Animals can sense when people like them, and I am sure that animal lovers out there would agree with me that there seems to be some kind of invisible attraction where strays, wounded animals, and the sort always find a way to us.
The phrase “he followed me home, can we keep him” was a common one for me while growing up, and given that I spent half of my childhood with the Venezuelan jungle as my back yard, well, let’s just say that it was a challenging time for my mom.
But even when animals in need seem to understand that we might be able to help them, it’s a bit complicated to let us do the “capture and restrain” part, especially if they are in pain and scared.
If you occasionally find yourself in a “capture and release” type of situation, you will be able to get some ideas from this article on how to use what you have lying around the house to keep both you and your wild friend safe. But if this is a more serious part of your mission, and you come across this type of situation more often than the average Joe, well then you might consider getting some equipment that would reduce the levels of stress and time needed to succeed. In order to keep this article more practical I will narrow my advice to canines, although some of the same techniques are interchangeable among species.
Rule number one, if you don’t want to get bitten, do not approach a strange animal. Call an expert and keep an eye on the situation from a distance. But if you are like me, chances are you don’t mind risking it if they need your help, so let’s try to minimize the risk.
With any runaway animal (even your own) DO NOT GIVE CHASE! Yes, that’s right, no chasing (at least not in the regular sense of the word). To understand why, try thinking about it this way: How would you react if you were lost and scared and a big unknown animal started to run after you?! You would probably try harder to get away (by running faster and even hiding).
Instead of pursuit, try keeping an indirect eye on the subject and remember not to travel in a straight line towards them. Slowly try to “corral them” into an area that you consider safe, away from traffic and where you can have a better chance of getting hold of them.
In nature, look for areas that contain natural walls. Places with big rocks, steep hills, or very thick greenery are perfect for this. In cities, features like driveways, yards, and alleys all work in your favor as well… especially if there is only one exit. Once the dog has gone in, you are in control.
Keep control but do not corner the animal too fast. Remember to keep a safe distance at first and learn to read the situation before you. This will enormously reduce the chances of your getting bitten. Take it from me because I know what I’m talking about. To this day, other than in K9 bite work sessions using the proper bite suits and sleeves, I have never been bitten by any animal (except maybe for humans), but I’ve been in plenty of situations where the odds weren’t in my favor.
Reading the situation (and the animal) is key because it helps you to understand when to back off. It is not as simple as “is he wagging his tail?” so make sure you read to see plenty of visual indicators before you dive in.
If the dog seems receptive to human contact try to make yourself available by lowering yourself to the ground, or standing in a very relaxed manner, speaking in a soft voice, and never “fronting” the animal (always stand at an angle).
Also, be patient and don’t rush things. He might be thinking about coming to you, and if you come on too strong you might just spook him away. Extend your hand softly with your fingers flexed inwards and let the dog be the one to approach you, let him sniff you.
If you have food, you can try offering some. The smellier the better! You can build trust by tossing little pieces near the dog, and as he eats them, slowly toss them closer and closer to you. With some dogs gone “wild” and with no way of trapping them, this technique has proven effective for me in the past.
Remember your patience. You might have to come back for several days until you can get close enough to make contact.
Once the dog is close enough, see if he will take food from your hand. Keep your palm flat like a plate so he doesn’t accidentally get your fingers; do this several times before you try to pet him.
Start the petting by doing so on the side of the body, not the head. Don’t make any sudden movements and at this point, if you have a leash you should slowly (and while keeping up with the petting) slip the leash with a wide loop above his head. Slowly pull the free end to reduce the loop. Most dogs stop trying to run away once they recognize the familiar feeling of a leash around their neck. At this point, problem solved. Nice Work!
But what to do if they are not coming near you, or if they seem too dangerous to approach?
If you are dealing with a small dog, a thick blanket can be used both as a net, and a barrier for you to keep from getting bitten as you scoop them up. You can also lasso a big dog from a safe distance by dropping the loop from above, or using the assistance of a small hook at the end of a stick. You can even use a dog catcher’s pole, or if you are good a rodeo, just by using your abilities.
You can make your own dog’s catcher pole by feeding rope through a PVC pipe or by using a long pole from a nearby swimming pool. This will also work to keep a dog on a leash but safely away from you if he becomes aggressive. If there is no pole on hand but you have a second person that can help, you can also double-lasso the dog and have him walk in between the two of you, with each person keeping him at a safe distance from the other.
Another way is by using a crate or an appropriately-sized cage, putting food inside at the far end and then leaving the door open. Once the dog goes in for the food you have easily a couple of seconds to shut the door closed.
For smaller dogs you can get what’s called a “live” trap. They are commonly used for cats and other small mammals. You can makeshift your own by placing a big box or basket upside down and holding one end up with a stick. Tie a small rope to the stick and then extend that rope over to where you will be hiding. Place food underneath the box and wait, when the animal is in the middle (and eating) pull on the string and the box will fall down and trap the dog inside. You have to hurry over of course and hold the box down. Now this might seem a bit cartoonish, yes, but it has worked for me in the past and for more than just one species.
Once you have stopped the animal from running away and getting into a worse situation is time for you to find assistance. Wildlife stations, veterinarian clinics, and even some animal shelters can be a saving grace if you have access to them (and they are willing and cooperative). Unfortunately these are not available everywhere (or at all hours), but fortunately we now have the Internet.
Before you take the next step make sure you have captured a small, mangy dog and not a possum and then read up on it. On occasion (with wild life), you might find out that relocating them is all you need to do, or that they are weak and maybe need some food or water.
With a domestic animal it is always a good idea to take them to a vet the moment you can, even if they look healthy. They may have a microchip containing the owner’s information and vets have the scanners available to read them.
The decision to stop and help an animal in distress is a very noble one and to me it speaks highly of the person’s character. But as with any emergency situation even more important than to help is to keep yourself safe so that you do not become another victim that now needs rescuing. Keep calm and remember: smarter is always safer (and truly the fastest way), and never be ashamed about calling for assistance.