The pleasure of hiking with your dog in the Western United States comes with a very specific danger: rattlesnakes. The highest concentration of rattlesnakes is in the West and Southwest, but a few species can be found east of the Mississippi Rover. While I’ve personally yet to encounter a rattlesnake while out with my dogs, my neighbor found one on his porch and it took a visit from animal control to remove it. The point is you and your dog could find yourself confronted with a rattlesnake within your own home.
According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, rattlesnake bites most often occur between the months of March and October, when snakes are most active. A rattlesnake bite can be fatal if not treated immediately. My dog Sasha, an Australian Shepherd and Border Collie mix, has a strong prey drive and is quite curious about any critters we come across on our walks. I shudder to think what would happen if she spotted a rattlesnake!
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I heard about “rattlesnake aversion training,” a technique that teaches dogs to retreat from a snake when they encounter one. During the sessions, the dogs are introduced to young and adult rattlesnakes that have been either muzzled or are contained in a blind box to ensure the dogs’ safety. I was relieved to hear that the snakes are muzzled. When the dogs encounter the snake, the trainer corrects the dog using an electric collar (more on this in a minute). The dog is allowed to sniff and be curious about the snake and the correction is set to a low-level in order to build the dog’s aversion to the rattlesnake. Dogs typically smell or hear a rattler before they see one, so the training engages all of the dog’s senses. In addition to live snakes, the dogs are exposed to recently shed skin and to the snake’s rattle.
I’m not a fan of shock collars. But when I weigh the danger of a venomous snakebite against training using an electric collar, the collar wins. You can decide that for yourself. There isn’t a central database that records the number of dogs bitten by rattlesnakes each year, but between 7,000 and 8,000 humans are bitten annually in the U.S.
Dogs need to be at least six months old in order to participate in the training. The trainers recommend yearly follow-up sessions for three to four years in order to reinforce the behavior. There are several organizations that offer this specialized training, including: Natural Solutions, Singleton’s Rattlesnake Avoidance Training, and Southern California Rattlesnake Aversion Training.
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But the training isn’t offered everywhere in rattlesnake country — and it has nothing to do with shock collars. The training has recently been banned in San Diego County. Animal rights organizations are concerned that the training puts the rattlesnakes under too much stress, and some filed a complaint with San Diego County Animal Services. As a result, a county ordinance that prohibits the possession of venomous reptiles is being enforced by that agency, and training has been halted. If you are concerned about the treatment of snakes, Natural Solutions, one of the rattlesnake aversion training organizations, says on its website that the snakes’ wellbeing is also taken into account, and that all of the snakes are safely and humanely muzzled.
The Animal Poison Control Center offers these tips for keeping your dog safe from rattlesnakes:
1. Clear away undergrowth, rock piles, and other items on your property that would serve as a hiding place for snakes. During warmer months, snakes seek refuge in these cooler areas.
2. Keep your yard free of spilled food or birdseed that could attract rodents — which attract snakes.
3. Keep your dog on a leash when walking.
4. Stay on hiking trails and steer clear of grasses, bushes, and rocks.
5. Get familiar with the snakes that are common in your area. If your dog is bitten, take a picture of the snake if possible in order to help identify and aid in your dog’s treatment.
Have you taken your dog to rattlesnake aversion training? Would you? Why or why not? Tell me in comments.
Photo: Canebrake rattlesnake by Shutterstock