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More on Rattlesnakes and Dogs

Posted Jul 22 2013 7:00am
Dr. Coates is a veterinarian based in the other “Sunshine State” – that's Colorado to the rest of you – where she lives and plays with a varied range of animals. She shares her professional and personal experiences, Monday through Friday, here on petMD's blog, the Fully Vetted. Log in for your daily dose of her insight and wisdom. < Previous Post Next Post > Jul 23, 2013 More on Rattlesnakes and Dogs by Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM     Share       Save to mypetMDA couple of weeks ago we talked about a vaccine that may or may not be helpful in protecting dogs against the potentially deadly effects of a rattlesnake bite. In response to that post, several of you asked for more information on rattlesnake avoidance/aversion classes. I had to do a little research since even though I recommend them to clients, I’ve never enrolled one of my own dogs in one.
 
Trainers rely on different methods to teach dogs to stay away from rattlesnakes, but in general, the protocol goes something like this  

Outfit the dog with a shock collar and leash.
 
Place a rattlesnake on the ground. The snakes may be defanged adults, juveniles that have less severe bites than adults, a caged individual, non-venomous species, or even rubber snakes (these last two are modified to smell like rattlers and sound effects are added)
 
Walk the leashed dog by the snake.
 
Depending on the dog’s response, apply an appropriate level of “correction” (i.e., shock) to encourage him to associate snakes with pain and therefore come to the conclusion that they are best avoided.
 
As necessary, repeat step 4 with increasing levels of pain until the dog runs away immediately upon hearing, smelling, or seeing the snake.

 
This type of protocol goes against everything I believe in when it comes to training dogs. Positive reinforcement, not pain and punishment, is the most effective and humane way to get results. However, this is one instance when I might be willing to make an exception for certain dogs — the knuckleheads out there. You know the ones I’m talking about; they have a singular focus when their attention is drawn to something and would gladly run through a barbed wire fence to get at it (recalls be damned). In these cases, a few zaps from a shock collar are a reasonable price to pay to avoid a potentially life-threatening encounter with a snake.
 
But in my opinion, rattlesnake aversion classes that use shock collars (less frequently citronella spray collars) are not appropriate for the canine sensitive souls amongst us. Many dogs are smart enough to know a set up when they see one, and if they are traumatized by the effects of the shock collar, their loss of trust in the people who put them in that situation could end up being disastrous. These dogs are usually so attached to their owners that they would respond very well to a snake avoidance class based on positive reinforcement. Essentially, the program could be run in a similar manner as is outlined above, but instead of shocking the dog when it moves toward the snake, he is rewarded when he runs away.
 
As is true with almost everything surrounding dog ownership, the right approach depends on the individual. I’ll continue to recommend traditional rattlesnake aversion classes for those dogs who are at high risk for bites and won’t be devastated by being zapped by a shock collar, but options like training based on positive reinforcement, walking dogs on a six foot leash, and creating an environment that is unfriendly to rattlesnakes in the yard are far better for others.
 
 

Dr. Jennifer Coates
 
 
Image: Jana Behr / Shutterstock
 
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TheOldBroad Snakes! 07/23/2013 06:10pm "creating an environment that is unfriendly to rattlesnakes in the yard"

This makes the most sense to me as well as not letting Fido out on his own (even in a fenced yard) where the human isn't keeping a close eye on Fido and could react quickly if there's a problem. Reply to this comment Report abuse Kathy Levine 07/23/2013 06:47pm Thank you Dr. Coates for your previous article regarding the rattlesnake vaccine. I don't even know it made it on the market without an FDA trial. I am a veterinarian that practices in a semi-rural area of Southern California and my clinic sees at least 6 or 7 rattlesnake bite victims a year. Snake avoidance training can be helpful but I would say the majority of the bites occur when the dog is nosing in a bush, the dog surprises the snake, the snake doesn't have time to rattle and will proceed to bite. There are a few Jack Russell terriers that have continued to get bitten despite the aversion training. Keeping dogs on a leash while outdoors will definitely help, but some of the snake bites have occurred in the owner's home or garage. Thankfully, mortality rate is quite low even without anti-venin, depending on the dog's size and the site of the bite. Reply to this comment Report abuse 3 Uncle Connie 07/23/2013 08:00pm First, thanks Dr. Coates for the in-depth discussions on this topic, which I seem to have started. You've helped a lot. (So what else is new?!)

I originally asked because my dog and I like to wander around various open-space 'natural' parks within our urban setting (San Diego), and some of these parks do have rattlesnake populations. (In fact, some parks have signs at all the trailheads: "Keep dogs on leash. If they get away, the rattlesnakes will find them sooner than you can!")

The big problem in my region, so one of the rangers told me, is squirrel burrows. We don't get real winter here, so the ground never freezes, and we have ground squirrels. They dig burrows - seemingly, billions of them - but they don't keep them all active at once, and rattlers like to use the unoccupied burrows for their own shelter. So, along comes a curious dog poking its nose into the wrong burrow, and bam!

My dog and I came close once. She found a squirrel hole hidden from my view, stuck her nose in, I heard a loud rattle and pulled the leash and hauled her out of there - no damage, but too close for my taste. Since then, I've paid far more attention, but there's always the chance of a lapse at the wrong moment, which is why I asked in the first place.

In the end I've opted to do nothing but remain vigilant at all times - and always keep the leash in place. Our vet is never more than about 3 miles from any of the park trails we visit; in any event, the dog is getting old now and has far less idle curiosity than she once did. And far less stamina - we've cut back on all the harder trails. And there's an emergency pet hospital 5 miles away, 24 hrs. Now, perhaps if we lived in the 'back country,' where the distances and times were so much greater, I'd do something else; but I think in my case (I hope!), the leash at all times, as much vigilance as I can muster, and the availability of help, all combine to make skipping the shots regimen and the kind of aversion training you describe, the best course for us.

Again, Doctor, thanks ever so much for all that you do, and for this research project in particular. Count me a continuing avid fan - even for the horse and sheep articles, which are fascinating even if irrelevant to my purely urban sensibilities! Reply to this comment Report abuse
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