Moving to the desert has opened my eyes to all kinds of new dangers as a dog owner. In addition to updating our backpacks with essential items to pack for a desert hike, I also learned about rattlesnake avoidance training. I laughed when I first heard of it, but it’s a real thing! Many of my hiking friends have gone through the training with their dogs, and I’ve heard many success stories of their dogs avoiding snakes on the trail.
Here’s the thing with rattlesnake avoidance training: 99% of the classes out there use e-collars, or electric collars. Most of the people I spoke with felt this was a better alternative than a rattlesnake bite, and that may be true. However, I was sure there had to be another option. I called dozens of Arizona dog trainers, and most of them said that e-collar is the only option. Like a dog with a bone, I kept digging and found Jamie Robinson, a trainer right here in Tucson.
Jamie Robinson, of Play Your Way Obedience, studied Marine Behavior and now specializes in many areas of dog training, including medical alert service dog training and canine & feline cancer detection. She uses the same basis of techniques for all of her training, which is to introduce sight, smell and sound along with expected behavioral response. In the case of rattlesnake training, the rewarded response is to run away when the dog is alerted to a snake. Traditional e-collar training occurs in a 1-hour group session, but according to Jaime, it needs to be refreshed annually. The cost is typically from $75-$150 for the session. Jaime’s positive reinforcement training requires a 6 weekly classes – with homework! – and costs $125 for the 6-week session.
Overall, less than 1% of dogs and cats in the U.S. are bit by snakes. However, if you live in an area prone to rattlesnakes, your odds are obviously higher. About 85% of rattlesnake bites to dogs occur in the dog’s in the backyard, so if you have a backyard where your pets roam freely, or if you hike with your dog (especially off-leash), rattlesnake training is a good investment to keep your pet safe.
Sidney Hardie, of Southwest Airedale Terrier Rescue, unfortunately learned this lesson recently. She’s raised many Airedales on her Tucson acreage without issue, but just this summer, two of her dogs were bit by a rattlesnake in the yard. The bill for the dog who took the brunt of the attack? $2,234, plus a lot of heartache wondering if the dog would pull through after a night in the doggy E.R. (I’m happy to report both dogs are okay!)
With an e-collar, all steps are condensed into a one-hour class. With the positive reinforcement method, these steps are taken over the course of six weeks. Like any learning experience, human or canine, practice makes perfect!
Step 1: Identify the scent. Using real rattlesnake scent, dogs are trained to recognize this scent through positive reinforcement.
Step 2: Go away! Dogs are trained to run away on command.
Step 3: Step 1 and 2 are combined to teach the dog to run away upon smelling the snake
Step 4: Sight is introduced, using toy snakes, often combined with the scent
Step 5: Sound is introduced, using maracas or phone apps to mimic the snake sound
For the remaining steps, and the final two weeks of class, Jaime brings in a live rattlesnake to ensure the training has worked. Through repetitive positive reinforcement, dogs learn to run away as soon as they smell, see, or hear a rattlesnake.
Currently, there are only two other trainers in the U.S. offering rattlesnake avoidance without shock, and both are located in California. If you are interested in training, and don’t live near California or Tucson, you can start with Jaime’s book on snake avoidance without shock. If you live in an area prone to rattlesnakes, look for a positive-reinforcement trainer in your area, show them the book, and see if you can arrange private training that is appropriate for your dog.
Have you trained your dog to avoid rattlesnakes? How was your experience?
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