Releasing a dog from a foot-hold trap

Our fields, forests, and streams are shared by many individuals who have one important thing in common: They deeply love the outdoor opportunities the state has to offer. 

Two groups that come to mind are hunters and trappers. Hunters who enjoy time afield with their bird dogs or hounds sometimes fear the outcome if their dog happens to get caught in a foot-hold trap.  

Knowing what to do in that situation is what makes the difference between a traumatic experience and nothing more than a slight annoyance.

The chance that a hunting dog will be caught in a foot-hold trap at one point or another during its life is pretty good. Hunting and trapping seasons overlap throughout the majority of the fall and winter seasons. The state’s wolf season also has added some steel to the outdoor landscape.

And trappers (especially those targeting wolves, coyotes, foxes, and raccoons) often are trapping in the same general areas that small-game hunters are hunting. The reason for this is easily understood. Hunters know the type of habitat that holds the most deer, rabbits, pheasants and grouse.  

Trappers know that foxes and coyotes are found near prime small-game habitat because they prey on many of the animals that live there. Raccoons use this type of habitat for both food and cover, as well. Coyotes are going to be near deer.

There often are times when hunters and trappers are using the same area without each other even knowing it. Canine trappers often will set traps away from cover.

This helps to reduce the chances of catching non-target animals such as opossums and skunks.  

Wild canines are known to travel field roads and woods roads, and trappers like to set along them. The chances are probably greater for a hunting dog to be caught in a trap while traveling from the truck to the hunting area on a farm road than while actually hunting.

Because the use of specialized techniques is necessary to effectively harvest wild canines, there is always a chance of your dog getting caught in a foot-hold trap when you’re afield during trapping season.  

Fortunately, these traps are designed to capture canines (and other furbearers) securely by the paw and hold them alive and unharmed until the trapper arrives.

Because of this, there is little risk of any injury to a hunting dog.

Whether you’ll be able to release your dog by yourself depends on the temperament of the dog and how easily you can physically control it. Some calmer dogs will allow a trap to be removed from their paw without becoming agitated or frightened.  

Others may unexpectedly bite when the trap or paw is touched or handled. Many dogs will not differentiate between a trap and a hand and will bite toward the general direction where they feel discomfort.  

If you’re unsure how the dog will react when you try to open the trap, it’s best to find another person to help. If you feel you do need help, it will not hurt your dog to be in a trap for a short period of time while you find someone. 

Doing so may actually give the dog some time to calm down, and a calm animal is much easier to release. If your dog is caught in a foot-hold trap, it’s extremely important that you remain calm, as well. 

Remember, your dog is going to be fine. Do not make a hasty decision that might result in you or someone else getting severely injured from a dog bite. If the dog is visibly agitated, it is best to try to restrain it. Smaller dogs may be able to be physically restrained to keep them from biting.  

Many trappers carry catch poles that allow the dog’s head to be controlled while the trap is being removed from the paw. Without the aid of a catch pole, it is best to seek assistance if you need to restrain the dog.

One person’s task is to restrain the dog, while the other attempts to open the trap. If it is possible for the dog to be leashed, restraining it will be quite a bit easier.

Heavy hunting coats, heavy blankets, or plastic totes also can be used to cover the dog.

Understanding the mechanics of how a trap works will greatly simplify the release process. A coil-spring trap has two (although sometimes four) coil-type springs that exert force onto two levers. These levers hold the jaws closed. By depressing the levers, the jaws will open enough so the paw can be removed.  

Using both hands, grab a lever on each side of the trap with your fingers and stabilize the bottom of the trap using your palms. Use your fingers to pull the levers toward you, and the pressure on the trap jaws will be released, allowing the paw to slip free. 

Remember that the levers do not have to be fully compressed for the paw to be removed. This method, while simple, does require significant finger strength to depress the levers.

A second method requires the base of the trap to be placed securely on the ground with the jaws and levers pointing upward. Place the inside of each of your feet on each lever and use your body weight to compress the levers.  

Once the levers are somewhat compressed, the paw can be pulled free. This method may be somewhat difficult to do if you cannot physically hold or control the dog, or if the dog is large.

Another type of foot-hold trap that is not as commonly used as the coil spring is a long-spring trap. These traps use one or two long, folded springs to directly exert force onto the jaws to keep them closed.  

For the jaws to be opened, the spring(s) must be compressed. For someone inexperienced with traps and trapping, the best way to attempt to open a long-spring trap is to place the base on the ground and use your feet to compress the springs as described earlier.

A jump trap is another foot-hold variation. These traps are no longer in production, but some trappers still use them. They operate in a similar way to coil-spring traps and can be opened with the same methods.

Remember, trappers do not want to catch pets or hunting dogs. The fact is that hunters from time to time are going to encounter traps, and trappers have to understand that dogs could conceivably be caught. Fortunately, a dog getting caught in a foot-hold trap can be nothing more than an inconvenience for both the hunter and the trapper.

Hunters and trappers should show courtesy toward each other and their respective sports. If a trapper sees hunters near the area he is trapping, a polite gesture would be to let them know the general location of the traps and show them how to open a trap in the event a dog gets caught.  

Hunters should realize that trappers have the right to share the fields and forests with them. Under no circumstance should anyone disturb, set off, or remove any wildlife from a trap that does not belong to him.

Some hunters believe that it is permitted to set off traps when they are found. But such action is not only unethical, but unlawful.  

It is our responsibility to future generations to show tolerance toward all sportsmen and women, or we risk the loss of outdoor opportunities for everyone.

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