BEHAVIOR SNAKE AVOIDANCE TRAINING TRAINING

Snake Avoidance Training – the good, bad, and wrong of it all

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

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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.

  1. Carry a cell phone to call for help
  2. 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.
  3. Immobilize the area with a splint or bandage of some sort. The less activity to that area the better.
  4. Stay calm and breathe.
  5. 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.

Nancy

 

23 comments

  1. That sounds horrible! It’s one of the reasons I have never enrolled Blueberry in a snake avoidance class – pretty much all of them use shock collars and there is no way I’m going to allow that. I keep her on a 20 foot leash (NOT a flexi) when we hike and I keep my eyes peeled. Whenever we hit a part of the trail that narrows or makes a sharp bend I can’t see around, I reel her in closer to me. Off leash is not an option as there is a leash law as well as the fact that I think it’s foolish to allow a high-prey drive dog off leash in the desert. We have met a couple of snakes – one that was ready to strike, but thankfully I pulled Blueberry back in time. Since them, I am even more vigilant about scanning the area and keeping to trails that are wide enough and flat enough that I can spot a snake before we get too close. This is Arizona, not going out during snake season means not going hiking for like 6 months out of the year which is not ok with me or Blueberry. Here we even get snakes in the park (people park, not sure about dog parks)!

    I finally found a trainer that uses positive methods to snake train a dog – but as with all things – it’s not always 100% effective. If my schedule allows, I will enroll Blueberry in this class in the fall.

    1. I would imagine that Arizona is snake heaven, be careful. Thank you for being so thoughtful with your dog. Are there many dogs in your area that get bitten by snakes since it is in fact snake country?

      1. I was a believer in avoidance training until both my dogs were bit by baby rattlers a couple months after their second training session. Just another fear-based method to extract money from your wallet. Same with the so-called rattlesnake vaccine. Both provide a false sense of security. After my 15lb dog received a severe bite from a baby rattler, my vet decided against anti-venom serum because Cody had received the vaccine–6 days before he was bitten! The result was near-death experience and vet bill–at a different veterinary hospital–in the thousands. Best knowledge I got from avoidance training came from the snake handler–whenever the outdoor temperature reaches 70 degrees snakes are active!

    1. I’ve heard of dogs getting bit – but I’m not sure if we have a higher incidence of dogs getting snake bit here. I just know I see an awful lot of off-leash dogs running willy-nilly through the desert – off trail – and it makes me cringe. That’s just asking for trouble during snake season.

  2. Well said. I cringed through this whole post. Bottom line…don’t go there..dogs are just like us and want to avoid snakes. At least mine do!

    Supposed to be 28 or lower tonight! I keep bringing in the hummer’s feeders, but will be thankful when I don’t have too. I’m also rather tired of hauling wood. But it’s either that or freeze. I’m not fond of the later. 🙂

    1. Hi Linda, Stay warm. We have warm days and freezing nights right now as well. I look forward to leaving my new potted plants out without having to bring them in at night. Nancy

  3. Just as an FYI, when I was doing all the research for my Snake Avoidance Without Shock class and book, I discovered that statistically, all dogs and cats that get bit by snakes, 85% get bit in their own backyard. The other “shocking” statistic (and I also live in Arizona) is that only 0.009% of dogs and cats get bit every year.

  4. This whole article is completely biased. I am not for shock collars or aversion training, but if used properly it can be effective. Nothing with a dog is guaranteed but saying don’t take your dog out is ignorant. It is so called trainers like this, that will turn people off on something that can save your dogs life. As far as using shock collars to the extent as you described above is an old way of doing things. People have come a long way from those methods since they do not work. Please do your research or be involved in the actual training before you write a b.s. article

    1. Hi Matt, I thought about not letting your post through, only because what you are saying is slightly caustic, and not in a funny way, which I do appreciate sometimes, but a bitchy way. And truth be told I find no educational purpose in responses like yours. But for whatever reason, you caught me on a good day where I feel like responding to you.

      I am not a so called trainer, I am a trainer and my name is my blog, look to the top of the page, you don’t need to refer to me int he 3rd person, I’m right here.

      This is not biased it is truth and these methods are a live and well. I am a trainer who works with clients every year who’s dog was damaged by this type of uneducated and misinformed method of handling dogs. There is no training, it is just flooding a dog with fear.

