Learn about the types of traps a hunting dog can encounter, how to handle it, and sharing the outdoors with our fellow trappers
Frost fell from the prairie grass as it moved around our legs. The sun had come up halfway through our walk, and water droplets began crawling up the denim of my jeans. Jack and Gunner, young labs and littermates, worked the cover intensely. Their backs, covered in white ice particles, began to steam off from the heat and excitement of the opening weekend.
We had bagged a few birds and were almost back to the pickup. With our attention on recounting the morning’s shots, the dogs roamed a little more freely. I was laughing at a joke being told when I caught one of the dogs crossing the property line out of the corner of my eye. I suddenly heard a hair-raising yelp. Everyone ran over to the sound and breathed a sigh of relief. It was Gunner, with his front paw in a foothold trap, as Jack pranced around him confused. What sounded like a sure emergency was just a brief interruption to the hike back. While I released his foot and sent him along unscathed, I thought to myself how this would have been a successful coyote set before we messed it up for the trapper.
Upland hunting and fur-harvesting have always had one major thing in common: habitat. It only makes sense that a trapper in search of these predators would have traps in areas of great bird cover.
Understandably, this shared use of land can cause some uneasiness for someone planning to let their four-legged partner run through the area. While there are certainly risks involved in most outdoor pursuits, the danger of trapping is often overstated. A basic understanding of traps and how to handle them can greatly reduce the risk and fear that comes with dogs running around traps. Take it from someone that has trapped fur for nearly as long as he has hunted the uplands; catching a dog in a trap is not as intimidating or as much of an emergency as most think. The tips below should increase your knowledge and respect of traps, and, hopefully, turn a potentially stressful situation into an event comparable to snagging pants on barbed wire.
Risks of injury for dogs caught in traps
To gain a better understanding of a worst-case scenario with trap encounters, I reached out to Chris Cox, DVM, from southeast Kansas. Having hunted with Chris through college and after, along with having him tag along during some beaver trapping, he has the background necessary to speak on the topic.
“As an upland hunter most of my life I have experienced several dog run-ins with footholds, all of which resolved uneventfully,” Cox said, “but from the veterinary side, I have seen and treated some trap associated injuries. Unfortunately, I have talked to trappers and dog owners that found dogs in conibears and snares that appeared to have struggled resulting in death, though the traps were legal.”
While the risks vary, every encounter is not life or death. According to Cox, the majority of cases he sees are minor.
“I have talked owners on the phone through releasing their own dog from a foothold successfully, and the majority that I see I put on oral anti-inflammatories for a few days and they’re back to normal,” he said. “The worst I treated was a dog found in a foothold for an unknown amount of time, though the dog had been missing from home for a few days. The dog had struggled and appeared to try to chew off the trap and by the time he was released and brought to me the skin below where the trap had held was cold and almost leather-like. We tried to salvage the foot with bandages and medications but within a few days it was evident the tissue was dying and we opted to amputate the limb. He did great as a three-legged dog for a lot of years after that.
“Again, this is an extreme case and many more dogs go completely unscathed after released from a foothold trap.”
Given this information, it is clear that respect and education on how traps work would be beneficial for all of us to have while spending time afield.
Tools to have on hand for dogs caught in traps
Just as you should keep a small first aid kit on you while hunting, you should also consider a few tools to have on hand in case of a trap encounter. Some of these are tools you may already have in your vest and can serve a dual purpose.
First, slip leads or leashes are often already carried and are valuable tools in releasing the spring pressure of body-gripping traps. Nearly any style of lead can be used in releasing a dog in this style of trap.
Second, wire cutters or cable cutters are a great addition to a vest. Some styles work better for cutting a snare cable against a dog’s skin, but nearly any is better than nothing. Further, some form of multitool is carried by many upland hunters with the idea that they can be used to cut a snare if needed. While these definitely can work, cables are difficult to cut with them and a designated set of small cable cutters may be worth adding to your kit.
The last recommended tool is a Trapper Ron’s conibear safety setter. This tool is similar in size to a pocket knife and can be used much quicker than a slip lead on releasing a dog in a body-gripping conibear.
Types of traps a dog can get caught in
Foothold traps are the most common trap used in America. These consist of two jaws lifted by either a pair of wire coil springs or a pair of long metal springs on either side and are designed to pinch and hold the paw of an animal. Note: these do not break bones. The only way an animal is injured in this trap is by the fight they put up after being caught.
