Every year around this time, I see a plethora of posts and questions regarding rattlesnake avoidance training. Utah has beautiful mountains full of hikers, campers, and other outdoor activities, but unfortunately, we have rattlesnakes as well. Many hiking/outdoor dog owners turn to rattlesnake aversion training to teach their dogs to fear those snakes and stay away.
“In conventional aversion training, dogs receive uncomfortable or painful electric shocks when exposed to whatever their owners want them to avoid. In theory, the dog will associate the sight, smell, or sound of a rattlesnake or other danger with the pain of a shock and immediately run away.”1 In the end, the dog will learn that rattlesnakes are something they need to fear, and ultimately, they need to stay away. Some classes also teach an alert, so when the dog sees, smells, or hears the snake, the dog will alert their owner it is there.
This traditional method usually takes one class and is a quick fix for a potential problem. The dog owner will typically need a refresher course (typically yearly) after the initial class to renew the fear and pain association. Owners leave these trainings feeling their dog is prepared to go outdoors with rattlesnakes, but unfortunately that feeling can produce a false sense of security.
The downside of these trainings is that there can be quite a significant fallout of unintended consequences. Every trainer has heard horror stories about dogs that have developed aggressive tendencies or are now scared of random objects or sounds. Some dogs have had personality disorders begin after these trainings among a myriad of other problems.
“While the best aversion trainers introduce shock collars gradually and with concern for the dog’s age, size, history, and personality, no one can guarantee that any aversion-trained dog will never be harmed by whatever it was trained to avoid. Accidents happen. In addition, canine responses to snakes vary. Some dogs are naturally cautious and reluctant to explore new situations; others are eager to inspect, smell, and taste the unfamiliar; and some breeds are more likely than others to chase or attack a snake, poisonous toad, or moving object.”1
A warning from a vet
Even veterinary offices are beginning to caution their clients about these methods. Animal Care Center, a Vet in Castle Pines, Colorado recently wrote an article to their clients cautioning them about these methods.
“…this type of training results in unwanted side effects, behavioral fallout, or even the opposite of the intended effect! Because the trainer cannot be in control of what connections the dog is actually making, many times dogs make unintended associations with the painful shock. Dogs have been reported to be fearful of leashing or their handler after this training, as if the leash was the cause of the shock. Some dogs become fearful of noises similar to rattlesnake rattles, like sprinklers or tapping noises. And in some cases, instead of the intended “flight” response to the snake that the training is aiming for, dogs learn to attack the snakes instead!”2
These methods don’t always result in horror stories. In fact, many cases work just as intended. But with every dog, there is an inherent risk associated each and every time a dog attends a class associated with the shock collars, and even with other averse tools, like vibrations or beeps. If your dog has been successful in one circumstance, it doesn’t mean he/she will be okay in another. Each time we use these methods, we are taking a chance something will happen.
A LITTLE PAIN IS BETTER THAN GETTING BIT
So, why do we subject our dogs to this training? “I’d rather my dog experience a little pain than getting bit, or worse, killed, from a snake bite.” We all can relate to that statement. Our dogs are family and we want to keep them safe, so if a little pain means that they won’t get bit, then most people will justify it. Just like in a human circumstance, pain can be a teaching moment. But, the good news is, there is another way that doesn’t require them to get hurt or experience pain. In rattlesnake avoidance training, both you and your dog can enjoy learning and have fun in the process, so there’s no need to justify the pain and fear your dog will experience with the shock collar.
THE BENEFITS OF RATTLESNAKE AVOIDANCE WITHOUT SHOCK
Unlike the shock collar method, using positive reinforcement methods removes both the fear and the pain elements. It teaches your dog what to do when they see, smell or hear a snake. They will know to back away, leave the snake, alert you of the snake, and/or come just as well without the fear, and more importantly, without all of the potential fallout and risk associated with the shock. And, as a bonus, the positive reinforcement training allows you to develop an even deeper bond and trust level with your dog—something that is eroded each and every time you use pain and aversion techniques in any training.
You do need to be aware that positive reinforcement rattlesnake avoidance will take some additional time than a single afternoon class. Instead of one quick class, you will need to take your time and really reinforce the behaviors, but that additional time is a good thing. It will allow you to develop a deeper bond and a deeper trust with your dog, and the lessons your dog learns will be much better trained than a single day class. In order for us to learn something, we need to study it and practice. It’s the same with dogs. The more we practice and train, the better our dogs get. A quick fix isn’t the best answer.
HOW DOES IT WORK-The basics
Build your foundation
The key to all dog training is to break it down into small, basic steps. So, for positive reinforcement rattlesnake training, start training a few basic behaviors. You want your dog to be 100% fluent with a “leave it” and a “come/recall” behavior, and you will want your dog to be comfortable with you grabbing their collar. If you are wanting to teach an alert, decide what you want your dog to do (come touch your hand, bark, stand next to you and sit, etc.) and add that to the training.
Use snake scent, snake sounds, and a realistic looking fake snake
Once your dog has a solid foundation, it’s time to introduce the snake scent, sound and sight. Associate those with your “leave it” behavior. When the dog smells, hears, and/or sees the snake, they “leave it” immediately. After the dog leaves the snake, have the dog come to you if it is safe to do so. You may also teach your dog to alert you at this point.
For more information on our 6-week course for rattlesnake avoidance, please visit https://trainingtoat.com/classes/snake-avoidance-training/. There you will find more details on the class along with scheduling and registration for our next class.
ALWAYS HIRE A POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT TRAINER
It is in your dogs and your best interest to hire a positive reinforcement trainer. They can help you break down these steps based on your dog’s experiences and how he/she learns. Trainers will help you customize the plan for your dog and will be available to help troubleshoot. They can also help you get that foundation setup that will help in all areas of training.
In addition, these trainers have a vast network of experts around the nation and world they can tap into to help with your specific issues. Make sure you research trainers and find one that is certified and has attended a science-based academy. The training industry is not regulated, so there are many uneducated, self-identified “trainers” out there. Any good, positive reinforcement trainer will be able to tell you where they studied, what certifications they have and/or are working on, and will have a good network of experts available to them to help you.
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Other resources of interest
https://youtu.be/iH10DFuZohM – Positive Snake Avoidance Training. An Interview with Amy Hughes-Creaven, a Colorado Dog Trainer who is spearheading the Positive Snake Avoidance Training movement.
1https://animalcarectr.com/the-striking-truth-about-snake-avoidance-training-classes/ – Article from a veterinary office in colorado regarding the fallout of traditional snake aversion training.
2https://www.whole-dog-journal.com/care/snake-avoidance-training-for-dogs/ – Article from Whole Dog Journal addressing positive reinforcement rattlesnake aversion training.