FORSAKE THE SNAKE
Snake-aversion training can help any dog avoid a serious or even fatal bite
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Has your dog passed his SAT? Snake-aversion training, that is.
If you live in an area where venomous snakes are common or frequently take your dog hiking in such areas, you may want to look for a class that will teach your dog to avoid the scaly “slitherins.” The training can also teach dogs to avoid toxic amphibians, such as the Colorado river toad and cane toads. It’s especially useful for active, inquisitive dogs, or those with a high prey drive, but any dog can benefit if there’s a chance he will come face-to-face with a rattlesnake, copperhead or water moccasin.
Jackie Brown of San Clemente, California, often saw rattlesnakes while hiking with her dog, but it wasn’t until she saw a nonvenomous snake in her yard that she realized Jager, a miniature poodle, could encounter snakes anywhere.
“I worried about what he would do if he came across a rattlesnake,” she says. “Would he try to play with it? Chase it? Corner it in the yard? I didn’t want to leave it to chance, so I decided to look into snake-aversion training, which I had read about in a dog magazine.”
Dogs learn to avoid snakes once they smell, hear or see one. The training, accomplished with the aid of an electronic collar, helps them to keep a safe distance. It takes only a few minutes to teach a dog that snakes are better left alone.
The session usually involves exposing the dog to the sound of a rattlesnake’s rattle, snakeskins and live snakes — mouths banded closed — in different environments, such as sun or shade. If the dog approaches the snake, the trainer activates the electronic collar to simulate a snakebite. Collars are set on low — enough to create a negative association, but not enough to cause pain or distress. (Be sure to try it on your own skin first to make sure it’s working correctly before it’s placed on your dog.) Some sessions have a final test with a hidden snake. The class should be repeated every year or two to reinforce the lesson.
Depending on where you live, sessions are not always easy to find. Ask your veterinarian for a recommendation, or look for fliers at your local pet supply store or animal shelter. Hunters and other outdoorspeople are usually familiar with snake training. Ask to observe a session first, and choose an experienced trainer who uses the collar carefully and makes sure the dogs feel comfortable and safe. Excellent timing and the ability to observe changes in the dog’s behavior are critical.
“It is a specialized field, and I would not trust my dogs in the hands of a rookie,” says dog trainer Connie Kelly of Carlsbad, California, who has had her Australian shepherds snake-trained.
Watch how the handler treats the snakes as well. You want someone who handles them kindly and respectfully and always makes sure they are safe.
People who don’t understand the process may consider it cruel or abusive. That’s a mistake, says Eric Christensen of Oro Valley, Arizona, whose English springer spaniels and flat-coated retrievers have all undergone snake-aversion training.
“It is neither (cruel nor abusive) if done correctly, and is, in fact, a potentially life-saving gift.”
Jager? A few months after training, he and Brown came across a dead rattlesnake on one of their walks. As soon as he smelled it, Jager jumped back about three feet, Brown reports.
“It made me feel better knowing that he would try to get away if he came across a live one,” she says.