Features May 2015 Issue

Snake Aversion Without Shock

Reinforcement-based techniques are effective for teaching dogs to avoid snakes and other dangers, without unwanted side effects.

We tried some dog-friendly (and snake-friendly!) snake-avoidance training exercises with Otto and Ruby, a 4-year-old Ball python. They both did well!

Positive training methods focus on rewarding activities, and they’re fun for dogs and handlers. But mention rattlesnakes and many dog owners worry that positive reinforcement isn’t enough. In order to remain safe around rattlesnakes, some say, your dog may need aversion training with an electronic (shock) collar.

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.

“But that doesn’t always happen,” says Jamie Robinson, founder of Seize the Leash in Tucson, Arizona. “One never knows what the dog is actually associating with the shock when it happens. I know of several dogs here in Tucson who now attack rattlesnakes after ‘snake breaking,’ since snakes were associated in their minds with the pain received during training. That association caused these dogs to attack rather than run in order to avoid the associated pain. Another dog is reportedly terrified of oscillating sprinklers because they sound like a snake’s rattle.”

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.

A better way

Is it possible to teach a dog to avoid snakes without using a shock collar? Like Robinson, a growing number of trainers say YES! Their goal is not to produce a dramatic reaction in which the dog recognizes a rattlesnake and runs or jumps in the opposite direction; their goal is for the dog to recognize the snake (or whatever it has learned to avoid) and stay away.

Robinson’s approach, which she calls Structured Game Training, combines play with purpose, cooperation, and goals. “If you really want a dog to stay away from something,” she says, “you have to make it the dog’s choice, not just a conditioned response.”

Her book Snake Avoidance Without Shock provides detailed instructions for playing games lasting five minutes or less, no more than one game per day, for six weeks. Its themes include self-control, motivation, “leave it,” maintaining close proximity to the handler, “stay” (in a variety of positions), developing a reliable recall, distraction training, perfecting an emergency distance sit/stay, drop on recall, odor identification, targeting, “back up, it’s dangerous,” proofing, and more. Some are familiar obedience behaviors and others completely different, but all work systematically to improve dog/handler communication and canine safety.

Does your dog chase after squirrels, rabbits, cats, toxic toads, lizards, porcupines, skunks, cars, or bicycles? Do you live around dangerous plants, like spiny cactus or poisonous mushrooms? Does your dog vacuum the floor, picking up cookie crumbs, ant traps, prescription drugs, or chocolate? Maybe your pup swallows chew toys and underwear. Our dogs risk life and limb every day, even without the threat of poisonous reptiles, and Robinson’s exercises can help any dog avoid all of those problems.

When it’s time to introduce rattlesnakes, she offers step-by-step instructions using fake snakes and the real thing, provided by a local herpetologist.

“The most important part of teaching snake avoidance does not involve humans,” she says. “The dog must learn what to do when confronted with the sight, sound, and/or smell of a snake even when the human is missing. An estimated 85 percent of all snake bites to pets happen in their own backyard. The key to success in this type of training is that it’s inherently easy and fun for both of you. If it isn’t, it will be a source of stress.”

Robinson’s Seize the Leash training center in Tucson offers eight-week “Snake Avoidance Without Shock” workshops. She will soon offer classes in Clearwater, Florida, where she moved in March.

In California, trainer Pamela Johnson became interested in rattlesnakes when she and her husband moved to a rural area. “In my opinion, teaching dogs to avoid rattlesnakes is the same as teaching them to do tricks or any other behaviors,” she says. “I build a relationship and use management and common sense to keep dogs safe from all dangerous things, not just rattlesnakes.”

Force-free aversion training can be practiced anywhere and at any time. “There isn’t any fall-out or stress when using positive training methods,” she says, “but it is not a quick fix. It requires commitment. For best results, you have to take the time to work with your dog.”

Johnson teaches specific behaviors and skills using games and play. The relationship-building lessons include handler focus and attention, “settle on the go,” body blocking (trained as a behavior and not by using force or intimidation), a variety of emergency collar-grab games, luring, targeting, leash-walking, impulse control, fun recall games, and stay games.

“I teach owners how to train their dogs to do a variety of tricks, agility skills, and canine-freestyle behaviors that are designed to move dogs away from rattlesnakes,” she explains. “My goal is to show others how to have fun with their dogs and at the same time teach their dogs life-saving skills. The main part of my program teaches dogs to recognize snakes, avoid them, and go to their owners. I introduce sight, sound, and scent by using remote-controlled snakes, fake snakes, snake sounds, and dead snakes (snake skin and snake feces).”

Johnson’s Positive Rattlesnake Avoidance webinar is available from the Pet Professional Guild (see “Snakebite Resources, below). This July, her Positive Rattlesnake Avoidance Training and Safety Program DVD will be published by Tawzer Dog. “It is a complete guide to training the behaviors and games,” she says, “and gives insight into rattlesnake behavior, teaches simple ways to tell the difference between venomous and non-venomous snakes, answers questions about rattlesnakes, provides helpful tips on safety, and walks you through a variety of ways to make your backyard safe and rattlesnake-free.”

CJ Puotinen, author of The Encyclopedia of Natural Pet Care and other books, is a long-time contributor to WDJ. She lives in Montana.

