Training Dogs about Rattlesnakes
A year ago I read an article in Coast Magazine about a company that trains dogs about rattlesnakes. Concerned about encountering the poisonous reptiles on our walks and hikes, I investigated the service.
Rusty, the trainer, explained over the phone that it’s a twenty-minute process. The animal is trained to see, hear, and smell the rattlesnake. He said he guarantees the training and will repeat the course at no charge until the dog “gets it.” He said ninety percent of dogs pass the training on the first try. At most, it may take three visits.
I’d already had our dogs, Bubbles, and Thriller, vaccinated against rattlesnake bites; they’d received one dose a year apart. If bitten, the anti-venom serum will keep them alive long enough to receive the appropriate medical treatment.
I decided to give the training a try.
Wanting the dogs to be in the environment where they’re more likely to encounter the reptiles, my husband, our dogs, and I met Rusty, his two teenaged sons, and their ten-month-old chocolate lab near the hiking trail.
The day was a perfect SoCal Sunday morning. The sky was a pale blue, not a cloud in sight, and eighty-two degrees.
One of Rusty’s son put the chocolate lab back into the truck, which had all the windows open. The puppy watched from the front seat. From the back of his vehicle, Rusty removed two white buckets with ventilated tops that contained LIVE rattlesnakes and placed the containers next to the sidewalk.
Rusty opened one bucket and picked up a five-foot rattler, and showed me he’d taped the rattlesnake’s mouth shut, so the snake could not bite. He said, “One bite from this guy, and you’re dead.”
I stared into round, black beady eyes. YIKES.
I did not feel comforted or safe.
One of Rusty’s sons opened the other bucket and dumped four one-foot long black snakes along with old snakeskins onto the sidewalk. As the snakes slithered around the skeletal skin remains, I had second thoughts.
Rusty inquired about our dogs—their aggressiveness, etc. I explained we’d rescued them from a poodle breeder, where they were kept in pens and kennels along with forty other dogs. We got them when Bubbles was five, and Thriller was three and a half. Used for breeding, they were never socialized or loved. Terrified of people, they huddled in our home, trembling. It took me six months to get them out the front door. They’ve progressed to the point where they love going for walks, hikes, car rides, and to the local mall.
Since they’d bonded with me, I was concerned if they’d take direction from a stranger.
I suggested he start with Bubbles, who is now eight-years-old. The female dog is sweet, smart, and catches on quickly.
My husband stood next to the truck, holding onto Thriller’s leash. The little guy learns by watching.
When Rusty attached a collar with an electric shocker, my reaction was, “Oh no! He didn’t mention the collar on the phone. I’ve made a terrible mistake.”
We replaced Bubbles’s short leash with a twenty-foot lead.
Rusty’s sons stood by the pails, monitoring the writhing snakes.
Rusty instructed me to walk Bubbles up to the swirling snakes and let her sniff them.
What? Me? I thought he was doing the training.
Filled with trepidation, I did as instructed. Bubbles sniffed the skins and didn’t seem concerned with the shiny black snakes weaving around each other.
He told me to retreat twenty feet then approach the snakes again.
When Bubbles and I approached the swirling mass again, she stayed behind me. I suspected she sensed my discomfort and kept her distance.
I thought this was a good thing. Rusty was disappointed. He wanted her to sniff them once more so he could zap her. He wanted her to associate the electronic sting with the snakes, like a snakebite, so she’d avoid being bitten in the future. Intellectually, I understood.
Hesitant, I tried to lead her near them a few more times, but she always stopped several feet behind me.
“She’s trusting you more than her instincts,” he said. “That’s not good.”
I tried again. When Bubbles was within a few feet, he zapped her, and she yelped.
BROKE MY HEART.
“Let’s try your other dog,” Rusty suggested. He placed a shocker around Thriller’s neck, and I reluctantly removed his leash and attached the long lead.
When I attempted to lead Thriller to the swirling snakes and skins, he stayed behind me, pulling against the lead.
“Good,” Rusty said, “he’s following his instincts.”
Rusty told his sons to put the short black snakes back into the covered container, and dump the five-foot rattler on top of the snakeskins.
The chocolate lab barked and wagged his tail.
Rusty told the dog to be quiet, and the puppy barked back, but less loud.
The rattlesnake coiled and shook its rattler.
“Take Thriller to the snake and walk over it,” Rusty said.
“Walk over the rattlesnake?” I questioned the directive to make sure I heard correctly.
I glanced at Abdo. He and Bubbles had moved across the street to stand in the shade, and watched.
“Okay,” I reassured myself, “I’m doing this for the dogs’ protection.”
With great trepidation, I approached the rattlesnake. The reptile came zig-zagging toward me.
I quickly retreated. There was no way I was going near that snake, let alone stepping over it.
Thriller hung back—way back.
One of Rusty’s sons picked up the rattler and tossed it on the pile of snakeskins.
The snake coiled and rattled.
“Try again,” Rusty instructed me.
I took a few steps forward. The snake moved toward me. I froze. Thriller pulled on his lead to get away.
Rusty said, “He’s smart. He’s avoiding it.”
Relieved, I patted Thriller, and said, “Good boy.”
By now, forty minutes had elapsed. The sun felt as if it was a hundred degrees. Everyone was sweating, and the dogs were panting.
“That’s enough for today,” Rusty said. He grabbed a big dog bowl from the back of his truck and filled it with water. After Bubbles and Thriller had lapped up most of it, they pawed the remaining liquid.
“That’s how they cool down,” Rusty explained.
Nice to know.
“Your dogs get a B for today,” Rusty said. “They’re not the worst I’ve trained. Had a cadaver dog once that required six lessons before he learned.”
So we have remedial dogs. Doesn’t surprise me.
Rusty said, “They’ll need two more sessions, and a follow up once a year.”
He didn’t mention this on the phone.
“Why once a year?” I asked.
“Do you tell them once to sit, stay, come, and heel? Dogs need reinforcement.”
“Next session should be at 5:30 in the evening,” he said. “It’ll be cooler, and the dogs have an idea of what to expect.”
So do I, and I’m not sure I can handle another session.
Training dogs about rattlesnakes
As one of Rusty’s sons picked up the rattlesnake to place it into the container, he approached Thriller, and Abdo took the picture. Thriller’s tail is down, and he’s eyeing the snake suspiciously. Notice how far away I’m standing.
If you’re interested in Rusty’s dog training, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or his call his cell, (952) 823-6864.
Thanks for reading.
What do you think? What would you do? Would you do the training again?
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