More on Rattlesnakes and Dogs

More on PawNation: Attack, Dogs, Expert, Reptiles, Safety, Snakes

A couple of weeks ago we talked about a vaccine that may or may not be helpful in protecting dogs against the potentially deadly effects of a rattlesnake bite. In response to that post, several of you asked for more information on rattlesnake avoidance/aversion classes. I had to do a little research since even though I recommend them to clients, I've never enrolled one of my own dogs in one.

Trainers rely on different methods to teach dogs to stay away from rattlesnakes, but in general, the protocol goes something like this:

Outfit the dog with a shock collar and leash.

Place a rattlesnake on the ground. The snakes may be defanged adults, juveniles that have less severe bites than adults, a caged individual, non-venomous species, or even rubber snakes (these last two are modified to smell like rattlers and sound effects are added)

Walk the leashed dog by the snake.

Depending on the dog's response, apply an appropriate level of "correction" (i.e., shock) to encourage him to associate snakes with pain and therefore come to the conclusion that they are best avoided.

As necessary, repeat step 4 with increasing levels of pain until the dog runs away immediately upon hearing, smelling, or seeing the snake.

This type of protocol goes against everything I believe in when it comes to training dogs. Positive reinforcement, not pain and punishment, is the most effective and humane way to get results. However, this is one instance when I might be willing to make an exception for certain dogs - the knuckleheads out there. You know the ones I'm talking about; they have a singular focus when their attention is drawn to something and would gladly run through a barbed wire fence to get at it (recalls be damned). In these cases, a few zaps from a shock collar are a reasonable price to pay to avoid a potentially life-threatening encounter with a snake.

But in my opinion, rattlesnake aversion classes that use shock collars (less frequently citronella spray collars) are not appropriate for the canine sensitive souls amongst us. Many dogs are smart enough to know a set up when they see one, and if they are traumatized by the effects of the shock collar, their loss of trust in the people who put them in that situation could end up being disastrous. These dogs are usually so attached to their owners that they would respond very well to a snake avoidance class based on positive reinforcement. Essentially, the program could be run in a similar manner as is outlined above, but instead of shocking the dog when it moves toward the snake, he is rewarded when he runs away.

As is true with almost everything surrounding dog ownership, the right approach depends on the individual. I'll continue to recommend traditional rattlesnake aversion classes for those dogs who are at high risk for bites and won't be devastated by being zapped by a shock collar, but options like training based on positive reinforcement, walking dogs on a six foot leash, and creating an environment that is unfriendly to rattlesnakes in the yard are far better for others.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

"More on Rattlesnakes and Dogs" originally appeared on

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Jamie Robinson

March 13 2014 at 10:23 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I have 3 dogs, live in rattlesnake country, and have done rattlesnake relocation and public education, including responding to houses where dogs have been bitten by rattlesnakes to remove snakes and provide consult to owners on how to make yards safe. As an FYI, most dogs survive and recover from bites in a surprisingly short amount of time with basic pain management. Canines evolved with snakes and do not react to an envenomation in the same manner as a human. I am not trying to minimize the danger rattlesnakes pose to dogs; they can kill a dog. However, rattlesnake avoidance training is largely a waste of time and money and is designed to capitalize on people's fear of snakes. In a field situation, or even in a backyard, by the time the dog realizes the snake is there it is within striking distance. Owners need to be responsible and do their best to snake proof backyards and keep a watchful eye on dogs when outdoors. That is the best thing owners can do to ensure their dog's safety.

I find it ironic you can recommend enrolling a dog in rattlesnake aversion training where a rattlesnake has been de-fanged. You worry about the pain shock collars can cause a dog, do you worry about pain to the other living animal in this equation - the rattlesnake? Are you even aware what is done to 'de-fang' a rattlesnake? To do the procedure correctly it needs to be done by a trained vet under anesthesia and it doesn't actually remove the fangs. Fangs are constantly being replaced and replacement fangs are in place ready to descend shortly after if the fang is removed. Plus, would you recommend, for humane reasons, to use a service where the teeth of a living animal are ripped out? For the surgery to remove the venom gland to be successful the entire venom gland needs to be cut out of the head of the rattlesnake. The simpler surgery of cauterizing the venom duct often isn't successful as the duct can heal. How many dog trainers invest in a professionally done surgery to render the snake venomoid? If people care about humane treatment of animals, and the safety of their dog being 'trained' they should ask the avoidance trainer how the rattlesnake they use was rendered safe. Make sure the avoidance trainer didn't buy a venomoid from a non-vet who isn't properly trained and didn't use anesthesia. Ask for the name of the vet who performed the surgery. I would not recommend avoidance training that uses rattlesnakes for those reasons unless that information is supplied, especially when a non-venomous gopher snake will suffice...though depending on the dog trainer and how much they want to scare you into using their services they may tell you only a rattlesnake will work. Snakes possess a nervous system so, like dogs, they can feel pain. They produce cortisol and become stressed, which is something I could live with if the snake is treated well except for when it's used for the training. Don't let your fear force you into making a bad decision.

August 16 2013 at 6:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Dr Coates, your take on pain and it's use is interesting to me. I understand that animals can and do learn things through positive experiences. However I do have a few comments I'd like to make.
I believe that while positive results are one way all animals learn another more holistic view of learning in animals might look something like action + memory= desire. That is anything an animal does creates a memory. When an animal experiences something pleasurable after a behavior it is apt to repeat the behavior. When an animal experiences a negative experience it is apt not to repeat the behavior.
A physical correction need not be punitive nor need it be abusive. Rather a physical correction need only be informative.
The problem with only using rewards is that the animal only gets to experience half the information. Without all the information an animal can't make an informed decission. " Should I check out that interesting rattling thing"?
Something else you might want to consider is the Breland Study. . This study was instrumental in helping us learn about instinctual drift. Here's the ,million dollar question Doctor Coates. After reading the Breland study how does one deal with instinctual drift using only positive reenforcement?

July 31 2013 at 7:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
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