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How to Handle a Snare with Your Dog

Bird hunters should be prepared to encounter—and disable—a new generation of highly effective snares.

How to Handle a Snare with Your Dog

The best way to disable a snare is to simply cut the cable. (GUN DOG photo)

Carolyn Mehl was desperate. Her three-year-old Weimaraner, Jake, was strangling to death in her arms but Mehl’s Leatherman multitool pliers couldn’t make so much as a dent in the cable that tightened on his windpipe and carotid artery. She yelled for her husband and hunting partner, Jon Haufler, to come help disable the snare that Jake had tripped in a patch of creek-bottom snowberries and willow in northeastern Montana.

Together, working against time and with three different pliers, Jon and Carolyn managed to disable the spring that locked the device and freed Jake. But where was Riley, their pudelpointer?

“He was trained to come on a beep, and when we realized we’d be awhile with Jake, Jon beeped him,” says Mehl. “Once we managed to get the snare on Jake to relax so he could breathe, Jon went looking for Riley.

“I made sure Jake was going to be okay, and then went looking for Jon,” says Mehl. “When I found him, he was holding Riley, about 35 yards away. Riley had come back to us but had gotten hit by two snares. He was dead.”

“We carried him out of the field, just in shock,” says Mehl, still shaky recounting the incident a full year later. “We brought him home and buried him. I just can’t get out of my mind that Riley was waiting for us to free him, but we knew that if we didn’t stay with Jake, we’d lose him, too.”

Mehl’s other takeaway: she wasn’t prepared to disable the type of quick-killing snares that her dogs encountered. She’s also surprised that snares, intended for coyotes, would be deployed in an area open to public hunting. The incident occurred in late December, while the upland season for sharptailed grouse—the target species for Mehl and Haufler—was still open. What’s more, the area where Jake and Riley were hit is a state section that’s included in a Block Management Area, Montana’s walk-in private-land hunting program.

“If we had known it was an active snaring area, we wouldn’t have hunted there,” says Mehl. “But there was no indication. No signing. No notice at the Block Management sign-in box. We went in there blind.”

Eight months later and maybe 80 miles south of where Mehl and Haufler encountered snares, Todd Netto nearly lost his dog to what he describes as a “clinch-lock” snare.

“It was basically a metal zip tie,” says Netto, who had already filled his deer tag. He brought his dog, a pit bull-Rottweiler cross, to accompany friends hunting mule deer on a chunk of BLM ground.

“She went into thick cover, and when she didn’t come to my beep, I found her sitting in the brush, just looking at me with that wire around her neck.”

Netto says videos he had previously watched that demonstrate how to disable snares gave him a misplaced confidence that he could quickly free his dog.

“I thought snares had to have a tool-free release,” he says. “They don’t. I was only about 200 yards from my pickup, so I sent my buddy to get my Gerber multi-tool. Luckily, my dog had a heavy plastic collar on. That saved her, but so did her calm nature. If she had pulled away in any way, she’d have been dead. If you have a dog that panics when cornered, they are 100 percent dead with a snare. We worked on her for five or 10 minutes, and that snare got so tight that she was coughing up white foam. I couldn’t get my finger under it, but that [plastic] collar kept it from cutting into her neck. We eventually managed to cut that quarter-inch braided steel cable, and 20 minutes later she was eating a Milk Bone. I got lucky.”

Netto called a game warden to report the incident, and later filled out an incidental-take report. Since the November incident, he’s ordered three pairs of specialized cable-cutting pliers, one for his bird vest, one for his backpack, and the third for his pickup.

“I thought I was prepared, but I wish I had known more,” says Netto. “I’m not relying on my Gerber anymore. And the videos weren’t as helpful in the real world as I expected.”

Swiss C7 cable cutter
Used by trappers themselves, the Swiss C7 cable cutters cut up to 3/16-inch cable and feature a spring-loaded handle for ease of use and keep in your bird vest for safety at all times. (Photo courtesy of Swiss)

Fully Legal and Ubiquitous  

Across the West, snares and foothold traps set for coyotes could be nearly anywhere, on either public or private land, and other users of those landscapes probably have no idea that the snares are set and blindly waiting.

