I live in a small town that is surrounded on all sides by either farm land (west and south of us) or foothill woodlands. The historic center of this Gold Rush-era town is located on the banks of a river, and thanks to a large state water project, including a huge dam and lake just above the town, and a man-made recreational lake just below town, there are miles and miles of trails on public lands adjacent to all that water. It’s heaven for an off-leash dog walker like myself.
Except, of course, there are hazards aplenty that can befall a dog who lacks training and/or common sense. A dog without a solid and well-proofed recall could disappear without a trace if he chased a deer or rabbit or other critter off into the woods. One who dove in and overzealously pursued a river otter, beaver, duck, or goose could easily drown in the river. And at the time of this writing, there are rattlesnakes literally everywhere. Me and my dogs have had two close encounters with rattlers in just the past week.
In the first encounter, my husband and I were out for an evening walk with our dogs Otto (who was visually scanning the field to the right of the trail for deer, since he had a memorable experience with scaring up an entire herd of deer there a year ago) and Tito, who was carrying a tennis ball and kept dropping it at our feet as we walked. Otto occasionally angled into the tall grass, trying to subtly leave the trail in favor of sniffing through the field, and I kept calling him back onto the trail; it takes forever to brush out all the little burrs that get in his coat from fields like that.
He was about 10 feet ahead of us when, in one of his mild attempts to edge off into the field, he evidently stepped right near a rattlesnake – the loud sound of which cannot be mistaken for anything else.
Fortunately, Otto was both too distracted with his imaginary deer-stalking to give the snake anything more than a curious glance and completely responsive to my immediate cue of “Otto! Off! Off! Off! Come! Come! Come!” (I didn’t need to repeat myself, it just came out like that as I hovered about six inches off the ground, just like in the cartoons.) And Tito didn’t even seem to notice the sound (or smell, if there is one) of the snake; with a ball in his mouth, he’s in his own little world. We all just kept walking, although now I was scanning the ground more than the sunset.
In this morning’s encounter, I was actually talking to a friend on my cell phone when I heard that distinctive rattle a few feet off the singletrack trail, as my dogs trotted by, oblivious. I let out a little shriek and a jump and we all just kept going.
It seems to be all the rage these days to use a shock collar to train dogs to avoid snakes. I am not insensitive to those who have lost dogs to snake bites, but I can’t imagine going that way with my dogs. Way too many things can go wrong with that approach, including the injection of fear and mistrust into dogs I’ve spent years drawing those out of.
Instead, I’m in favor of daily training to reinforce my dogs’ “rocket recalls,” as WDJ’s Training Editor Pat Miller calls them in the article on that topic on page 9, as well as daily practice of the “Off!” behavior (discussed in numerous back articles in Whole Dog Journal) – and close observation of my dogs on the trail. If I didn’t feel completely confident in their immediate, proper responses to these two cues, and my ability to keep them close enough to immediately respond to an encounter with a snake (or herd of deer or whatever), I wouldn’t have them off-leash in rattlesnake country.