Thursday, August 28, 2008

Rattlesnake avoidance training for dogs

I wrote this article several years ago for my dog training club newsletter, but thought it might be useful information for those of you living in snake country, so here it is: my personal experience with snake avoidance training for dogs.


I live in Poway, California, on the eastern edge of San Diego County, and my home backs up to miles of desert sagebrush. Besides problems acclimating to the heat, I have been worried sick my dogs would encounter a rattlesnake here in our own yard (the former owners told us this was very likely).

My dogs are Sherman, a 12 year old sheltie; Mac, a seven year old sheltie: Tank, a seven year old Lab; and Emma, a two year old collie. The training is done out in the open country with several snakes of different sizes, all of them with their mouths taped shut. They are NOT  devenomized or defanged as this is not allowed in California (it’s considered cruel to the snakes). The dogs are outfitted with a Tritronics collar.

The trainer, Patrick Callaghan, a well-known field and obedience trainer in this area, was quick to point out that the Tritronics collar is not a “shock” collar, but a “stimulation” collar, and he had every owner feel the stimulation on their own arm. I have my own reservations about these collars, especially on a breed as sensitive as a sheltie or a collie, but I felt that it wasn’t nearly as bad as getting bitten by a rattlesnake.

We were required to sign a release saying that if either my dog or I were to die as result of a snakebite during this training, the trainer was not responsible. Small comfort to read that right before the training! Graphic pictures of human and canine victims of rattlesnake bites were posted at the training site. I guessed I’d rather they felt a zap on the neck than have all their toes fall off from the venom.

Each of my dogs reacted very differently to the training session. Sherman went first. He is going deaf, and is nearly blind, so he stumbles out with the trainer into a row of olive trees where a snake lies relaxing in the shade. Oblivious, Sherman decides this is a great place to go potty, and positions his rump directly above the snake, who lunges and starts rattling while Sherman gets the shock of his life from the collar. Screaming in terror, he hides behind the trainer. Twenty feet away, screaming in terror, I hide behind the other trainer. On subsequent approaches to the snake Sherman fought to stay back and away from the snake.

On to the second snake. Sherman smelled it this time, and stopped dead in his tracks, refusing to go near. Several approaches from different directions yielded the same result.

Now it was my turn to get involved. First the trainer walked me over to where the snake was resting. Standing within three feet of the snake, he announced, “Now we’re going to get this out of your system so you’ll listen to me instead of watching that damn snake.” So we stood there and chatted for a minute, while I calmed down and the snake ignored us. He explained that Sherman must be nearly deaf and blind for him to react that way (I had not told him this), but his sense of smell would alert him to the snake’s presence, because rattlesnakes have a very strong scent. He also emphasized that you should get away from a snake as quickly as possible, rather than freeze in place and wait for the snake to leave. Turning and running will not cause them to strike, he said.

It was now my job to stand about 40 feet away from Sherman, with the snake between us, and call him to come to me. Sherman just stood there. “Forget it,” he said with his body language. The trainer had me move to the left, so the snake was no longer directly between us. I called, and Sherman came slowly to me. Sherman had alerted me that it wasn’t safe to come to me through that other route by refusing to move. I leashed him up and walked him away, praising and hugging him. 

The final exercise was to walk Sherman away from the area, past several piles of straw, each of which had a snake in a cage in it, which I didn’t know. Sherman stopped suddenly and pulled back, wanting to leave. The snake was out of sight, and hadn’t made a sound. Sherman’s sense of smell had detected its presence.

The most important part of this training comes next- you walk your dog five or six steps away from the snake, and then praise him to the heavens. In other words, get out of there, then praise your dog for alerting you to danger. Your job as an owner is to learn to read your dog’s signals, and then reinforce the behavior.

We proceeded through the training with Mac. Mac is a real crybaby, my 18 pound spoiled rotten rescued sheltie, and he panicked as soon as the trainer led him away from me, long before they got to the snake area. Thrashing and screaming, he tried to pull out of the collar. The trainer ignored him, and they walked up to the snake. Poor little Mac flipped over on his back and screamed when the collar was activated. I cringed. But the training worked. Mac was very obvious in signaling the snake’s presence in each instance, and joyfully skirted the trees where the snake was and ran into my waiting arms at the end of the session. The nice part of the training is the dog does not associate the snake or the correction with you at all. Mac was pretty happy to see me after all that stress.

Tank, our big tough “Huntin’ dawg” is used to a Tritronics collar from field training many years ago. A typical Lab, his first instinct was to go pick up that snake and play with it. He learned soon enough. When it came time to do the recall past the snake, my husband Dennis did the honors. Tank skirted the trees, the field, and ran out into the road, came around behind Dennis and continued up the hill to me with his tail between his legs and head down. I leashed him up and took him back to Dennis, where they successfully completed the final steps of training. “Momma’s boy,” grunted the trainer.

