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.


RockArtist said...

The graphic photo of the snake bite certainly made me want to sign my dog up for this training right away. I don't think we can ever feel totally safe from Rattlesnakes when you live in California. They're everywhere, just not always visible but perhaps more prevalent in the outlying areas?
Certainly a worthwhile training. Good article!

Anonymous said...

I see these furbabies passed on. So sorry to read that. May they be happily playing at the rainbow bridge.