Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Is Rattlesnake training right for your dog?

Rattlesnakes and dogs
(Yes, I know this isn't a rattlesnake. I just wanted to get your attention.)

By Sallie Palmer – Certified Dog Trainer
Once again we are approaching rattlesnake season. The peak hot months of June through September are the most dangerous. I am often asked for advice by dog owners as to how they should protect their dogs from rattle snake bites. Although I have some suggestions, I must admit that all of them have pros and cons that must be weighed. I have listed various options and will leave it up to owners to determine which course of action is the most appropriate for their life style and dog.

Electronic (shock) collar training
This method is conducted by taking your dog to a rattlesnake clinic that is offered seasonally. The cost is usually $25.00-$95.00 for approximately 20 minutes of training. Using an electronic collar that is placed on the dog, the dog is taken away from the owner usually by a stranger. The dog is introduced to various rattlesnakes that have been rendered harmless. As soon as the dog shows any interest in the snake, he is given a high jolt of electricity which we hope he thinks was caused by the snake.
Although this method is great in theory, it does not work well on a lot of dogs. I have discovered over the years that it has a high rate of failure.
In the past, I have had clients take their dogs through this training. Unfortunately, I have had owners report some disturbing results. Several dogs were bitten by or encountered snakes and didn’t back off. One dog was found playing with a snake the very next day after the training, another dog was found curled on his dog bed with a rattle snake nearby. He did not move away from the snake.
Dogs are situational learners. This means that they learn behaviors under certain situations. So even though a dog may learn to avoid all snakes in the training area, it doesn’t mean he will transfer that training to another location.
A dog training acquaintance, who lives in rattle snake country, told me how she had a rattle snake wrangler come to her home. Knowing that dogs are situational learners, she set up the training on her property. Unfortunately this didn’t prevent two of her prize competition Labradors from being bit in the back yard where the training took place. This happened less than two months after the initial training.
Chances are that if you have a dog that does not have a high predator drive or is cautious, he will naturally avoid rattle snakes. However, if you have a high predator drive dog or a curious one, this training may not be effective at all. It is my opinion that the electronic collar training often sells a false sense of security to many owners.
Emotional Impact training
This is a method that was used before electronic collars were readily available. This method isn’t foolproof but it does have some potential benefits. It is free other than obtaining a snake. However, it is time consuming and should be repeated often.

This is how it works. The owner has the dog on leash (or off leash if the dog is well trained). The owner approaches any snake, it does not have to be a rattle snake. As soon as the owner is near the snake, s/he gives an academy awards winning performance of freaking out and running away from the snake. The more freaked out the better. The dog is rewarded and praised for leaving the area with the owner. This is repeated several times in areas where snakes would potentially be found. After repeatedly running away from snakes and freaking out, it is not uncommon for a dog to start to alert, back away and avoid snakes. I remember one yellow lab that barked and backed away from a piece of garden hose. Another dog stopped dead in his tracks and barked at a stick that was lying on a lawn.
Again, this will probably not work on all dogs, especially those with high predator drives but it won’t hurt to try.
Traditional Training
A dog can be trained to alert to the presence of a snake similar to how we train dogs to alert to any smell or object such as drugs. This is similar to teaching a dog a trick. This takes training experience and persistence but can be highly effective.
Rattle Snake Vaccinations
The Rattle Snake Vaccination is another option to consider. This is a two part vaccination given a month apart. The cost of the vaccination is approximately $21.00. The cost of rattlesnake bite treatment is approximately $1,100.00 – 1,200.00.
Dr. Kevin Raymond of Yokako Veterinarian Clinic in Ukiah recommends this for those dogs that are at high risk. Potentially dogs that are highly likely to encounter rattlesnakes. He does point out that there is approximately a 10% chance that the vaccine can cause an unfortunate abscess at the site of injection. Once Again, this isn’t the perfect option. Survival from a rattle snake bite depends on a number of factors. The amount of venom delivered, baby snakes are more potent then larger snakes, where the bite is delivered, age and health of the dog.

For more information concerning the vaccination and treatment for rattlesnake bites, go to www.veterinarypartner.com. This is a great website for a variety of veterinarian topics.
Dogs that I consider at high risk are the ones on hiking trails, live in areas where rattle snakes are plenty or have a high predator drive. If your dog will chase lizards, they will most likely go after a snake. Terriers come to mind.
In any event, if your dog is unlucky enough to be bitten by a rattle snake, even if he has had the vaccinations, it is vitally important that you seek veterinarian care immediately. Most dogs are bitten on their face and paws. I would prefer to be safe than sorry.
As I stated, there is not one particular method of safeguarding against rattlesnakes other that keeping your dog away from where they live. That simply isn’t realistic for those of us who live in rattlesnake areas. We can only make informed decisions and hope that luck is on our side.