Emma is a typical teenage collie, fascinated with anything that moves. Who knows, maybe she can herd it! She cocked her head and went right up to the snake, where she instantly learned to think twice as the trainer activated the collar. By the time we got to the recall, she was alerting to the snake by very quietly cocking her head and pausing to think about it. I worried that she may not be quite scared enough, but the trainer said every dog alerts in different ways. Many are very subtle, and you have to learn to read their reactions and trust them. Praise is a very important reinforcer here. On the recall, Emma came to me around the outside of the trees, nose to the ground, and stopping to decide whether or not to pass every suspicious looking rock in her path.

Some of the reactions Patrick told us to expect were:

• Stopping and refusing to go forward, with muscles tensed, hackles up or head alert, ears pricked.

• Hiding behind you, dragging you away

• Whining 

Training four dogs took less than 45 minutes and cost $50 per dog. Patrick recommends it be repeated every year. I was comfortable that these dogs won’t soon forget the experience.

When we got home, Tank immediately alerted to the garden hose. I praised him and he got over it. A few months later we had a king snake in the house, and he alerted us to it. Although I couldn’t see the snake, I could certainly see something was going on – he stood completely still and wouldn’t walk forward. Again we praised him, moved him away, and then got that darn snake outside

In the ten years since I wrote this, none of my dogs has been bitten, and we’ve had several rattlesnake encounters in the back yard. To conquer my own paralyzing fear of rattlesnakes, I have volunteered to help at snake avoidance training, and learned a lot. I’m still scared, but not panic-stricken like I used to be.

The first photo shows me getting acquainted with a snake under Patrick’s close supervision! The second photo shows a friend’s dog, Chocolatte, a Lab, who almost died from a snakebite.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Golden vs Labrador retriever- which to get?

This is Indy, a brand new puppy that one of my pet sitting clients just added to their family. He's the lucky friend of three little boys and a very old cat named OJ. 

Golden Retrievers are one of the most popular family dogs in America. Labs have been number one in AKC registrations for about 16 years now. So what's the difference between the two breeds, from an owner's standpoint?

There is NO SUCH THING as a Golden Lab, unless someone has bred the two breeds to each other! Then it is a Golden/Lab mix. Labs are either yellow, black or chocolate. Goldens only come in one color, which can range from pale cream to deep red. Yellow labs also can have great variation in the color, from palest cream (almost white) to deep "fox red." There are no truly white labs, they are just very pale yellows. Also beware of the "rare" silver Labrador. This is a serious genetic defect, or the result of breeding to a Weimaraner. 

Labs have a short coat, but they shed a ton-- probably more than goldens. A golden's long luxurious coat needs more brushing, and can tangle and mat easily. Goldens are larger, heavier dogs. I've always thought they are a little sillier than Labs-- wiggly-goofy when young. 

Both breeds are active, bred to be hunting dogs, and need a lot of exercise. As puppies, they are tremendous chewers. Training should start as soon as you bring them home, otherwise once they hit the teenage months, you'll have way too much dog on your hands. Both breeds are easy to train and eager to please, which is why so many are service dogs for people with disabilities. This goes back to their purpose, hunting, where they must work alongside their handler and follow his direction out in the field. 

Goldens seem to dominate obedience competition, and I am told it is because they are easier to pattern train, and don't mind the repetition like a Lab does. A Lab is more likely to make up his own routines if he gets bored! I've owned a Lab and can attest to that! Although I haven't owned a golden, I have been in classes with many, have several as pet sitting clients, and have trained several when I was working at a training facility. 

Show or Field?
I think if you want a retriever, either a golden or a Lab is a good choice, and it's more a matter of personal preference which you prefer. The breeds aren't tremendously different to live with. Whatever you get, it is more important to decide whether you want a dog from show or hunting lines, because the temperament can be very different. Hunting, or field bred, goldens and Labs can be much lighter weight and be more high-strung and active. Some of them can be downright hard to live with if they don't get enough exercise every day. 

It's a shame that there are almost two breeds within the breed, but there are very real differences. You'll hear about English Labs, which are supposedly shorter, stockier and heavier. That's what a show-bred Lab is going to look like, American or English. A show bred golden retriever will have a magnificent coat, often be a lighter color (not always), and will generally be larger and have heavy bone structure. 

Many show breeders train their dogs and show them in hunting tests, to be sure that the original purpose of the dog is not lost while striving for a pretty profile in the ring. Field trials are a much higher level of competition that hunting tests, and you usually won't see show dogs competing in these. 