In Montana, coyote trappers need only a free annual permit in order to trap or snare on state land, such as the section where Mehl’s dog Riley was killed. Because the trapper operating on that section was trapping during upland season, he was required to post signs on perimeter fencing. The signs had blown off or been removed, say both the trapper and the manager of the area state-lands office. Landowner permission is required to trap or snare on private land; no permission or permit is required to trap or snare on most federal land.

Mehl is a certified wildlife biologist and no stranger to agency procedure and regulatory oversight, which is why she readily identified what she called a “blind spot” in Montana’s multiple-use rules that govern public land. She noted that the trapper whose snares killed Riley had been cited by federal wildlife agents for inadvertently killing a golden eagle. Better oversight would have prevented him from being back in the field, she claims.

Mehl was so galvanized by her experience that she worked with a state legislator to introduce a bill in the Montana legislature’s most recent session that would have mandated that “trapping with predatory snares” couldn’t take place on public land during upland bird seasons. The bill, HB523, would have also mandated signing and prohibited the use of spring-loaded, non-releasing snares on public land. That bill was tabled in committee after numerous trappers testified that it would be unworkable and create too many barriers to participation.

What Mehl, and countless others whose dogs have been injured or killed by snares or traps have discovered is that snaring coyotes on public land is a legal and fully protected, and often encouraged, practice around the West.

english pointer bird dog in field
Snares and foothold traps set for coyotes could be nearly anywhere on public land out West—a dangerous risk for your unsuspecting bird dog. (Photo By: Bill Buckley)

Not only in Montana, but in Utah, Oregon, Idaho, and Wyoming, coyotes are classified as unprotected predators and managed by state departments of livestock, not wildlife agencies. That classification, which largely dates back to the bounty years of early in the last century, allows coyotes to be hunted at night, with thermal devices, with bait, and without bag limit or season restrictions. And it’s what allows relatively unregulated snaring and trapping. Among the few restrictions in Montana is a requirement that trappers report incidental take of non-target animals to the state’s Fish, Wildlife & Parks Department, and at least some state-land's offices in the state require coyote trappers to wait until upland bird seasons close.

“What we know now, after our incident and subsequent research, is that coyotes are unprotected and trapping or hunting them is not regulated,” says Mehl. “That’s not consistent with the message that we hear from trappers, which is that trapping is a highly regulated activity. Largely, it is, but not when it comes to coyotes.”

Because of that classification, which is unlikely to change given the political and cultural sway of stockgrowers around the rural West, gun dog owners should expect to encounter snares and know how to disable them, says Jim Buell, president of the Montana Trappers Association.

“I felt terribly sorry for them (Mehl and Haufler),” says Buell. “But as a remedy they want more regulations. We felt like what’s needed is more education.”

Buell says awareness starts with the hunter and encourages upland hunters to apply the same preparation for traps and snares that they take when their dogs might encounter porcupines, snakes, vehicles, or other hazards in the field. But he adds another layer: land-use awareness.

“If they want to know if a trapper is working a piece of state land, all they have to do is call the area DNRC (Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation) office and ask,” says Buell. “If they’re hunting private land, ask the landowner if trapping is taking place. But ultimately, the dog owner is responsible for the dog, and that includes keeping them in sight and under control. It includes making sure you have cable cutters and know how to disable any hazard they may encounter.”

Tom Decker largely agrees. An author of a compendium of best practices for trapping furbearers and a well-traveled lecturer on the subject, Decker says that coyotes are not as regulated as, say beaver or martin, largely because of their ubiquity, their classification as unregulated predators, and historical antagonism between stock growers and wild canines.

“There is tremendous variability in hunting regulations toward coyotes, let alone trapping regulations,” says Decker. “That variability puts the onus on houndsmen to know where you are and who else might be out there. It’s a two-way street, though. A trapper needs to know who else is on the landscape and what else they might catch. A trapper doesn’t want to catch a dog, either.”

Identifying & Disabling Snares

If your dog is caught by a snare, your swift and confident reaction can save their life. The first step is recognizing the problem. If your dog doesn’t come when called or beeped, appears to be locked up in brush without pointing, or yips and yelps in pain, get to their side immediately.