Modern coil-spring foothold traps come with swivels on the chain, broad jaw edges, offset openings to allow better circulation, and other upgrades. These all reduce leverage from twisting and binding and reduce discomfort on the animal preventing injury. Additionally, these traps have been used in “catch-collar-release” studies by biologists with no injury to the animal.
According to Cox, these traps usually exhibit this safe, low-risk effect on a dog’s paw.
“Footholds can cause tissue/vessel damage if the animal struggles severely or is in a trap for a prolonged period of time,” Cox noted. “Broken bones are not common with these traps. Even if they do struggle immediately, if released even within several hours, generally, damage is minimal or non-existent.”
To release a dog in a foothold, remain calm, and move slowly. There is no immediate risk here. Your first reaction should be to calm the dog. A calm dog is in no danger to himself and will be easier to release. Hold your dog still and apply downward pressure on both springs at once using one foot on either side of the trap. Once the springs are depressed, the pressure on the jaws is released and you can pull your dog’s leg out. Do not pull your dog’s leg with force if the jaws are not released, you will not get him out, and only cause more stress.
The cheapest, most weatherproof, and efficient trap technique used today is a snare. As a trapper, I use these when getting far from the roads as they are the lightest option. Keep in mind, all traps can be encountered as far from any roadway as we can get.
Snares consist of a piece of cable tied off solidly to some sort of anchor or vegetation, with a one-way cable lock completing a loop at the end. The design is simple and as old as trapping itself. When placed at a specific height and location, the target animal walks through, its head entering the loop and its neck and shoulders providing resistance to close the loop. Using the animal’s momentum and tugging, the slide lock closes and will not release.
Without question, snares are a danger for a dog. According to Cox, “Snares can result in asphyxiation and tissue damage generally to the neck, again if the animal struggles severely.”
However, if your dog is caught in one, you need to approach it properly. Just like the foothold scenario, remain calm. Approach the dog swiftly but as calmly as possible. It is your dog’s reaction and fighting against the snare that will increase the danger. While calming your dog down, reach in your vest for wire cutters, cable cutters, or at least a multitool. You will have to cut the cable free from your dog’s neck. You can sometimes twist the lock and push the cable back through, but releasing the lock on a snare is virtually impossible if it has tightened down much at all. Cut the loop part of the cable that is tightened around the neck. A calm, stationary dog can be cut loose, freeing his airway in plenty of time to save him.
Tools in your vest are vital in this situation, but before that, the most important tool is your dog’s preparedness for this incident, more on that later.
Conibears or body-gripping traps are the mousetraps of the fur-harvesting world. They work to grip the neck or chest of the target animal in a quick humane motion. And, it’s worth mentioning that most states have laws limiting the size of these used in upland settings. Further, conibear traps large enough to grab a dog have to be placed completely underwater for beavers, otters, etc. However, even in my home state of Kansas, it is legal to place a 220 conibear on land, and I used to do just that.
This size of trap is made for raccoons mainly, but they have been used for bobcat-sized animals as well. A common set is placing one in the opening of a five-gallon bucket. Placed on its side, the bucket has bait in the back with a 220 guarding the entire opening. What do a lot of people use to haul dog food or water on a hunt? Buckets. Dogs love to check these out, and I quit using them for this reason.
Cox shares this same thought on the danger of these traps.
“Conibears can kill a dog quickly due to their nature, which is why there are some restrictions on their use. Generally, asphyxiation from tracheal collapse would be seen as well as soft tissue injury. A small conibear may not harm a large full-sized dog for example and may grab instead on the head or other area of the body.”
Encounters with these traps are the only time you need to rush, and speed is of the utmost importance. The calmness of the dog will likely not be an issue as they are restrained by the trap. You need to focus and act swiftly to rescue your dog before tragedy.
First, with as much force as needed, rotate the trap vertically to allow some relief to your dog’s trachea. With a slip-lead or leash, secure one end to an eyelet on the spring of the trap, run the opposite end through the other eyelet of the same spring, and pull solidly straight back in the direction of the attached end. It will take some force, but this will compress the spring and allow you to hook the safety hook which will lock the spring in a compressed state. Quickly repeat the process on the opposite spring. Once both are compressed, the trap can be pulled off the dog and the dog should be able to get air freely. The small conibear setting tool mentioned above is a very effective tool to keep in your vest and works very efficiently to release the spring pressure of these traps.
