Choosing and using poles to handle animals safely and humanely
by James Hettinger
Control poles have sparked debate for decades.
Dave Pauli, an HSUS senior director for wildlife response, calls control or catch poles “the most misused animal handling tool in the industry.”
When Pauli visits shelters, he asks the ACOs to produce their catch poles, then holds them up in the air to inspect them. If they’re straight and have a few tooth marks in them, “they’re being used properly,” he says. “But most catch poles in the United States have a slight arc, because they’re using them as a lifting tool,” often to hoist a dog—or, worse, a cat or a wild animal—into their truck.
Using a catch pole that way essentially turns it into a noose, and the animals trapped within it typically react accordingly. The practice, which may be driven by a lack of officer training, has been a source of concern and even cruelty charges in some communities.
Other veteran field officers agree that control poles have the potential to be both humane animal handling tools and dangerous weapons.
“They’re an excellent tool, as long as you’re not dragging an animal, [or] you’re not using that tool as a pickup device,” says Rowdy Shaw, senior field responder for The HSUS’s Animal Rescue Team.
A control pole can be used to block an onrushing aggressive dog from biting, Shaw says, and it also gives the dog a moment to figure out the situation and calm down. Animals are often as scared as anyone else involved in the encounter, he adds.
Control poles have developed a bad image because of highly publicized cases where workers misused them to strangle or beat animals, notes Mark Kumpf, director of the Montgomery County Animal Resource Center in Dayton, Ohio. But he says that image is a bad rap: At most agencies, control poles are used appropriately by trained, compassionate professionals.
“We don’t hear about the thousands of cases where this piece of essential
equipment is used properly, humanely, safely, and effectively,” Kumpf says.
Training—available through classes, videos, handouts, and practical demonstrations—is key to promoting the proper use of control poles, Kumpf says. Lack of training is a problem at some agencies, he adds, because officers don’t have a role model to demonstrate the equipment.
“If you don’t train people properly, you don’t educate them on how and how not to use a piece of equipment, then essentially whatever outcome you get is what you’ve signed up for,” Kumpf says. “… You just don’t put a piece of equipment in someone’s hand and say, ‘Go out and use this.’”
Shaw asserts that many officers don’t get enough training. “A lot of people are shown a tool, and sort of told how to use it, and then just put in a spot to use it, and that’s never a good way to go.”
Kumpf shakes his head in disbelief at reports of ACOs using control poles to lift dogs into cages. “Come on, folks: Work smarter, not harder,” he says. “It’s a tool, and any tool that’s used improperly can cause a host of problems, the least of which is damage to your image, and the most of which could be the unfortunate demise of an animal.”
Along with ensuring that their officers learn to use a control pole properly, agencies should also be aware of other options out there. As the animal control field evolves, its equipment evolves with it.
One proponent of an alternative tool—the Y pole—is Mark Johnson. As a veteran wildlife veterinarian who holds a black belt in the Japanese martial art aikido, Johnson brings a unique perspective to handling fearful dogs.
Animal handling situations are “not a fight for someone to win or lose,” he says. He peppers his speech with talk about connecting to the animal, “minimizing the energy of conflict,” understanding how your energy affects the animal, “compassionate dominance,” and removing the us-vs.-them mentality.
“He did an outstanding job of interacting with the employees here,” says James Rogers, administrator of the Memphis Animal Shelter (MAS) in Tennessee, where Johnson presented a training session in May. “He’s a very down-to-earth, get-it-done type of person” who effectively demonstrated his methodology and how it can work in shelters, Rogers adds.
MAS drew criticism earlier in 2012 when a video surfaced showing shelter staff lifting and dragging animals with catch poles. Following Johnson’s training, MAS has limited its use of catch poles in the shelter to extremely vicious dogs, opting instead to primarily use the Y pole.
Johnson says the concepts he teaches are instinctive for any good ACO, and he’s found success taking his message to animal handlers far and wide. He says he’s on a mission: He wants to make shelters throughout North America aware of the Y pole, which he contends can replace the traditional catch pole in virtually all shelter situations.
Catch poles are convenient, Johnson says, noting that they can be used by one person to control a dog in an open area. But their big drawback, he explains, is that placing a loop around an animal’s neck can be life-threatening for the animal. Y poles, in contrast, create a relationship with the dog that’s based on trust and cooperation, Johnson asserts.
Typically made of metal and measuring about 4.5 feet—with 6-inch forks covered in rubber, foam, and tape—the Y-shaped poles serve as an extension of the human hand, he says. “You extend your ‘hand’ with kindness, using all of the skills an ACO has for moving around a dog.”
The Y pole is not a physical pin stick, Johnson adds, and it won’t work to capture, say, a dog roaming free in a parking lot; the animal has to be cornered in some way. He first encountered Y poles while working with captive wolves, and found they can also be perfect for fear-aggressive dogs in contained areas such as kennels.
He concedes that some people are skeptical of Y poles, thinking that they won’t give the handler enough control. “And anyone who says, ‘This is a stick, and it won’t work’ is completely correct, because they will handle it like a stick,” he adds. “For those who truly see the dog, who know how to move around a dog in a way that softens the dog, that’s where it’s going to work.”
For more information on the Y pole, go to animalsheltering.org/cool_tool.
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