Behavior Bytes | August 2012
by Dr Stefanie Schwartz, Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist
12:15 PM, Monday, August 27
Aversive rattlesnake training (the delivery of electric shock paired with the sight, smell or sound of rattlesnakes) has been used for dogs who spend time off leash in rattlesnake habitat to prevent snakebites. It is intended to save lives, but uses pain to accomplish this goal.

I’ve never been much in favor of shock collars.  I wouldn’t put one on a child (not even my own), and I wouldn’t put one on my dog or yours. Shock collars are necessary to experienced professionals (especially for liability reasons) who train military and paramilitary canine officers. But can the experience of an average dog owner or dog trainer really compare to their level of expertise? And does the average pet dog’s life compare to the extreme performance requirements of a K-9 officer?

Most snakebites are accidental.  Preventative shock ‘therapy’ won’t protect a dog from a surprise encounter with a snake. Electric shock collars (and concealed electric barriers) can also cause undesirable side effects.

Here’s an example. Maxwell, a 4-year-old Viszla, had always been a happy and social dog who suddenly developed aggression to men or women who approached him as they passed by when he was restrained on a leash.  He remained friendly to visitors in the home and to other dogs.

I met with Maxwell and his Dad and learned that the dog was in good physical condition and enjoyed an hour-long morning run and a half hour afternoon walk. His problem had begun three months earlier immediately after the third of three sessions of “rattlesnake training.”  In each session, an electronic shock collar was placed on his neck, and a male and female trainer alternated leash handling and remote delivery of the shock during approach of caged rattlesnakes.

His fear aggression was secondary to a conditioned social phobia. With each delivery of the shock, he developed a deeper aversion to rattlesnakes and a progressive phobia to the approach of strangers when he was on leash.  I’m happy to report that Maxwell has recovered, but his Dad may take longer to forgive himself.

We are responsible for our dogs and we are the ones to prevent their contact with wildlife. It just seems simpler to leash walk dogs in unfamiliar places (or keep under strict voice command off leash where permitted) and to avoid known rattlesnake habitats. Keep your yard free from places where snakes can hide, like under low hanging branches of shrubs, and patrol your yard before you let your dog out. For more important safety information about rattlesnakes please visit http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn74119.html

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