If you live in an area that has dangerous snakes such as rattlesnakes, you may be looking for solutions to prevent your dog from encountering snakes or perhaps you are thinking about enrolling your dog in some sort of snake aversion training. Today, there are several solutions to prevent your dog from interacting with dangerous snakes and there are also steps you can take to prevent your dog from becoming another victim of a snake bite. While most snake aversion training involves the use of painful shock collars, nowadays, more and more trainers are offering snake avoidance training for dogs without the use of shock.
Conventional Aversion Training
Conventional aversion training is based on the belief that, in order to train a dog to avoid snakes, something really negative must happen that will leave a strong impact on him. And of course, since getting bitten is out of question, this is where the use of a shock collar comes into place. The purpose is to create a setup similar to what has been done in many past studies on rats that were conditioned to avoid things through the use of shock. For example, a rat may have been shocked every time he pressed a lever, so with time, the rat quickly learned to avoid pressing that scary lever so to avoid the shock.
In snake aversion training, something very similar is happening. If every time the dog shows interest in a snake he is shocked, at some point he'll associate the snake with pain and will no longer want to have anything to do with the snake. In order to accomplish this though the shock must leave a memorable impression on the dog, therefore the shock used is often so intense and startling that the dog literally jumps off the ground yelping in pain. Some trainers may use milder shocks but in a repeated sequence until the dog learns to leave the snake alone.
The Problems with Shock
As much as using shock seems effective, on top of the pain and fear it evokes, there are several things that can go wrong. For instance, some dogs may end up purposely attacking rattlesnakes after snake aversion training because of all the negative associations, explains Jamie Robinson a dog trainer who teaches snake avoidance classes without shock in Tucson, Arizona. Talk about training having the total opposite effect! Not to mention the risk of side effects such as dogs fearing things other than the snake or even developing phobias of things that somewhat remind them of snakes such as oscillating sprinklers that make a hissing sounds resembling a snake’s rattle, further explains Jamie Robinson in an article for the Whole Dog Journal.
But it doesn't end here, there are even more problems. According to dog trainer Nancy Tanner, the most common areas dogs are bitten is on the leg or chest as dogs are running around and get bitten while in motion. This suggests that no amount of snake aversion training will prepare dogs for these scenarios, as the bites occur unexpectedly. So a dog may be running through a field hunting when he steps on a snake and the bite comes unexpectedly.
On top of that, one must also consider than no training is foolproof, and that even snake aversion trainers, recommend holding "refresher" classes to ensure the dog is reminded that snake encounters are painful. Many people are lulled into a false sense of security with this type of training and end up putting their dogs at unnecessary risk. Management, basically the good, old adage of "staying out of the trouble" is ultimately the wisest approach and this is the dog owner's responsibility.
Did you know? According to Red Rock Biologics, approximately 300,000 dogs and cats are bitten by venomous snakes each year in the United States
Staying Out of Trouble
How can you keep your dog away from dangerous snakes? For starters, it's a good idea to learn as much as you can about the type of snakes that are living in your area. Most States have a website that lists the varieties of venomous and non-venomous snakes that have called your local place their home. You don't need to become a top expert herpetologist, just learn more about the variety of snakes in your area, their preferred habitat and how to stay out of trouble. For instance, most rattlesnakes are found in the southwestern United States, and they like to stick around rocks and nearby edges of water such as creeks and rivers. It's therefore best to avoid tall grass and rocky areas where snakes can hide, and of course, play it safe by keeping your dog safely on leash and being extra careful of where you step!
Tip: keep the grass cut low in your yard and clear out piles of wood, rocks or rubbish where snakes may like yo hide. Secure garbage cans and don't leave bird seed around. Also, keep animals snakes prey on, such as rodents and crickets away from your property. You might want to consider installing a snake-proof fence.
A Few Training Tips
But what if a dog owner wants to train a dog to move away at the smell, sight or sound of snakes? Or what if no matter all of your precautions your dog ends up one day encountering a snake? There are several training cues that can turn helpful to re-direct a dog away from a snake. Here are few tips.
- Polish your dog's emergency recall. You want to make coming to you so reinforcing that your dog just stops in his tracks and comes running to you, no questions asked. A solid emergency recall can turn out being a life saver, whether your dog got loose and is heading towards a road full of traffic or approaching a venomous snake. Practice the emergency recall in different scenarios and situations, gradually increasing the level of distractions, preferably under the guidance of a trainer.
- Train the "leave it" cue. This teaches your dog to leave whatever he is interacting with or about to interact with, and come to you for a reward. You don't have to always have treats in your pockets for this. In the case, you are caught empty handed with no treats, your dog will still "leave it" if this cue has a strong history of reinforcement. Make sure though to lavishly praise and play a game with your dog.
- Practice recall and leave its with a fake plastic snake. Place the fake snake in the middle of a room and practice walking your dog by it as you say "leave it" and praise and reward for ignoring it. Afterward, practice this with the snake placed outdoors around the yard and then you can even try having a helper drag the fake snake around tall grass while you practice distraction training. Ideally, try with different types of plastic snakes.
- If you have the possibility, practice with a live or dead non-venomous snake. Ask a snake expert to borrow a non-venomous species such as a bullsnake for practice. This is an important step because a live snake has "eau de snake" something that fake snakes don't have. This is as close you can get to training with the "real thing" in a safe way.
- What if you are not around to call your dog or tell him to "leave it?" Training a dog to leave a snake alone is no different from training a dog to alert about finding drugs, truffles or warning a person about an impending seizure. If you are interested in training snake avoidance without shock consider that there are books and classes offered by several trainers nowadays.
Did you know? Nowadays a rattlesnake vaccine is crafted for dogs who are potentially exposed to rattlesnakes.
- Whole Dog Journal, Snake Aversion Without Shock, retrieved from the web on October 13th, 2016
- Schalke, E., Stichnoth, J. and Jones-Baade, R. (2005) Stress symptoms caused by the use of electric training collars on dogs (Canis Familiaris) in everyday life situations.
Diensthund der Bereitschaftspolizei Würzburg, TheHidden - Own work (= "Selbst fotografiert") CC BY-SA 3.0, edited to focus on dog