As the weather warms the rattlesnakes begin to move around, and after a long sleep, not only are they hungry, they are choc-full of dangerous venom. Curious dogs are bitten by rattlers every year. Rattlesnake venom can kill a dog in a matter of a few short hours if antivenom is not administered immediately following a bite. Given that treatment for rattlesnake bite is intensive, expensive, risky, and is no guarantee a bitten pet will survive, it makes sense to find a way to avoid bites altogether by training your dog to avoid snakes.
Rattlesnake training is important for dogs that live in areas where rattlesnakes are found, particularly in the southwest. While some snake aversion trainers use inhumane methods, such as shock collars, to teach dogs to avoid snakes, positive reinforcement training (as well as safety precautions while walking) can have the same result without inflicting cruelty on your dog.
Teaching the “Leave It” Command
Before you can teach your dog to avoid rattlesnakes, you’ll need to teach him or her the “Leave It” command. “Leave It” is a command that says to your dog, “Turn your nose and body away from that object immediately.” Start teaching “Leave It” with something of low value to your dog, such as a rock. Hold the rock in your hand and let your dog sniff it. Wait until the dog turns its nose away from your hand, then reward him or her with a small treat. Repeat this until your dog will sniff the rock then turn away from it to get a treat. Once your dog will turn away from an object to get a treat, give the behavior a name. Say, “Leave It!” as your dog turns away from the rock, then give praise and a treat. After a few repetitions, stop rewarding the behavior unless you’ve first given your verbal cue. Continue this training with progressively higher-value objects. Move up to a stick or an old toy. When your dog will turn away from these objects on cue, try getting your dog to turn away from a food treat. But be sure never to reward a dog with the food you just told him to turn away from. Always give a different treat as a reward.
Snake Avoidance Training
Purchase a realistic plastic snake. If possible, put it in a tank with a friend’s pet snake for a few days so it acquires the scent of a snake. Drop the toy snake on the floor and walk your leashed dog by it. As you approach the snake, command firmly, “Leave It!” If your dog turns away from the snake and looks to you for a treat, praise and reward the dog. If not, go back to Step 1 and practice for a few more training sessions, then try walking by the snake again. After your dog has learned to consistently turn away from the toy snake on cue when walking by it on a leash, you can increase the difficulty of the behavior. Have your dog sit on one side of the room while you stand on the other side, with the snake in the middle. Call your dog. As he approaches the snake toy, command “Leave It!” and give a big reward if your dog alters his course to avoid the snake. After this is accomplished, continue your rattlesnake training by periodically incorporating the toy into other training sessions and commanding your dog to turn away from it. Never allow the dog to approach, sniff or mouth the snake toy. Keep it out of your dog’s sight and reach when not in use.
The next step, if at all possible, is to acquire a recently shed rattlesnake skin and repeat the same steps you did with the toy snake. It may be difficult for most pet owners to procure a real snakeskin to work with, but it increases the impact of this type of snake avoidance training significantly. Ask a local rancher to keep an eye out for snakeskins and call you if they find one. To complete your snake avoidance training you should reinforce a fear response in your dog along with the command to “Leave It.” Repeat, preferably with the shed skin, the exercise in which you walk on leash toward the snake. When you get close have an assistant in another room drop some pots and pans on the floor with a loud crash. React with extreme fear to this stimulus, screaming and running away. If your dog thinks that you, the “pack leader,” are terrified, the dog will also respond with fear. Reward any fearful reaction with treats and praise. Repeat this exercise several times with the loud, scary noise. Once your dog is reacting with fear to the noise combined with the sight of the snake skin, try walking toward it then reacting with extreme fear to the sight of the snake skin, only without the noise. Repeat the process of rewarding any fearful response until your dog becomes reluctant to go anywhere near the snake. If you know a friend who owns a snake, repeat this process yet again with a live, non-venomous snake. Once your dog refuses to approach the snake and pulls away when you walk the leashed dog toward the snake, your training is complete. You’ll need to repeat these exercises periodically so the dog will remember to stay away from snakes.
Ongoing Rattlesnake Bite Avoidance
Training alone isn’t enough to prevent a bite—remember these important things:
• Keep your dog safe by keeping him on the leash, especially in areas where rattlesnakes may be present.
• Ask your veterinarian about the rattlesnake venom vaccine. Make sure you know where the nearest emergency vet clinic that stocks rattlesnake antivenom is located whenever you go hiking or camping.
• If you see a rattlesnake, don’t try to approach or kill it. Alter your own course to avoid the rattlesnake, and never encourage a dog to attack a snake of any kind.
Most rattlesnake bites occur when the snake is attacked by another animal or when it is about to be stepped on. A snake surprised in its den may also bite. Remember, your pet counts on you to keep it safe from harm. If you would like information regarding snake-proof training for your pet by a professional, check out this link:http://www.snakeproofing.com/index.html