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How to Free a Dog From an Animal Trap

Be equipped and prepared to handle the unexpected to possibly save your dog's life.

How to Free a Dog From an Animal Trap

Know how to handle a scary situation before it turns problematic should your dog encouter an animal trap. (Gun Dog photo)

We had won the lottery, literally. Our number was picked for a chance at the only pheasants around our parts and the ones that Fish and Wildlife had released for the lucky hunters who were drawn. Wanting all we could glean from our good fortune, my Dad, our buddy "Beanie", and I all agreed on pointed roosters only.

Warm air and wet cover helped scenting conditions and discouraged the pen-raised birds from running much. We all had our two-bird limits in less than an hour. Still aglow with the fires of success, we loaded the dogs and struck out for some promising grouse cover.

At the new spot, we turned the dogs loose without a care in the world. When the cutover we hunted tapered off into a mature stand, the dark clouds scooting low over the hills confirmed our decision to turn toward the truck. As we came to the last bend in the road, the figurative lightning struck, announced by mournful cries from the direction our dogs had travelled. We found my trusted old English setter standing quietly near the edge of a mown pasture. She didn't appear to be in distress but I could tell that something wasn't right. She tried to move but yipped again, just as I saw the trap above her right front foot. That fast, my dog was caught in an animal trap.

Until then I had never imagined the possibility of my dog being caught by something someone had purposely left hidden. Had the trap not been attached to her leg and still partially covered with leaves and dirt, I could have calmly figured out how to release it. But that wasn't the case. I just wanted my dog loose, and I wanted her loose right now. It was hurting her and I wasn't thinking clearly. Luckily, Beanie was able to remove the animal trap while I calmed my dog and kept her from unnecessary movement. Our predicament had a happy ending. No damage was done and Gunner trotted away unhurt. But sometimes things can turn out very differently.

Be Trap-Aware

Trapping equipment can not only cause injuries to hunting dogs but can also be life threatening if you can't remove the trap quickly and efficiently. If your dog suddenly becomes caught in an animal trap, any kind of trap, do you know what to do?

It's difficult but important to stay calm and avoid being bitten. Getting yourself hurt will not help your dog. A dog caught in a Conibear trap isn't at its best and may act uncharacteristically. One precaution is to use a hunting coat, vest or shirt to cover a dog's head in such a way that it can't bite.

Leg-Hold Traps

Leg-hold, or foothold traps, are very common and normally only pose a serious problem if an unattended dog spends a long time in one. Despite what I thought previously, many leg-hold traps are not especially painful, so long as the captured animal doesn't fight and struggle to pull free. They are designed to hold, not to injure the animal or damage its fur. They just won't back up until the springs are compressed.

Two common variants are the coil spring and the long spring versions. Stepping on or hand compressing the release levers of the coil spring version or the long springs of the latter version will allow the jaws of the trap to fall free and your dog to step out. You can probably go on your way like we did. There's really not much to fear from normal-sized leg-hold traps, as long as you can locate your dog.

Hand in leg-hold trap
While we don't recommend trying this at home, this photo helps demonstrate that most leg-hold traps are designed to restrain, not injure, the animal. (Gun Dog photo)


Another common type of animal trap is the snare. Regulations on the myriad varieties of legal snaring equipment vary widely from location to location, so it pays to check them for the areas you frequent. Snares can either be locking or non-locking and even powered by a spring assist device. They are generally made of wire cable, and a loop is set in such a way to catch a passing animal by the neck or foot. They are often set in a travel corridor, like a fence-line hole, without bait or attractant.

Danger is minimal to a hunting dog caught by the foot; however, if your dog runs through one and gets caught by the neck then the situation can become dire. A dog that can't be located quickly is at risk for strangulation if it continues to fight a snare. Dogs trained not to pull on a lead are much better prepared, with the hope that they will stop pulling as the pressure tightens.

Removing snares can be problematic. Cold, wet fingers don't work well and snares can be hard to loosen if they become entangled in a dog's coat. Carrying a pair of side-cutters large enough to quickly cut the cable and free the dog is quick and easy. Check the maximum size cable allowed in your area to ensure your cutters will do the job.

But a word of warning regarding the above suggestion. In many areas it is illegal to tamper with or destroy a licensed trapper's traps, so cutting a snare could be breaking the law. If you can loosen the snare without cutting it, by all means do so. However, if I have to cut a snare to save my dog's life, my choice is going to be obvious.

Body-Gripping Traps

The third frequently used type of animal trap is the most dangerous. This is where things can get dicey for gun dogs. They are the body-gripping traps, also known as kill traps and commonly referred to as "Conibear" traps. Intended originally as underwater sets for beaver, otter and muskrat, some sizes are now legal to set on land in some places. Where legal, they are often set guarding the opening to a baited plastic bucket or in front of a hole. An unaware dog is caught when it sticks its head through the open trap to investigate the scent behind it.

Stories are circulated every year about dogs caught behind the head in a body-grip animal trap and killed. Rarely are they killed instantly but most die of suffocation because the dog owner either didn't know how to release the trap or didn't have the physical strength to do the job. Too often, the dog owner ends up watching their companion die slowly while frantically trying in vain to figure out what to do. If your dog gets its head into a body-gripping trap, don't panic! Get to your dog quickly and you can save him if you know how to remove the trap and can do it right then and there with a minimum of wasted time.

Forehand knowledge is imperative, as when first viewed these animal traps seem to be some sort of tricky wire puzzle. They are hard to figure out and even harder to release unless you've worked with one previously. Although some trappers carry specially designed tongs to open body gripping traps, they are too large and cumbersome to be practical for dog handlers on foot.

Conibear or body-gripping trap set
Make sure you educate yourself and other family members how to remove your dog from a Conibear trap to save them from suffocation. (Gun Dog photo)

Freeing a Dog From a Trap

I visited a local trapper to learn more about his equipment and how to open a body-gripping trap using a short piece of rope. While this method isn't foolproof, it's worth learning and might be a life-saver someday. Here's how it's done.

Step 1:

First, run a length of rope up through the bottom spring loop and then up through the top loop of the same spring of a body-gripping trap.

Free a dog from an animal trap

Step 2:

Bring the rope back down, forming a circle and back up through the bottom and top loops of the same spring.

Free a dog from an animal trap

Step 3:

With your foot through the loop in the rope, pull on the free end to compress the spring enough to engage the safety catch.

Free a dog from an animal trap

Step 4:

Once the safety catch is fastened, release the tension on the rope and repeat the process on the other spring located on the opposite side of the trap jaws.

Free a dog from an animal trap
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