Rattlesnakes and dogs are not the best combination, yet, we live with them, so having an understanding of both can help to keep our dogs safe.
First, you should know that I have a snake phobia. It’s true and have had it my entire life. I remember as a child, I would run from the door as fast as I could and leap onto my bed because I was certain millions of snakes were lurking under my bed, waiting for me. It runs deep. BUT, I have had to make peace with them. I grew up in southern California, where they are plenty and I hike every single day with my dogs, so I’ve learned a lot about how dogs interact with them and how snakes interact in their natural habitat. I still scream if startled by one and only gasp if I see them slithering by, at a distance.
Recently, I’ve acquired a couple of dogs who are not too familiar with snakes, so I decided to take all three of my dogs for rattlesnake avoidance training. One of my dogs, Oscar, who is now 6 years old, had been trained about 3 years ago. I decided to do him again, just to see his response.
Most avoidance training is done with an e-collar or better said shock collar. I won’t do that to my dogs even for this training. I called around until I found an organization that would allow me to handle and train my own dogs, with their live snakes.
All three of my dogs did great and responded differently. Now I know what to look for in each of them, when they spot a snake. The training was last weekend and yesterday, I had a chance to see one of my dogs who was ahead of us, spot a snake and he did exactly as he did in the program. I saw him lower his head with his body oriented back but stretching forward to see what was new and different to him and then he barked, staying about 6 feet from the snake, that I now saw because I watch my dogs like a hawk. I yelled Leave It and I mean, yelled. He looked at me and all three dogs and I felt my energy and away we went. It was perfect, a reminder lesson for all three of them and I feel assured that he now knows what to do with this reinforced interaction and my response.
Here’s the thing! Dogs who have been out and about in the world or live in snake country are already pretty savvy about them. We have domesticated them but we haven’t taken away natural instincts, especially when it comes to nature. When dogs see something out of the ordinary, they pretty much respond the same way. You may have all noticed it in your own dogs. The body language shows curiosity and then perhaps a bit of fear as shown by the image you see here from the Dog Decoder smartphone app. If you become more dog aware in body language, you can used these opportunities as training sessions.
For years, before rattlesnake training was a thing, we would run into snakes on the trails and when I saw my dogs with these body postures, I would yell Leave It and run in the opposite direction. They always responded to my lead, every time. When we have a foundation of trust through positive reward training and love; and we are body language savvy, our dogs pick up on our energy and follow our lead. See, I trained my dogs to stay away from snakes with my response. We do this all the time and dogs learn and are reinforced by what works. When they ran back with me after respecting the Leave It cue, they were rewarded with tons of treats and praise. While we are allowing our dogs to run free on trails, we need to make sure that we have that solid foundation of training, with a solid recall, Leave It cues and proper dog to dog etiquette skills and the learning happens, naturally, in real life.
The hard part is when they are running with glee or take refuge in the shade, accidentally landing on a sleeping/resting snake under brush. This is when most bites happen. The snake wasn’t able to warn the dog with their rattle and when the dog lands right on top of the snake, they bite, period.
Olive, a 4 month old Great Dane mix puppy was wrestling with other dogs and this exact scenario happened to her. I was at a 4th of July gathering with about 100 friends and family, when someone brought me this pup, saying somethings wrong, asking for my help. He was playing and then all of a sudden, he was whimpering and lethargic. I held him in my arms, inspecting his entire body when I found evidence of a snake bite, on the inside of his hind leg. The pup was rushed to the nearest vet which was an 1 1/2 away. We were camping remotely, so we all held our breath for this sweet pup, to hang on until they could make it to the vet.
This was about 13 years ago and the treatment was going to be $1000 and the guardian didn’t have the money to treat. The vet said, she could be treated and still not make it and if you don’t treat, it doesn’t mean he’s going to die. Olive’s guardian was a human holistic practitioner and decided to bring her pup home and treat him, as best she could with some great advice from the vet. See in these pics, how big Olive’s leg swelled up and it didn’t go down for 3 weeks. He survived this bite, with excellent care and tons of lovin…
The take away here, is this. Dogs are pretty savvy in nature, if they’re exposed to it, regularly and if we are savvy in dog body language, we can help our dogs become more savvy while out in this world of abundant wildlife. We can’t be carefree when we’re out with our dogs. We need to be proactive at all times as their advocate if we are going to bring them into nature. We are their guardians and this is our responsibility and for me, it’s an honor to allow them to be dogs, while helping them do what they to best, naturally, in our human dominated world.
About the author: Jill Breitner, is a professional dog trainer and dog body language expert loving and living her life on the west coast of the USA. She is the author of Dog Decoder, a smartphone app about dog body language recommended and used by veterinarians, shelters, trainers, educators and guardians worldwide. It’s available in iTunes and Google play. Jill has been teaching gentle handling/basic husbandry skills to clients and their dogs for 40 years, to be your pets advocate for a happier and stress free life. She also does online dog training, worldwide. Join Jill on her Dog Decoder Facebook page