Our friends David and Claire recently lost their beloved whippet Sam while hiking — the poor creature encountered a rattler.
“Dogs in San Diego County are at great risk of rattlesnake bites,” said Lynne Moore of Good Dog Training School in Poway (858-735-8318; gooddogtrainingschool.com). “The cost of treatment for a bite is commonly several thousand dollars, and that’s if the dog survives. There is a vaccine being offered by some vets that is supposed to give a dog more time before symptoms set in. That gives you a chance to get to the vet. But there is controversy about its effectiveness.” Prevention is the key.
Moore does not usually use a shock collar in dog training, but she does for rattlesnake aversion. “I’ve tested it on myself,” she assured me, “and it’s not nearly as bad as it sounds. Still, people can be very stressed with what’s going on during the training — they love their dogs, they’re concerned about the collar, and they’re afraid of snakes.” (Moore’s snakes are muzzled.)
Moore’s clinic sessions usually last 30–40 minutes. “We do two stimulations on the dog to let it absorb the information, and then we do a test. Then we put out a couple of snakes and let the owner walk by with the dog on a loose leash so that they can see the dog’s reaction. Some dogs are more dramatic than others.”
Usually, Moore runs her clinics on private ranches in Poway and Del Mar, at a cost of $75 per dog. “Unfortunately,” she noted, “right now, there is a city ordinance being enforced that prohibits the possession of venomous snakes. I’m meeting with county supervisor Dianne Jacob to see if we can find a solution.” She said that there may be some parts of the county where clinics are still possible — call or email to register.
“Basically, what we’re doing is teaching dogs to recognize real, live rattlesnakes and to associate them with a negative stimulus,” added Eric Briggs, owner of Natural Solutions (760-464-6792; rattlesnakeavoidancetraining.com). Briggs, who runs training clinics at various locations around Southern California, continued, “It’s the same learning process that happened with us as children the first time we reached out and touched an open flame and learned it was hot. To do the training, we need the actual animals — rattlesnakes. In San Diego, your primary rattlesnake is the Southern Pacific rattler.”
Like Moore, Briggs muzzles his snakes and uses a correction collar for the negative stimulus. “It’s a shock collar, but it doesn’t shock like a taser. It causes a small cramp in the muscle, and that’s where the discomfort comes from. The dog has to believe that the snake has just bitten him, so the negative stimulus has to be perfectly timed. You typically have just a split second to identify the moment when the dog becomes engaged with the rattlesnake.”
Also, warned Briggs, “You must be careful not to have too high a correction in that first exchange, or you can actually put the dog into a fear or panic state. If that happens, their ability to learn stops. Some people believe that a high correction is necessary the first time so that the dog remembers it for life. That may work for some dogs, but not all, and we’ve designed our program to accommodate every dog out there — we train up to 14,000 a year.”
Most training is done in a clinic setting (next San Diego area session scheduled for July 21; check website for details). “It’s one-on-one training and takes 5–15 minutes per dog. The dog is on a long line to prevent them from either harming the snake or evacuating the area. We separate the dog from the owner and let the dog encounter the snake on his own. He will either see it, smell it, or hear it — and we train them to use all their senses to identify the rattlesnake.”
Once the correction has happened and the dog is trained, “the dog will develop a nonverbal response to the snake. We want the owners to learn and be aware of the individual dog’s cues: some will bark, some will stop, some will step in front of their owners to keep them from progressing toward the snake.”
Natural Solutions works with all breeds, “from 2-pound Yorkies to 200-pound Mastiffs.” Briggs recommended that training be done once a year for three to four years and never earlier than six months of age. “A dog’s long-term memory for that kind of experience lasts between 8 and 18 months,” he explained.
Cost for clinic training is usually $75 per dog. Private sessions require an additional $50 travel fee. Briggs prefers to train in natural environments but will do sessions at homes, “as long as they’re in designated areas of the county.” Call for details.