Y pole lengths away from her.  She paced harder than ever, totally disconnected from us, and I realized that another step would only make it worse.  With a calm quiet voice, I explained that we were at a stalemate with our physical methods and if there was any hope of getting her to settle for our Y poles we had to use something else.  You all have non-physical ways of interacting with the animals and those are the only tools we have to work with right now so let’s use them.   Find your compassion and care within yourself and send it to the animal.  Calm yourself and lower your energy again.  Find the body position which is least threatening.  Send thoughts to the animal.  And so each of us went into our own deeply personal bag of tools and conveyed our intentions to the animal.

It did not work.  She was only concerned about getting away from us.  It was getting hot and we backed off to let her be.  And with that choice we used another non-physical tool for catching dogs and the other canids.  We truly looked at the animal, set our ego aside and made her well-being more important than our determination and success.

When catching and handling dogs, there are tools to use and techniques we can be Doing.   But do not limit yourself to physical methods.  Remember to attend  to ways of Being.  Add the non-physical methods of body language, calmness, compassion, respect, and kindness.  The animals will feel it and see you in a different way.  You will have greater success, you will be kinder to each animal, and you will have made the world a better place.

5 Responses

  1. I am so amazed and inspired by your work. I read every blog entry and always take away very useful info for working with the animals I do. THANK YOU for providing such an important and much needed alternative view.

    • Amaya,
      Thank you. I am honored by your words and grateful for the affirmation. I would love to hear stories and examples from you and other readers of how my blog has influenced your animal handling. I would also love to hear if any animal shelters or other programs have chosen to replace the catch pole with the Y pole. Maybe someone could start a Y pole club or something! Thank you! Dr. Mark

  2. After all, we are human beings, not human doings!


  3. Mark, I am very impressed with what you do and what you teach. I teach basic animal handling at a TAFE college in Australia, and the first and foremost most important concepts I try to get across to the kids are calmness and compassion. I believe that even if just a little bit of that is all that stays with them, then somewhere an animal will benefit from that and it’s all been worth it. 🙂

    • Jarrah,
      Thank you very much for your kind words. Calmness and compassion with the dogs is not only effective, it teaches how to be calm and compassionate in our daily lives.
      Best wishes, Dr. Mark

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