Tis’ the season. It’s spring and everything is waking up, growing, blooming, and crawling out of dens and holes. This includes snakes, all varieties of snakes.
In Montana, like many other states, we have snakes, no shocker there. There are 10 species of snakes in Montana, and only one is venomous, the Prairie Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis), sometimes referred to as the Western Rattlesnake.
The prairie rattler is found in open, arid country, and ponderosa pine savannahs. It often dens on south-facing slopes in areas with rock outcrops. FW&P
In Montana, SNAKE BITE AVOIDANCE TRAINING is super popular amongst our gun dog community, and it is now growing beyond those borders. I have a hard time recommending it for several reasons, maybe more.
METHODS – The ‘clinicians’ drag a dog up to a de-fanged prairie rattlesnake, even if the dog is naturally trying to avoid the snake, they will take it up close anyway. Then they give a harsh, heavy, and punishing electric shock to the dog, that most of the time lifts them off the ground screaming. It is so violent and traumatic that many dogs never recover. NOT TO MENTION, the dogs standing in line watching this, and trying to get away, are restrained and made to watch and experience the horror, as they wait in line for their turn.
Then, many of these ‘clinicians’ will take the snake, and place it on a dogs back, and shock the hell out of the dog again, all the while the dog is trying to avoid everything.
To state this another way, so there is no confusion for those that might be slightly desensitized to hearing about this, the electric shock is not used politely or with any care. It is an excessive amount of electricity for a prolonged period, delivered to the dogs neck, to purposefully cause great pain and excessive fear. And most dogs don’t even know why.
Another method is to have a small trail system, and around every corner is a de-fanged snake either in a cage or tied to a post. With a dog on leash and an electric shock collar around their neck, the ‘clinician’ will walk the dog down what seems like a nice trail, and then gives them a severe and punishing HIGH level shock as soon as the flag or cage appears. It doesn’t matter if the dog didn’t see it, didn’t acknowledge it, or was already trying to avoid it. This goes on and on through the little trail system, at every turn. The ‘little trail of horrors’. I have never seen a dog who ever recovered from this type of training, and most dogs remained fearful and did not trust new environments. Many of these dogs remain highly reactive to men after being handled by the ‘clinicians’. No surprise there.
The dogs are being corrected and punished for something, most of the time they are either trying to avoid, or were unaware of.
To say this is over kill would be an understatement. Most dogs, most mammals, have a primal instinct to avoid reptiles. I know that during the past forty years hiking with my dogs, I have never had a single one of my dogs ever go to investigate a snake, and we have come across enough for me to notice their reactions.
SEASONAL CHOICES – If you live in snake country, or an area where there is a known den, it is irresponsible to bring a dog with you during certain seasons of the year. If you choose to go, so be it, but there is no reason to bring your dog during the warmer months when snakes are active. Most hunting dogs are running, flushing, swimming, and coursing. They are MOVING, and most of the time, over the TOP of a snake they didn’t even know was there. The most common snake bite is on the leg or chest, from a dog that was running and was bitten while in motion.
Trying to teach a dog to ‘dance amongst the sage brush’ is no easy task at all. To teach a dog to work the field, and then take them to a field peppered with snakes is completely and totally absurd. If a sign or guide book says, “During the summer months we advice that you carry a snake bite kit for this area”, well then please leave your dog at home. You have received all of the information you need to keep your dog safe and healthy.
I know many successful and responsible hunters that will choose the cooler frosty mornings to go out if it is a known snake area. They stack the cards in their dogs favor, period.
IT JUST DOESN’T WORK – It is a false sense of security at best, and the only true thing you are guaranteed is harming your dog on some level, either emotionally, socially, physically, or frankly all three.
Here is a story by an MWF staffer, Larry Copenhaver.