Comments (6)

In Albuquerque, NM, Acoma Training Center's 'Snake Proofing' uses a live bull snake and rattles shaken in a can. Individual dogs are run past the rattled can while a bull snake is thrown at them and their owners. The owner response is a loud 'Whoa!' and running the dog away. A few repetitions reinforce the behavior, and after awhile, the dog's response is to run away without owner encouragement. The training is a single 2-hour evening session. Acoma offers free lifetime refreshers to any dog who has gone through it.

When we were hiking around Pecos National Historical Park northeast of Santa Fe, we encountered a rattling rattlesnake. I was oblivious to the rattler (chagrined afterward, since I warn visitors to Petroglyph National Monument about them on a regular basis), but my Berner Daisy pulled me back from the snake. She had completed Snake Proofing at Acoma Training Center a few months earlier.

So the training works. Shock collar negative reinforcement may also work.

Either way, get the training your dog needs to stay alive.

Posted by: lecycliste | May 28, 2015 1:15 PM    Report this comment

As a lifelong dog owner and dog trainer for 25 years, and a resident on New Mexico, I must say this article by far is the most disengenuous WDJ has ever written. It is well established the disdain you have for, as you always emphasize, "harsh" methods(even if only in your minds), as in this article you call "shock" collars. I'm not sure how long it's been since you have actually used an e-collar, but technology has definitely moved on since the dark ages you speak from. Have you seen/used a variable stim model on yourself? Have you ever trained high prey drive desert dwelling sport trained dogs who routinely work in a snake environment? I think not. Your confident proclamations that a good leave it strategy will work is simplistic and can lead to death. Have you seen a dog bitten by a rattlesnake? The recovery time (if yhe dog survives) is long, arduous, and many dogs have long lasting effects. Many owners can't pay for the initial antivenom treatment, much less the follow up care. But by far the worst, most troubling feature of this article is your wholesale dismissal of "superstitious" behavoir training that can and is achieved by using an ecollar in an appropriate manner. Your dismissive, arrogant assertions in the article assume that no trainers can and do achieve reliable and long lasting results doing aversion training with an ecoller. While I am sure no trainer approaches WDJ trainers in talent, knowledge, success, or satisfied clients, we do know what we are doing. I would much rather have a live dog who is afraud of the smell, sight, sound, and in some cases, feel of a rattlesnake. A leave it, or as you assert, going to the trainer response, is not always reliable IF THE DOG IS ALONE. Your article did not address this fact, or if the dog is 100 0/0 going to run into a pit viper in his daily life. You assume another (horrible!) trainer dosen't have the ability, training, knowledge, or experience to effectively train with an ecollar to achieve good results. Instead of wholesale dissmissal of lifesaving snake aversion training which may leave dogs dead, injured or crippled from your prejudiced article, please in the future research your articles more carefully. This article was not written with dog safety in mind. It was written through the lens of YOUR perception and prejudices. You may well have cost dogs lives in the process.

Posted by: A.S.H. | May 26, 2015 7:13 PM    Report this comment

To Lotsofdogs...

In addition to shock collars being inhumane, shock collar snake avoidance training gives owners a false sense of security. I know of three dogs that were bitten by rattlers *after* they had completed shock collar avoidance training. Plus, the hazards that attach to any shock collar training are well-known and significant. I know of dogs who had an immediate meltdown with the first application of shock and were afraid to even move, and others who associated the shock with other stimuli present at the time of the shock - a large rock, a tree, other humans, a vehicle, and other scents.

Your dog can learn to reliably and quickly move away from snakes without having to fear them. It's simply a myth that positive training has to take longer. Positive training has proven itself reliable time and time again, in a variety of hazardous environments (ie: bomb detection), and it doesn't have to take a long time. The promise of instant results from shock collars can be seductive, but as with most seducers, the shock collar promise is fraught with hidden dangers.

Good solid training beats inflicting pain on your dog every time.

Pat Miller CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

Posted by: PPaws | May 10, 2015 12:48 PM    Report this comment

I think my take on this will be unpopular. Although this sounds interesting, I want my dogs to be afraid of rattlesnakes. I live in the outskirts of Tucson AZ, avoiding rattlesnakes is a matter of life and death in the Sonoran desert. Unfortunately rattlesnakes are everywhere here, they do occasionally find their way into fenced yards. I want my dogs to be afraid and stay away if they see, smell or hear a real rattlesnake. I don't have a problem using a shock collar for rattlesnake aversion training, it is quick and will save their lives, maybe the dog owners life too. Force free positive/clicker training is my choice for agility, tricks, obedience, etc. Force free rattlesnake avoidance training in my opinion would take to long, especially when you needed that training last week, when you spotted a rattlesnake coiled up on the welcome mat at the front door. The next day you had a rattlesnake coiled by the car in the garage. The following evening one was coiled under the dining table in the backyard at 10pm when you let the dogs out for the last potty break..........

Posted by: lotsofdogs | May 5, 2015 2:58 PM    Report this comment

Rather than reading about the possibilities of how to train snake avoidance using positive reinforcement, it would be much more helpful to read a detailed "how to" article.

Posted by: Holly's Den | May 5, 2015 10:23 AM    Report this comment

I would love to train my. Puppy. What snacks do I train her with ,she is chiauaua and jack Russell she is white and tan. Very little,not mean, does not bark ,we have 3 other chihuahua s that she learns from.,I think she has that puppy anxioity sepperation. I can leave for about 10 mins ,come back,she acts like she hasn't seen me for ever her vsharp toenails cut me all to pieces I keep trying to work

Posted by: 49rambler | April 26, 2015 3:12 PM    Report this comment

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