Thursday, June 3, 2021

Dulce in Snake Land: Aversion Training Up Close

 

Dulce closing in on coiled, hooded rattlesnake (circled) seconds before shock


I was about to depart for Dulce's snake aversion class when I received word that a friend's dog was bitten by a rattlesnake. Twice. Once on the foot and once on the face. Her beloved Corgi was in the throws of emergency treatment, receiving doses of antivenom. She was hopeful for a full recovery and looked forward to bringing Dweezil home the next morning.

Snake tracks across the road 

The class took on a heavier note. Dulce had already had four encounters with rattlesnakes: twice while on walks along the road, once in the dark outside my home and most recently one crawling by the deck at nightfall. I used the experiences to reinforce "NO, get back." She'd done well, but the fact remained, I would not always be with her to warn her curious nose away. The class was $100 and the professional trainer was coming to a local park. It couldn't have been more convenient.

The outdoor class entailed four snake encounter sites and used a shock collar to negatively reinforce the dog's curiosity of a snake. A shock was delivered as soon as the dog began to show interest in snake sight, smell or sound. My concern was that Dulce was timid in strange circumstances. I didn't want her overstimulated, on the other hand, I wanted her trained.

The teacher collared Dulce, led her on a lead and instructed me where to stand in relationship to the stations. The first station was a large plastic coiled snake, head rising with a scent pad. Dulce circled a wide berth, whereupon the instructor asked if she'd had encounters before. Most definitely, I said. The second station was a live, hooded, angry snake on the ground and a bucket w/scent. Dulce showed some curiosity about ten feet out (see first photo). ZAP. A shock, a yelp, a jump. That's all she needed. The third station was another species of snake and Dulce had nothing to do with it. Same with the final station, a scent bucket. The class reinforced immediate feedback many feet out from the snakes, who have impressive striking distance. 

The training was quick and effective. I don't anticipate Dulce getting near a snake again. Some folks get the snake vaccination and believe their dog is protected, however, every snake has a different venom and needs an antivenom to match. There are over forty species of rattlesnakes in the US and the rattlesnake vaccine works on one of those. In this neck of the woods, the vaccine is for the Western Diamondback rattler. Even in our small group of eight dogs, two owners had had encounters with deadly Mojave rattlers. If the vaccine and snake match, the vaccine may give more time to get to emergency. It may save your dog's life, but it will not save you the panic, emergency drive, heartbreak and vet bill. 

Rattler passing through  

I have a deep regard and affection for snakes. The one that slithered by my deck a couple weeks  ago was rudely interrupted by Dulce's barks. When I came outside to check I saw a four-foot, stretched out rattler beginning to coil. I ordered Dulce back and she actually ran a fifty foot circle around the house and came up the back stairs. We left it alone and it was predictably gone in the morning. There was another a few weeks ago near my portale, rattling so loud in the dark it sent chills through my body. We never did see it. Most dogs are curious, however. Many mistake a snake for a toy or a challenge. Last year a friend's unvaccinated dog got bit. My friend raced 50 miles, late at night, to an emergency vet service. They could not save his dog. Not only was his heart broken but he received a bill for $2500. 


It's a myth that young snakes are more venomous than older ones. Large or small, Dulce and I live in snake territory. There are plenty or rats and mice for them to feed upon. They like to be close to house foundations, shadows and porches. They can show up anywhere, and do. They hunt at night by following the heat of their prey, and while they will strike to defend themselves, they prefer not to be seen or threatened and go on their slithering way. If confronted, however, the snake is equipped. Hinged fangs unfold from the upper jaw; she lunges forward and delivers a powerful bite. The strike takes a half second to deliver venom. She chooses how much to inject, depending on the size of the predator, and may not inject venom at all.

My California friend's two Corgis were exploring the same area of yard together. One had snake aversion training, one did not. The one without training got struck. Forty-eight hours after the incident and numerous antivenom treatments, their beloved, vibrant dog couldn't turn it around. He was in extreme pain with neurological issues. My friends said goodbye to Dweezil.   

If your dog is six months old s/he is old enough for training. There's no perfect solution to dogs and rattlesnakes in the wild. I'm sure coyotes and wolves have figured it out. Shaking tails and hissing warn them away. Domestic dogs, on the other hand, need help to identify and avert snakes by smell, sound and sight. When Dulce bounds out the door I know I've done all I can to protect her. 


Dulce on watch 







13 comments:

  1. A well written article, Kristina and certainly one every dog owner needs to take to heart. I am so glad Dulce has such a responsible person in his life! He's a beautiful dog who deserves no less.

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    1. Thanks, Izzi. She's a rescue. Ive had her for over a year. She's a gem. Stay well ❤

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  2. Good story and warning Christina - best wishes and good luck with Dulce. I think you did a wise thing investing in the training.

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    1. Thanks for reading and responding. Love dogs, love snakes, we do our best. ❤

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  3. Good information about the aversion training. Thankfully we have many fewer snakes in this area. I’ve seen only a few around here in 15 years.
    It’s true that young snakes are not more venomous an older snakes. However, young ones haven’t learned to control their venom yet and may inject way too much. That is why their bites are almost always deadly.

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    1. Thanks, Em. And yes, that's the myth I am referring to. I'd always heard that as well. Turns out not true. And young and old can choose to dry bite, not inject venom. Cool, eh?

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  4. Thanks for the reminder to be aware of the buzz bunnies. I've had dogs bitten twice (paws) neither was a serious affair. The vet sent both home with a pain killer and they were okay limping around and somewhat listless for a few days. I did have to carry Ross for a quarter mile he was in such pain and I was so worried. Now I dispatch any I find close to the house the rest I find walking about are left alone. We have the green backed Mojave and I captured a giant diamond back years ago and released her into the gorge. I hope it's not too warm this summer for you June is starting out wet here west of Taos. Very beautiful!

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    1. So good to hear from you! My guess is your dog experienced dry bites ... no venom. Very lucky!! I'm hoping for heat relief, thanks. AND RAIN. We had no monsoons last season. It was brutal. I plan to get to Taos this summer or fall. San Geronimo, perhaps? XO

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  5. Hi Christina
    I remember a sea snake wash up on the Teacapan Mexico beach and the dogs knew, don't go there.
    Allan & Donna

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    1. Absolutely! Ahhh, Teacapan. What wonderful memories. Love to you.

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  6. Yes, well written and interesting. I would do the training too if I lived there in the summer. I've not found one in the Fall or Spring

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    1. They are out and about on the desert in the fall and spring. Glad that's not the case where you live. Must be high altitude? Take care ...

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