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:

  1. Outfit the dog with a shock collar and leash.
  2. 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)
  3. Walk the leashed dog by the snake.
  4. 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.
  5. 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

Image: Jana Behr / Shutterstock