It’s highly recommended to visit a veterinarian if you ever successfully release your dog from a conibear. It is worth checking to be sure their airway is completely unharmed. These are very humane traps, but because of this, death comes extremely fast. I prefer to not use them in anything but an underwater set for this reason, but remember, in some cases, it is perfectly legal and used across the uplands.
When asked what steps a person should take after releasing a dog from any of these types of traps, Cox shared important advice.
“I would generally recommend any dog that is successfully released from a snare or conibear be evaluated as soon as possible to assess vital signs and evidence of tissue damage,” he said. “If someone has successfully released their bird dog from a foothold normally, they won’t have to pay me a visit, and I generally just recommend monitoring for persistent lameness and tissue swelling or discoloration.
Again, most of the damage to canines caught in traps is a direct result of their response, and, if they do not struggle or are released in a timely fashion, can go home or even continue to hunt unscathed.”
Preparing a dog for an accidental incident with a trap
As the saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. When it comes to hunting dogs and traps, this can go a long way toward avoiding risky situations. We owe it to our dogs to do everything we can to help them avoid harm.
First, the less-severe scenario to train against is a foothold trap encounter. Using the same techniques to socialize a dog to being touched and held, you can prevent its fighting in a foothold trap. When clipping your dog’s nails, or inspecting their feet, lightly pinch and pull and work on desensitizing them to pressure on their paws. It isn’t much, but less fight and smaller reactions in a trap will lead to a reduced chance of injury in one.
The two more dangerous traps use characteristics of predatory animals against them: the will to live freely, a sense of curiosity, and the desire for food. A snare uses a wild animal’s will to be free and fight against restraint, to close around their airway. Without any fight or force against the snare, there is no danger. I recommend at a young age, training your dog to be accustomed to a stakeout. A dog that can be left on a stakeout without fighting the restraint is a safer dog around snares. Further, teaching a dog to heel and not pull at a leash accomplishes much of the same. Both of these training aspects will save a snared dog. For example, I have seen a domestic dog freed from a snare after an unknown amount of time in it after our neighbor’s dog found its way into a coyote snare of ours one weekend. The fact that the dog had been restrained before, caused it to stop and not fight the tension.
A conibear trap placed in a bucket can lead to a dangerous peril for your dog to sniff. It may be extreme to completely switch from using buckets for food and water, but it can help in preventing a dog’s interest in them. The avoidance of an incident is well worth the change in practices. I have personally never seen a pet caught in a conibear, and likely won’t as most regulations are in place preventing this.
Ethics around trapping and hunting in shared upland spaces
While I’m a passionate upland hunter, I’m also an unapologetic fur trapper. Each of these outdoor pursuits, when practiced legally, is just as ethical as the other. They each have their place in the uplands. Sitting on both sides of this discussion, I have experience letting my dog out of someone else’s legally placed trap, and I have experience releasing a handful of other dogs out of my own.
Fortunately, all of these incidents resulted in no injury and were laughed about later. When used properly, and checked within legal intervals, trapping is a safe endeavor even for non-target catches. If you come across a trap, leave it as you found it. Find a different area to run your dog, or hunt with a little more alertness on what your dog is sniffing. If you believe a trap is illegally placed, report it, but I don’t recommend removing it. The local game warden can be the judge of whether it was legal or not. Commonly, states require traps to be tagged with the contact information or license number of the user. However, there may be some circumstances where a landowner is allowed to use traps outside of other regulations to control a wildlife damage issue. Just as it is illegal to harass a hunter, it is illegal to tamper with someone’s trap. After releasing a caught dog, leave them just as they are when you are done. The tracks around the area will tell the trapper the story of what happened.
We all have a place in the outdoors, and many times our paths cross. We are all on the same team in the world of outdoor recreation and can always continue to overlap in our pursuits. With the knowledge of how to handle trapping equipment, I hope you have more confidence when entering new territory and a new view of the actual risks involved.
Kyle is an agronomist from Hiawatha, KS, a generalist hunter, but specifically; upland bird hunter, fur trapper, and fisherman. He enjoys doing anything that keeps him outdoors with his wife Shelby, son Cash, and lab Jack.