BANGOR, Maine — Recent reports of dogs becoming caught in leg-hold traps set to catch foxes or coyotes are not particularly uncommon, according to Maine Game Warden Lt. Dan Scott, who said dog owners should not panic if their four-legged pals are caught.

“I don’t think it’s happened any more [this year] than normal,” Scott said. “There were just a couple of instances this year.”

According to published reports, an 84-year-old bird hunter ended up shooting his own dog after the dog was trapped, then bit him and wouldn’t let go as the hunter tried to free him in October. Another dog was trapped and then freed by a crew from the Topsham Fire Department on Sunday.

Scott, who has had his own dogs — both bird dogs and Maine Warden Service K-9s — caught in traps in the past, said that most trappers who target canines such as coyotes eventually end up catching a dog. And in the vast majority of cases, the dog is safely released.

“[The leg-hold traps] are designed to catch a cat or canine by the foot — foxes, coyotes, bobcats — and hold them,” Scott said. “There’s a lot of myths out there about animals chewing their legs off, breaking their legs. A properly set, by best management practices, trap with proper swivels and of the proper size, doesn’t do that. All it does is hold the animal.”

Most dogs caught in traps aren’t hurt at all, Scott said, and will resume normal activity and behavior right after they’re released. Approaching a trapped animal, however, should be done cautiously, he said.

“The dog is confused and doesn’t know what’s going on. It’s trying to back away, it can’t get away, and its natural instincts kick in,” Scott said. “It’s fight or flight, and what it will do, even with its own owner, is snap or bite at them.”

Scott said that the problem of dogs caught in traps often occurs during October, when a special early season on foxes and coyotes begins. Many people don’t realize that trapping is taking place in areas they’re used to walking their dogs; the fact that the traps are set in order to catch canines contributes to the inadvertent incidents.

“Trappers are specifically trying to catch foxes and coyotes and they’re of the same family, [distantly], as a dog,” Scott said. “So if there’s a trap around and your dog comes around, there’s a good chance that he could get caught in it.”

John Short Sr. of Acton is a dog breeder, trainer and bird hunter. One of his Brittanys, Scooby, was caught in a trap while the duo were hunting in Scarborough in October. Short released Scooby unharmed, but said he’s not alone in the bird-hunting community.

“I probably know 12 people whose dogs have been caught [this year],” Short said.

Short has a solution that he said would reduce the number of dogs caught in traps, and he has contacted the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife with his proposal. Short also said that the next step may be to find a legislator to sponsor a bill addressing his concern.

“[I want] to see if we can get the early coyote [trapping] season kicked back to the last two weeks of September,” Short said. “We have the month of October, really, for bird season. Trappers have November, December, January, February, they go into March. Give us the month of October to run our bird dogs.”

Short made it clear that he’s not against trapping. In fact, he has held a trapping license in the past. He just thinks there’s a logical solution that would make sense for both trappers and hunters with dogs.

Scott said many people do choose to blame the trappers, but said that in most cases, the trappers are acting legally.

“A trapper who sets a trap on land has to get written permission from the landowner,” Scott said. “So people whose dogs get caught in a trap have to understand that the trapper in most cases is there legally and has already gone and visited with the landowner and gotten written permission to be there. The ironic thing is, dog walkers don’t really need to [obtain permission] unless the land is posted. They may get upset about the fact that there’s a trap there, but yet they may be out there just wandering around without permission.”

Scott said that many Mainers are not aware that trapping goes on in their areas. And the fact that the early trapping season opens on Oct. 20 may catch many dog walkers by surprise.

“You [may] have somebody who takes their dog for a walk every day and it’s never a problem,” Scott said. “And then all of a sudden on Oct. 20 their dog walks in the same exact spot and it gets caught in a trap. So we understand for the non-trapper, even though we support the trapper, it’s a traumatic experience.”

Scott said requirements for trappers to post signs letting others know that traps are present wouldn’t be feasible, and reiterated that landowners are aware that legal trappers have asked for permission.

If your dog — not a strange dog — should be caught in a trap, Scott said there are some key points to consider.

— Be calm. “The dog may be barking or ki-yi-ing a little, but it’s generally because they’re scared. They’re not usually injured.

— Get help, if possible. And don’t worry about not approaching your dog immediately. “If you can get help … it’s OK to let the dog be for awhile. Leaving the dog in the trap for an hour isn’t going to hurt it any more if the trap is properly set.”

— Transfer your calmness to your dog. “Talk to your dog a little bit, like you would if you were home.”

— Grab the dog’s muzzle, hold it shut, and disengage the trap. This job is easier if you have two people on hand — one to handle the dog, one to work on the trap. “When you go to mess with the trap, that’s when the dog panics a little bit,” Scott said. If you know anything about traps, there are two levers there that you can step on and the trap is going to fall open.”

— Immediately put your dog on a leash after its release. “You want to hook your dog right up because many trappers will set multiple traps in order to catch multiple coyotes at a time,” Scott said. “[The traps] are so well-designed to catch canines, once your dog is out and he’s back to his normal routine, he’ll put his nose to the ground and he’ll go to the next trap.”

— Don’t do anything rash. “It’s absolutely against the law to disturb somebody’s trap,” Scott said. “Obviously, if your dog gets caught in a trap, [freeing the dog] is not disturbing a trap. But at that point, you can’t smash the trap with rocks, which is fairly common. And you can’t take the trap.”

Instead, Scott suggested talking to the landowner. If, at that point, there’s a suspicion that the trap is illegal, a call to the Maine Warden Service would be the best next step.

John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...