By Gary Wilkes
There is an old insult that states that so-and-so is so unpopular that ‘he couldn’t get elected dog catcher’. The insult is especially nasty because dog catchers are rarely the most popular people in a community and the job itself is generally undesirable. After about five years working in shelters I got hired to do what most people wouldn’t. Being a dog catcher gave me three intense years of learning how free-range dogs behave – something my shelter years hadn’t taught me.
By the time I was done I was a much better handler, all around. Over the years I’ve used my skills many times to get a stray off the streets, including dogs hit by cars or in the process of becoming what dog catchers call DOA – dead on asphalt. As someone who used to pick up DOA dogs for a living, I rarely turn away from an animal on the streets. When I do it, I do it with the same level of commitment I had when it was my job.
Not Exactly a ‘Need-to-Know’ Skill
Street handling isn’t something you truly need to know as a groomer. You rarely have to get a dog off the street because their owners bring them to you. However, there are two good reasons why you should at least know a thing or two about life outside the salon; your clients look to you for advice on a broad range of dog topics and as a dog lover you may decide to help a lost, frantic dog someday. In that spirit, here are some street-smarts that I learned the hard way. They may help you or someone you know save a life and live to tell the tale.
Only the Smart Survive
The most important thing about safely catching a stray dog is focusing on traffic. You are likely driving a car when you see a loose dog. As you move rapidly down the road your mind is firing on all cylinders in two different directions. Your heart says slam on the brakes. Your mind imagines the potential hazards of what you are about to do. Do you drive past or safely (emphasis on safely) navigate to help the dog? The pressure is mounting. It’s now or never. OK, you decide to go ‘all in’. Here are some tips to get you through the process after you make that critical decision.
Being a Self-Elected Dog Catcher
Take a deep breath, check all your mirrors, look at the oncoming traffic and turn on your blinker. Safely find a place to park where you can see the dog. On rare occasions it is safe to simply pull over and pop open the passenger door and invite the dog into your car.
I did that with a Corgi once in traffic and once in, he tried to bite my legs. He almost hit the gas pedal. I had my target leg on the brake – hard. Don’t forget you have an emergency brake. About two months ago I did this with an older female poodle in very bad need of good grooming. She was a dream to rescue. Not many are like that. This is a dangerous undertaking – don’t forget that. You can be killed or severely injured if you don’t pay attention.
Make sure you have some way to control the dog if you get close enough. I have a nylon slip-lead in the glove box of all my cars. I can use this as a quick muzzle if the dog is injured, create a loop and possibly lasso the dog or slip it on once I’ve made contact. (Once a dog catcher, always a dog catcher.) A long shoe-lace makes a great muzzle, costs little and can stay in your car’s console for years. I have used shoe-laces for that purpose several times over the years.
Try to position yourself between the dog and the most obvious danger. For instance, if you are on a side-street and you know there is a thoroughfare two blocks north, don’t start following the dog from the south. Get north of the dog and work south.
Many strays are disoriented and unlikely to just walk up to you so don’t move fast toward the dog. Sometimes the best strategy is to be on the other side of the street and appearing completely unconcerned about the dog’s presence. If you need to get in front of the dog to turn it away from a big street, this is a great way to not alarm the stray.
Call to the dog in a happy tone of voice while studiously avoiding eye-contact. Turning sideways makes you less of a threat, as does sitting down. Emily Johnson, a dog catcher of my acquaintance, always carried a stainless steel doggie bowl with her. She would sit on the curb and pretend to be eating out of the bowl. It often worked. Most strays aren’t interested in food but the sight of a person with a dog bowl may cause them to seek out something familiar.
At any point in the rescue the dog may try to bite you. Have your groomer-sense on full alert. No eye-contact. Do not grab the dog at the withers or a hind leg. This is where your years of handling dogs in a salon may backfire. This dog may never have been handled in its life and the things an often-groomed dog may love could trigger a bite. Also, no bending over the top of the dog. Work from the ground if you can. Do not bend over and extend your hand or fingers toward the dog’s mouth. Letting the dog come to you is a better idea.
If you have a slip-lead, keep it out of sight. The dog may have experience with real dog catchers. If you are wearing a hat or dark classes, take them off. Dark glasses look like big, staring eyes. It may cause the dog to bolt.
Pat your leg a few times. Many dogs know that as a signal for ‘come’ – far more than actually know the word ‘come’. Puppy talk is good but don’t get too enthusiastic. If the dog comes up to you, try saying “sit” in a normal tone of voice. It may work, it may not. If it does, try to gently touch the dog’s chest with your hand holding the slip-lead. Try to gently rub the dog’s ears and sneakily slip the loop of the lead over the dog’s head. Let gravity make it snug, then hold tight to the end of it with your fist. If you startle the dog at this point, it’s gone. (If the dog has a collar and you have a leash, do not try to use the clasp end to connect to the collar. Feed the clasp through the hand loop and make it into a slip lead.)
Not all dogs know how to walk on a lead. Be prepared for some bucking. Walk the dog back to your car, open the door and then stop for a second. Invite the dog to get in. This works more times than not. Once inside you are on your own but a good idea is to try to keep the dog in the passenger foot-well. Be very careful that the dog doesn’t interfere with your driving.
A heavy blanket is a great tool for wrapping up injured animals and staying safe at the same time. A good rescue kit should have towels, blankets, slip leads and phone numbers of local animal control agencies – in case you end up watching the dog high-tail it into the distance instead of riding with you, in style.
Last but not least, stay safe. You have people who love you. Your dogs love you. They need you to come home safe and sound. Remember that you can push a dog into a dangerous situation. Be willing to walk away and call the real dog catchers.