      Choosing your environment counts for about 100% of your choices with your dog. I never said don’t take your dog out, but I did say choose where you take your dog. It makes zero sense to take a dog into a known snake infested area and hope for the best, when just twenty miles away is a safer place. The handler is the dogs advocate and voice in the human world. If you are driving your dog to an area to go hike or hunt, you are making well being choices for you and your dog. Period.

      I did do my research, read the article again. You apparently only hung onto the words that made you feel good, not the whole article. If what I say doesn’t fit with your paradigm than you don’t have to read it.

      Have a great day, Nancy

  5. Unfortunately, your advice about choosing your environment wisely only seems to apply to people who take their dogs on trails or walks. You don’t address how to take care of the dog that encounters a rattlesnake in your own back yard. The question is, how do you train them to avoid them without something like a shock collar? Does it need to be a prolonged high voltage shock? Of course not. But even a short duration low voltage shock will leave an impression on a dog, like invisible fences. If there are not alternatives to shock collar training, isn’t it better than nothing at all to prevent the extreme pain and even death a dog may experience if bit by a rattlesnake?

    I live in an area where rattlesnakes, rat snakes, and king snakes will frequently come into our yard and on our patio or driveway. While I rarely see adult rattlesnakes, baby or adolescents do occasionally show up. My dog, a border collie/lab mix, goes after just about anything that moves to include rat and king snakes, toads, rabbits, birds, etc. One time I heard her bark in a very deep loud tone that I had never heard her do before. I went out to see what was going on and she was staring at a young rattlesnake. I’m surprised she didn’t try to do anything to it, but maybe she would have if I hadn’t come out. I’m hoping she has a natural fear of rattlesnakes, but had that been an adult, she would have been in striking distance.

    Yesterday a 3 foot adult rattlesnake found its way into my garage and curled up in some shoes on a shoe rack. I was able to kill the snake and remove it, but it made me start wondering what my dog would have done if she had seen it, which brought me to this site after searching for rattlesnake training. While my dog does get vaccinated for rattlesnake bites, I still have concern for her safety. I would rather find a way to make sure she associates snakes with discomfort than have her find out for herself.

  6. Oh my! … the snake avoidance trainers in your area sound just awful. I’m like Blueberry’s Human … not hiking for probably 6 months out of every year is not an option. We love to hike, AND we also live in Arizona. Out here in Phoenix, where it’s practically imperative to have a bird dog like mine (very NOSE-y and curious about everything) to be conditioned to avoid rattlers, the training we did used a VERY mild shock (less than level 2 on a scale of 1-6 or 7). Fortunately my dog got it right off the bat. He was not dragged into the situation either. He was going toward the cage with the rattler inside, and the moment he even showed interest, the shock was administered. He was shown to 2 other cages, but immediately shied away without the necessity of another shock. It’s possible he was a fast learner, but my happy point is that there are humane snake avoidance programs that use e-shock. You mentioned as much, but it sounded to me as if you were saying that even a low grade shock is too much for many/most dogs. How then do we explain the successful use of e-collars on dogs who are not good at the recall? I know several dog owners who use these, at low grade, and their dogs are very well-adjusted and not damaged by this practice.

    If I were looking for a program, I would make sure to quiz the potential “trainer” as to their methodology and stay FAR away from any who practice the extreme trainer you first described.

    As I mentioned, we love to hike, and AZ has lots of rattlers, though we’ve rarely encountered one. Even so, our dog’s mother, grandmother, and uncle (all hunters … ours is not) have been bitten — and survived, thank God! So, for us, seeing that it’s “in the family line” to encounter rattlers, it was, in our opinion, necessary to do avoidance training. (Note: Point taken on where we live as dog owners as well as typical activities that may expose our dogs to rattlers. If we don’t need to expose our dogs, then why? … but out here, rattlers can show up at the park or in our backyard.)

    Thank God we found a humane trainer. Can these trainers up your way not be reported for animal abuse?

  7. Today was the first warm day that we have had this spring in Temecula, Ca (southern California) We live on acreage outside of
    town and we have had many snakes including rattle snakes. I have Boxers. My previous Boxers all had the snake avoidance
    training and it did not seem extreme like the training you had earlier described. The snakes were not in cages along the trail. If
    the dog showed no interest and did avoidance there was no shock. We also did the snake vaccine every year. Out today with
    new boxer that has had no training and has no fear of anything. She stayed right with me and seemed to understand why I told
    her “NO” when she wanted to go into the tall grass under the oak trees. I was looking for snake avoidance training when I found your information. Great read and good information. Love Montana! Relations in Clyde Park. It’s kinda cold in winter though.

