Monday, October 15, 2012

Dogs and Rattlesnakes

After dealing with the second dog I've had bitten by a rattlesnake <link>, I decided people needed more information about snake avoidance.  There are a ton of sites out there that all espouse, what they say, is the right way to train a dog to avoid snakes.  There is a ton of misinformation and I just want to clear it up for people so they don't have the same problems I did.  There are a number of wrong things to do and a few right ones and I believe I have the experience now to tell the right from the wrong.  I've interviewed around twenty people who have used various trainers with varying results, and although they didn't realize they were being interviewed, they pointed out the various shortcomings.  Frankly, it's best to get the assistance of a professional snake trainer.  Very few people keep poisonous snakes around the house to be used for training dogs.  I'll start off with a few items that are very important.

When you arrive at the trainer, the cages for the snakes should already be set up.  The trainer should have done this before you got there; if they are not set up, leave and come back after they are.  The reason for this is the dog will see the cages being set up and associate any training to the cage, not the snakes inside.

The snakes MUST be alive and active.  A dead snake smells wrong and doesn't move around.  There's no point at all teaching your dog to avoid a dead snake. You want the dog to see the snake moving, hear its rattle, and realize this is another animal.

The trainer should have an empty cage for the dog to inspect.  This assures the dog that the cages are harmless.

The dog owner should be the one to walk the dog and participate in the training.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  The most important being that the owner knows how the dog will behave when it encounters a snake.  Each dog will behave a little differently from yelping and running away to just carefully skirting the snake.  You want to know the behavior in case of an encounter while on a walk through the woods.

The trainer should use a radio controlled shock collar.  Some people condemn this kind of tool as inhumane. Frankly, they are being silly.  You would MUCH rather your dog get a harmless shock than a snake bite.  Other methods, such as a water spray or loud noise just don't have the impact of a shock that isn't associated with a human in any way.  Besides, my dog loves getting sprayed with water.

So, a perfect session would consist of the trainer telling you what is going to happen and walking you through the steps first.  Then, you walk the dog over to the empty cage so it can be inspected and the dog gets familiar with the cages.  Then you walk by a cage with the snake in it.  The dog will get interested in the snake, go over, and inspect it.  When the trainer is assured that the dog has the scent, sight, and sound of the snake, the dog will get a shock.  Both you and the dog then run away from the snake to safety.  After a couple of  'good boys' you walk towards another cage with a snake or two in it.  The dogs reaction will vary a lot on the second cage.  Some dogs will want to go after the next snake, but most will shy away and not approach.  The last step is to allow the dog to wander freely (no leash) as you walk by the snake cages.  Your animal should not approach the snakes and may even warn you to stay away.

You see what is happening.  The dogs inherent curiosity will cause it to go to the snake and sniff around, the shock will tell it that this thing hurts, and running away will show the dog that it's OK to get away from harm. The empty cage will make sure the cage isn't a factor in the training; your dog will not be afraid of cages.  The live snake moves around, rattles, and probably will strike the side of the cage during the session.  You have safely exposed your pet to a dangerous situation and taught it how to respond.

The trainer should offer a second session a few weeks after the first to assure both you and the dog that the training has taken hold.  Personally, I like to take the dog back yearly to walk by the cages to be sure the little guy remembers those things are bad, and refresh my memory of the dog's behavior in this situation.

There are trainers that insist that dead snakes work just as well.  This simply isn't true.  You'll have a dog carefully trained to avoid dead snakes; not very useful.  There are other trainers that insist that they walk your dog through the course.  Their reasoning for this is the timing of the shock correction.  If it is given at the wrong time, you may not get the best results.  While this is true, it's really easy to tell the proper time for the correction.  Simply wait until the dog's entire attention is on the snake.  All of us with dogs know when that point happens; we've pulled our dog out of enough gopher holes to be quite familiar with it.  A snake trainer can easily tell while they are standing at the side watching us walk our dog up to the snake cage.  Special measures should be taken to keep the dog from associating the cage with the correction.  That's why an empty cage is a good idea at the start of the training course.

The first dog I had bitten by a snake was a loving little silky terrier.  He just wanted to play and was bitten on the side of his head.  Even though I got him to the vet within thirty minutes, he died.  I've had every dog since snake trained to protect them as much as possible from this particular danger.  The second dog that was bitten is detailed on the previous entry of this blog.  This little guy was just too young for the training and unlucky.  However, he not only survived the bite, he is totally recovered, and had his first training session just this morning.  In both cases, the vet bills were quite high; many, many times the cost of the training.

Several times now I have been with a trained dog when we encountered a rattlesnake in the wild.  In all cases, the dog alerted me to the danger before there was a possibility of a bite.  Think of snake training as a way of teaching the dog to warn you of danger when out for a walk or a run.  This means that a snake trained dog can warn children of danger when it's outside playing with them.  It certainly beats sit, roll over and beg for utility and usefulness and makes the cost of training sound worthwhile doesn't it?

This is the best training a person can give their pet if they live where such an encounter is possible.  If you live in Manhattan or the center of LA, it may not be necessary, but if you live in the suburbs skirting farm country or take your dog camping, consider doing this to protect your pet.

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