When I hear stories about not fishing certain streams or hunt areas because of the rattlesnakes, they become my destination knowing the pressure will be light and rarely, if ever, will I see any rattlesnakes. However, I do respect poisonous snakes and enrolled my German Wirehair Pointer, Archie, in a rattlesnake avoidance training program. The program technique employs a live defanged rattler in conjunction with an excessive, negative stimulus to the dog from an electronic collar. After completing the course, I remained confident that my penchant for early season hunting the high plains for sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge was a safe venture.
Choosing a Block Management area not far from Helena, Archie pointed and retrieved hun’s all day. I bagged my limit of eight, shooting 75 percent success, unbelievable for me! During a second visit – my luck changed. Mediocre shooting and my hunting partner’s dog encountering her first porcupine were the day’s highlights. Then, Archie entered some buckbrush as we were returning to the truck. Archie was obscured by the brush when a tremendous commotion ensued that I presumed involved a raccoon, it lasted so long. When he appeared holding up his swollen leg, I discovered two punctures and knew what he was wrestling with in the brush; evidently he tried to kill the snake instead of escaping.
My hunt partner’s foresight to bring Benadryl helped alleviate the associated swelling as we rushed back to town, Archie crying at my feet during what now became a very long trip. My vet assured me that the standard care for snakebites in the clinic is effective, losing very few pets. So began Archie’s treatment with intravenous antibiotics and antihistamines.
Archie survived the first night. I returned to the vet after the second night, confident I could take him home, but the news was bad. That night, a clinic associate had entered the darkened room where Archie was kenneled for an emergency surgery on another animal. Archie reacted, barking defensively. Twenty-minutes later, when he was checked – he had died – victim of a venom-induced blood clot that became dislodged in the excitement. I will never know if a newly developed, pre-season rattlesnake vaccine would have saved him.
As a postscript, I now have another dog, my joyous little “fat-girl”, a Wirehaired Pointing Griffon named Tess. Her first hunting trip this season, not far from Helena, was to a section of state land where she scented her first Huns. Just six-feet from the front bumper she shied away from something in deep grass, we both had nearly stepped on a rattler. The snake was sluggish from the early morning cool air – thank goodness.”
CAN IT BE DIFFERENT? – There are groups doing ‘less aversive’ snake avoidance training. Less electricity, less noise, less spraying, less flashing lights, so yes there is ‘less’. But it is still more than most dogs can handle. But first I think you should be honest and ask yourself, “Do I live in a snake area? Do I NEED to hike, walk, or hunt when the snakes are out and about or can I choose a new area/season? Does my dog naturally avoid snakes?”
For me it really comes down to choosing the environment carefully. I know I say that a lot, but it seems to get missed just as often.
And then you need to know that you have done your job training your dog so that if you need them to stop, they do, if you need them to come, they do. It is really that simple.
Choose your areas, choose your seasons. Dogs are depending on their owners to make good choices for their life.
FIRST AID – There were only 45 reported snake bites in the past eight years in Montana, not a lot. But it does happen. If a person or dog is bitten there are some things you can do before getting to appropriate medical care.
- Carry a cell phone to call for help
- Always carry 4 X’s the amount of Benadryl that you or your dog should have for your body size. You want to have more than you need, in case you are far away from help. Getting Benadryl on board is important to keep the airway open and swelling down.
- Immobilize the area with a splint or bandage of some sort. The less activity to that area the better.
- Stay calm and breathe.
- DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT cut open, suck at the wound, pee on, cut off a body part, or tie a tourniquet around the area.
Rattlesnakes are shy, retiring creatures. If left alone, they won’t bother people or dogs. But if a rattlesnake thinks it will be stepped on or otherwise harmed, it may bite.
THE BOTTOM LINE – if you are going to train a working dog to work with you, and you are going to go through the efforts to spend the time out and about, then you need to make good choices about your environment first and foremost. Be smart, be sensible, and be a person worth trusting from your dogs point of view.
I have never met a dog in my life time that needs to be harmed. I have however met thousands of dogs, and worked with thousands of dogs that love to work, love to learn, and are just looking for more information. Be good at training, good at giving information, and be a Team.