by Lynn Webb, KPA CTP, CTMT
Owner, The Proficient Pup Dog Training and Massage
For many of us who own dogs, rattlesnakes are a real concern. We know they can be dangerous and we want to protect our pets. We may feel like we can avoid them ourselves, but feel less certain that our dogs can do the same. When training our pups to avoid rattlesnakes, it is important to understand rattlesnakes, as well, and to learn about the animal that we fear.
Rattlesnakes are an essential part of San Diego’s ecosystem and have a significant role in hunting rodents like mice, rats, and gophers. Yet, they also suffer from indiscriminate killing and collection, in addition to habitat loss. Rattlesnakes are venomous (not poisonous) and inject venom into their prey to still them. We are fortunate in California that our venomous snakes come with a warning system in the form of a rattle. Sometimes, the snakes use their rattles to tell people and animals to back away. Striking and biting is vulnerable activity for a snake and if it can avoid a confrontation, it will. Rattlesnakes do not attack people or dogs, but they will defend themselves, if needed. This is why it is so important to teach dogs to steer clear of rattlesnakes.
Rattlesnakes do not attack people or dogs, but they will defend themselves, if needed.
Warmer weather means increased snake activity. Although much of San Diego County is warm enough to see snakes year-round, we do see more of them during the Spring and Summer months. It is during this same time of the year that we humans increase our outdoor activities, often with our doggie companions. Because both snakes and humans enjoy the warmer, longer summer days, we are more likely to meet in the spaces we share, like the deserts, mountains, parks, or beaches. We should be aware that our habitat is snake habitat.
There are many companies in San Diego that offer rattlesnake avoidance or aversion training. If a company asserts that they can train your dog to avoid rattlesnakes in 15-30 minutes, it is likely that they are using a shock collar to do so. Some argue that it is worth it to frighten a dog for 15-30 minutes to ensure that they avoid a rattlesnake. Others argue that it doesn’t work, asserting that the companies who use shock do not guarantee its efficacy and further suggest that the client return the following year for more shock to “refresh” the “training.” Shock seems to work in the moment, but it can lead to long-lasting and unexpected behavioral problems. For example, if someone shocks a dog in the presence of a snake, but there are also garden hoses, pine cones, or even children nearby, the dog may associate fear with those items or people. This could prove either mildly inconvenient, or quite dangerous.
In addition, some of these same companies use live rattlesnakes they have captured, and either hood the snakes or tape their mouths closed during training. Not only is it disruptive to pull a snake from its native habitat for human use, but also inhumane to force it into a confrontational situation with a dog while defenseless. There is a better way.
As a certified dog trainer, I offer safe and pain-free training for dogs to teach them how to avoid rattlesnakes. I do not use rattlesnakes in my training, yet I do show people and their dogs how to respond to the sight and sounds of snakes. In addition, the behaviors learned in five sessions can be used in everyday life, as well, so there is there is no need to “refresh” the training the following year. You maintain the behaviors year-round.
Things I teach my clients about Rattlesnake Avoidance:
- There are ways to avoid rattlesnakes. There are so many myths about rattlesnakes, and snakes in general, that it is important to differentiate fact from fiction. Knowing and understanding more about the animals we fear helps to keep us safe. Managing our environment whenever possible can eliminate many worries about our furry friends’ safety.
- Our dogs’ safety depends on us. We want to believe that shock will teach our dogs to fear any species of rattler, in any situation, and in any environment. We want to believe that we can let our pups run loose through a field of low brush on a sunny day and that they will know what to do when they see that rattlesnake. That would be ideal, yet the reality is that we need to be smart and aware. We need to take extreme caution when we are in rattlesnake habitat. We are our dogs’ protectors.
- Leashes are a good thing. The best option to keep our dogs safe while walking in rattlesnake habitat is to keep them on-leash. Snakes may be hidden, or they may be out in the open using camouflage to remain unseen. They can surprise us as well as our dogs. Walking our dogs on-leash provides us with the opportunity to cue them that there is a threat close by.
- Hazards are all around. Training appropriate behaviors works with any danger, not just rattlesnakes. A gopher snake is non-venomous, but that doesn’t mean it won’t bite. We don’t want any snakes to bite our dogs. And there are other harmful things in the natural world that we want our dogs to stay away from. We can teach them to respond to us in a manner that ensures their safety. By teaching our dogs to listen to our cues, we can protect them, without using pain-causing equipment.
When it comes to training rattlesnake avoidance, there are options other than shock, pain, and fear. And this is a great time to discover those options. If you start training soon, you will be able to teach your dog several ways to stay out of danger before Summer begins. Sometimes, trying something better means trying something new.