If the dog is constrained by a snare, you have precious little time to disable it. The surest way to free your dog is to cut the snare cable with specialized pliers that have force-multiplying handles and hardened cutting jaws. But even if you have a simple Leatherman-type plier, you can usually disable most snares.

Cable snares are always attached to an immoveable anchor, but sometimes these anchors can be rebar or metal T-posts that can loosened or manipulated with some work. If you’re able to free the snare, then you will buy time for your freaked-out dog.

bird hunting cutting a coyote snare from a dog's neck with a cable cutter
If you can’t detach the anchor, you’ll have to find a way to loosen the tension on the snare. That’s hard to do if your dog is fighting the constriction, and harder still if you don’t know the type of locking mechanism you’re dealing with. (GUN DOG photo)

Simple Nooses

Traditional snares are simple nooses. The harder the prey pulls, the tighter the cable constricts. So if you can get your dog to quit fighting—for small dogs, you can stuff their bodies in the sleeve of a jacket to keep them from pulling and biting; larger dogs might need your whole jacket or a buddy to hold—simply back off the constriction until you can slip the loosened noose over the dog’s neck.

But many coyote trappers use a new generation of device called a “power snare.” These feature an L-shaped locking bar that the cable runs through that serves to keep tension on the neck even if the dog doesn’t pull back, and a stiff spring that continues to add pressure to the noose. For these type of snares, a needlenose plier can turn the L-bar out of its locking position to allow the cable to relax. Two pliers are even better, one to decompress the spring and the other to disable the L-bar.

Just be aware that the fine dexterity required to disable snares is hard to accomplish when your dog is pulling, which is why the best way to disable a snare is to simply cut the cable.

Be Prepared   

Both Mehl and Netto describe themselves as alert, aware dog-handlers with more than a passing knowledge of snares and how they function. Both were surprised at the mechanics of the devices they encountered in the field.

Both were a fairly new type of snare, one that uses an in-line spring to accelerate closure and ensure the hardened cable doesn’t relax. Sometimes called the “Alberta Power Snare,” the mechanism has been lauded for its quick dispatch of the wolves and coyotes it’s designed to ensnare. Inventor of the device, trapper Marty Senneker notes that “coyotes and wolves are put down by occlusion of the carotid artery. Many animals are rendered unconscious in less than one minute on this device firing.”

The Montana trapper whose snares caught Mehl and Haufler’s dogs is sympathetic, but he maintains that snares are not going away any time soon.

cable cutter for disabling a coyote snare with dog
Become familiar with how snares work and where and when you may encounter them. Then, having the proper tools and knowledge to handle if your dog were to ever get caught in a snare will be the key to preventing an incident from becoming an accident. (GUN DOG photo)

“Snares are fairly regulated,” says the trapper, who talked only on the condition that he remain anonymous, for fear that he might be harassed by trapping opponents. “There are only four or five types that are approved for use in Montana, and all have to have break-away devices to avoid catching a deer or a cow.”

But he says opponents of snaring and trapping are “going to have a hard time getting this stopped. The cattleman’s associations will get involved if they have to. They’re the ones that got snares legalized in the first place, as a predator control tool. And they are effective. You can catch 10 coyotes with a snare to every one you catch with a [foothold] trap. Snares just sit there, 24/7, waiting to catch something.”

But the trapper agrees with Buell and Decker that conflicts on public land should be reduced, and he suggests bird hunters learn more about snares. “The [upland] bird regulations should have a big bold box that illustrates how to disable snares,” he says. “And every hunter should carry pliers and know how to use them to back off the release. You don’t have to cut the cable. You just have to grab the lock and release it, at least with the models I use. It’s hard to do with your bare hands. If you don’t have a pair of pliers it’s a tough thing to do.”

The trapper noted that Montana coyote pelts have been selling over the last season for between $40 and $50, enough to keep longtime trappers in the field but not enough money to mobilize a new generation of trappers and snarers.

“When prices are up, that’s when the carpetbaggers show up, new people who don’t know what they’re doing,” he says. “That’s what happened when snaring was first approved. You had every Tom, Dick, and Harry hanging snares on every trail they could find, and cows and dogs were getting caught all over the place. At least with low [fur] prices, it’s the trappers who know what they’re doing out there, and even though it remains pretty uncommon, we don’t want to catch anyone’s dog.”

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