As temperatures rise in the springtime in San Diego, humans and other creatures increase their outdoor activities. Sightings of wildlife increase with an associated worry on the part of the humans about close encounters with the more dangerous types, for example California’s rattlesnakes. Dog owners in particular share concerns about keeping their canine companions safe when venturing into the desert and mountains for hiking, hunting, etc. Homeowners who live close to the desert and whose yards are exposed are also concerned about keeping their dogs safe. A service provided by a number of individuals that appears to be growing in popularity is called snake avoidance training. Some call it other things: snake proofing (a very misleading term), de-snaking (inaccurate at best), or just snake training (which sounds like it would take a very long time as snakes don’t seem to learn as quickly as other animals). The basic strategy involves a snake, an electronic shock collar and the dog. The purpose is to present the snake to the dog, usually several times under different conditions so that the dog is exposed to the sound, smell and look of the snake. When the dog approaches the snake, a “trainer” administers the shock, usually at one of the highest settings. The hope is that through rapid aversive conditioning, the dog will learn to associate pain and/or fear with the snake and, therefore, will avoid snakes in the future. It sounds simple, but this is actually a very complex situation that deserves careful attention. The purpose of the remainder of this article is to help dog owners make informed choices about snake avoidance training. In addition to notes about the training itself, humane treatment of all the animals involved is also emphasized. The end of the article is summarized with a series of questions dog owners should ask (and get answers) from any potential trainer. My main point of this article is that this is a choice for the owner to make, and I want to encourage the most informed choice possible. It is NOT my intention to say whether one should even attempt this training. That is entirely up to the individual dog owner.
Snake avoidance training is most often recommended for people whose dogs are frequently in the field. People who are active out-of-doors or who live near the desert/suburb interface are also motivated to get the training. The costs range from $40-$80 or more and sometimes include a “free” follow-up session to make sure that the learning stuck. The trainings are frequently offered in a clinic format, with a number of people bringing their dogs to one location over a day or weekend. All trainers seem to note that this process is not guaranteed to work 100%. Many trainers attempt to conduct the training in as safe a manner as possible: safe for the human, safe for the dog. As mentioned above, the usual “presentation” of the stimulus (i.e., snake) is done in several ways where the dog is exposed separately to the sight, sound, or smell so that the dog hopefully will “get it” that this is a snake, and bad things happen to you when you approach a snake. The snake is usually a rattlesnake, and is either caged in some way, loose but defanged in some way or muzzled to ensure the safety of the dog. Ideally, the dog is shocked only once and figures out that snakes are to be avoided. Unfortunately, some dogs don’t seem to get it as quickly (or some trainers don’t know what they’re doing) and multiple shocks are administered. If the timing of the trainer is off by even a millisecond, the dog will be confused. Some of the potential long-term effects on the dog when the training is done improperly range from avoidance of anything remotely resembling a snake (including shadows and other innocuous things), to attacking all snakes. For some dogs, their fear becomes so great that it may interfere with their normal activities. Let the buyer beware.
QUESTIONS TO ASK A POTENTIAL TRAINER:
• What is your experience, training and education about the following: dogs and dog behavior, snakes and snake behavior, operant conditioning? (Check for excellent knowledge and experience… not just “OK.”
• What kind of snake is it? Where did you obtain the snake? How long have you had it? What happens to the snake once all the training is over? How many dogs are used with the one snake? How do you keep the snake on-site when you’re not training a dog? (Check for humane treatment and evidence for compliance with California law about reintroduction after captivity and moving snakes in the wild (that’s a no-no). Also, they better know exactly what kind of species it is… And so should you. If it’s a rare or other protected species of rattlesnake, you should report them to Operation Game Thief at 1-800-352-0700.)
• How will the snake be presented to the dog? If de-fanged, exactly what procedure was used for that process? (If you hear the word “pliers,” run.)
The bottom line is that snake avoidance training is not for every dog. If you decide to pay for someone’s services, choose your trainer carefully and wisely. Finally, keep in mind that there are larger issues to consider, both for your dog and for the other creatures involved.
This article was edited, the original article written by Allison Titcomb.