The hunting photos shown here are by Susan Wing. All photos are copyrighted and not to be reproduced without permission. 

Sunday, August 10, 2008

What's in a name?

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet"
William Shakespeare

A dog by any other name might NOT seem so sweet. I have a noticed some interesting things about pet names, especially when dealing with homeless dogs. A cute name helps them get adopted faster, for example. During my years in lab rescue, we came up with some good ones. I felt a freedom to come up with some silly names because the new owners usually changed it anyway. Bo Wiggly's new family liked his name so much they kept it. 

We took in a group of four chocolate labs, litter mates, from Las Vegas, all about one year old. We named them Fudge, Java, Dutch and Chip. At first Chip was Chaos, but we decided that was too negative for a rescue dog! 

Unintentionally, dogs seem to live up to their names. My Lab, Tank, certainly did. He was famous for plowing right through the high jump, instead of over it, in obedience class. One time my instructor Linda, who wanted to build enthusiasm and drive in our dogs, held Tank back and revved him up before letting me call him on the recall. He recalled so fast I though I was going to get killed! With Tank, it was more about calming him down.

Back to the chocolate dogs – our rescue coordinator, Mary Jane, complained to me once about "all those dumb chocolate names," like Cocoa, Snickers, Hershey, etc. I guess when you hit Cocoa the 15th, it gets a little old! So when I picked up a little brown puppy at the shelter, I named him Mudpie (see his photo here), and he was quickly adopted and became Harley to his new family. 

Another dog, a Lab mix, came to us with the name Dillon, but I renamed him Charley Whiskers, because he clearly had a wirehaired something in his genes! Charley moved on to a foster home with Virginia – she returned his name to Dillon – and she kept him until he died of old age. 

A black puppy I fostered was named Zorro, and  I named a collie mix Teddy. Teddy morphed into "Red Ted with a spot on his head." He had a weird red spot between his ears that made him look suspiciously like an Ibizan hound mix. I often wondered if he had been a puppy mill dog, where accidental mixes come out with purebred papers. I've seen several beagle-basset mixes touted as purebred bassets in a pet store. Teddy went on to become a resident dog in a nursing home, where he was much loved. His picture now resides on the Collie Wall of Fame at Southland Collie Rescue, under the name Care Bear.

One collie I fostered came to us so matted that he resembled a haystack more than a dog. Frosty was almost all white, which turned out to be loose undercoat. Since we were in Seattle, where so many places have Indian names (Suquamish, Issaquah, Sammamish, Snohomish, etc.), we christened him Frosty Five Collies. After we groomed him, he still looked like at least Frosty Two Collies, but the name stuck. 

My Maine Coon cat was named after his father, Moonshine. My first cat I owned as a child was Mustard. I love to see people smile when they hear a name they like. Especially if you own a breed like a pit bull, why handicap him with a name like Sharky?

It works for people too. Why have a boy named Sue when Mike will do? My mother's name was Molly, and when we would do art shows together, I could see people react positively to her name. Before she said a thing, her smile and her name made people like her. 

So think about it before you name your pet. Do you really want a dog named Cannonball or a horse named Buck?

Tuesday, August 5, 2008 is helping me eat better, take better care of myself, and even get a bit of exercise (ack! not THAT!). Actually, my everyday activities keep me moving: cleaning corrals, feeding horses, riding, playing with dogs, gardening, housecleaning for all these animals, etc. But I don't kid myself. It's not enough to keep me fit or healthy. 
As I mentioned in an earlier post, a tired dog is a good dog. Now RealAge has a web site devoted to the health of your dogs, and their latest post talks about... exercise! It's hard enough to do the right things for our own well-being, but I find I am much more disciplined about keeping my pets healthy. They go the vet more than I see a doctor, I feed them healthy foods and don't let them overeat. As I chomp down that pizza, they get their carefully rationed milk bones. 

You can take a test to determine your "real age," based on your lifestyle, and now you can find out your dog's "real age" too. My 18 year old Corgi mix is much healthier than I am, and it's been a real wake up call. It's never too late to start taking care of yourself... or your dog. 

Sandy (shown above), my 18 year old Corgi mix, is 61.3 years at If you use a traditional measure of 7 human years for every one dog year, she would be 126! Other dog age calculators on the internet put her at anywhere from 85-96 years old in human years. 

Figure out your cat's real age too
RealAge also has a CatAge site so you can learn about your cat's health and take the cat age test too. The CatAge test will calculate your Cat's biological age, in people years, based on your cat's lifestyle and current health. You also receive personalized recommendations to help your cat live a long healthy life.

My 7 year old cat Sterling's Cat age is 35.8, 8.3 years younger than the average CatAge for Sterling's breed, a Persian.