  8. I see what you’re saying, and I’m sorry about your experience. If I’d read this before I might not have rattlesnake trained my dog. I have to tell you I’m glad we did though. I think it saved his life. For years we lived in Laguna Niguel, CA about 2 miles from the ocean, and we saw rattlesnakes ALL THE TIME. Sometimes after dark, 9:30 pm on a cool evening in October was the latest. We got our Lab avoidance trained when he was about a year old. A very, very low voltage was used on him. He caught on very quickly. And I believe that training saved his life the following summer when we were on a walk in our neighborhood. He was off leash and a few feet ahead of us when what appeared to be a stick stood up and rattled. I panicked and called him back to us, but the snake was between us. He would have had to jump back over the snake to come back to me. Just like the training taught him, he gave the snake a large berth and circled way around it to come back to me. I’m so grateful he didn’t try to take the direct route. It’s been four years since then. We no longer live in a place with rattle snakes, but recently came across a black water snake near the pond. My Lab saw it before I did. He jumped back and sat down right next to me. So I think the training has stuck with him.

    1. I am glad you are all safe …

      Most dogs, like most people have a natural avoidance, primal, to reptiles, specifically snakes.

      I see puppies and dogs naturally avoid snakes every day during the summer, as we have.

      And the humans that I know have never received an electric shock at the sight of a snake, and also naturally jump back, gasp, and avoid.

      So mother nature if given a chance, has taught our genetics something.

      1. I’m glad I didn’t count on our 15 mo old Springer Spaniel having “natural avoidance, primal, to reptiles, specifically snakes”, and I would challenge the notion that “most dogs, like people…” have it. We recently had our dog trained to avoid rattlesnakes; the snakes were live, muzzled and uncaged. The first thing our pup did was to run over to the snake to try and sniff it! I shudder to think of his fate had the snake not been muzzled.

        Fortunately the training was put into practice, successfully, a few weeks ago. We were out hiking when our dog encountered a rattler in tall brush and rocks. He jumped a couple of feet straight into the air and then high-tailed-it straight over to us. Based on personal experience, I would not want to bank on “natural avoidance”.

      2. Hi Momboteri – a few things which my article covers includes choice of environment, and young dogs off leash and flushing in areas where there are snakes.

        We have lived in snake country our whole lives, as in lots of them. None of our young dogs or our clients young dogs are off leash in the summer in certain areas do to snakes, tall brush, more snakes, or broken rocky crag areas. Winter is totally different for us.

        And then you have to stop and ask yourself how many coyotes, foxes, and wolves are dying from snake bites each year, and what that difference?

        You can check out, I don’t know, like 478,000 articles on how the reptile, specifically the snake, shaped how our brain perceives danger, threat, and our response. And the coinciding articles on canines. And while everything is an evolutionary process, and some humans and some dogs may have lost this primal fear that aided in self preservation, again we have to ask ourselves, why?

  9. I came across your blog while r searching snake avoidance training techniques. I just lost my English Cocker Spaniel last week to a rattlesnake bite in our backyard. She and ai work together hunting quail, so she’s in and out of brush all the time, but the plantation we work for has a strict 70 degrees policy in that if the temp gets close to 70, the hunts are called off. We run too many dogs to risk it. We’ve been on hundreds of hunts together and never once encountered a snake. That’s saying a lot since there are Eastern Diamondbacks all over the place. What I’ve learned from your post is that we’re already doing everything just fine. The snake in our backyard (read: 15 acres of woods) was something we knew would be there and out and about since it’s almost 100 degrees, but didn’t keep the ECS close to home. I’d like to add that she DID have the snake bite vaccine. All hunting dogs and gun dogs have it here. She died in a situation eerily similar to the story in the middle of your article. We had her at the vet within 10 minutes; the vet gave her antibiotics and antihistamines but not anti-venom. Since we didn’t see the snake and there was only one fang puncture, the vet wasn’t sure if it was actually a bite. She didn’t check the records (I assumed she had) to see that my dog had the vaccine. The vaccine suppressed the symptoms, so the usual swelling, blood coagulation, white gums, etc. weren’t presenting. The vet kenneled my dog overnight, left, then called me the next morning to say she was presenting all the classic signs of a rattlesnake bite. My Grace died a few hours after receiving anti-venom (14 hours after the bite) and waiting for a blood transfusion. The plantation has since requested we train our future ECS in snake aversion, but it seems we are already doing things right during hunt season. Thank you; your article has brought me some peace of mind.

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