How (and why) does positive rattlesnake avoidance training work with dogs?
Updated: Aug 31, 2020
Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA
I recently released an online course for do-it-yourself rattlesnake avoidance training geared toward both professionals as well as the average pet owner who possesses some basic training skills. I would like to hold group classes or a travel to give workshops, but it is not the best choice during this time of COVID. So, what is so special about this new training?
The point of this training is to create an independent dog who makes good choices. In this training, the good choices we teach are to offer trained avoidance behaviors any time the dog detects the presence of a rattlesnake, and that these behaviors should be offered no matter who is near a rattlesnake, if we cue them to move forward, or if food is present near a rattlesnake.
Historically, rattlesnake safety training has focused on inducing significant fear in the dog paired with the sight/smell of a rattlesnake. With this training, it is expected that the experience was painful and traumatic enough -- typically induced by intense electronic shock stimulations -- for the dog to have a strong sympathetic nervous system response (fight/freeze/flight) when they see/smell a rattlesnake in the future. With a sympathetic nervous system response, the body experiences involuntary reactions to the perceived threat. The heart rate and blood pressure increase, pupils dilate, breathing is rapid, vision/hearing/mental acuity are sharper, glucose is suddenly released into the bloodstream, digestion slows, and the hypothalamus and adrenal glands produce epinephrine and cortisol. In other words, the body is preparing for danger and possible injury.
Everyone hopes that the dog will choose a flight response, but there is no way to know. This is dependent on several factors, including genetics, past experiences, and whether flight is even a possible option in that particular situation. Some dogs go on to attack rattlesnakes they see in the future after shock collar-based rattlesnake aversion training. Other dogs seem to pair the experience of the painful shock with the presence of their harness, their owner, or other people/dogs being in the vicinity. There are a lot of unknowns when trying to pair a punishment with a stimulus since we are not clearly communicating what we want the dog to do. If all dogs retreated from things that stressed or frightened them, we would not see reactive dogs lunging on leash during walks, or dogs biting people who approach their home. That type of training can result in serious consequences from either a rattlesnake bite, or a highly anxious dog who does not know why he was shocked and does not understand the circumstances of when/if it could happen again.
Like many people, I once doubted whether it was possible to train a dog to reliably detect and avoid rattlesnakes. I believed what most people do, which is that the dog must fear the snake in order to avoid it. As behavior consultants, we regularly teach dogs to offer trained responses to environmental stimuli. For example, a dog is trained to sit any time he approaches or is approached by a person. Ex. a reactive dog is trained to physically turn away from an approaching dog to look his owner/guardian in the eyes. Ex. a dog who guards toys from another dog in the home is trained to drop a toy any time that other dog approaches him, and then he runs over to the owner for a reward. Ex. a dog who smells/detects a change in blood sugar should offer a trained alert. We train these responses to environmental stimuli all the time, so why can't we do this with rattlesnakes? The answer: we can!
Most dogs will follow their owners anywhere and blindly trust their owners through their willingness to please when asked to run or hike on an injured leg, to walk across scorching hot asphalt in the summer, or even to walk toward a rattlesnake. Dogs generally do not naturally fear snakes. They are curious and that curiosity can result in a bite if it is indulged. We may not know the snake is there if it is in brush, leaves, or is camouflaged. However, we can teach our dogs to not only offer avoidance behaviors, but also to ignore any body language or cues/commands that we give to them to move toward a rattlesnake. This is called intelligent disobedience. Again, dog trainers already do this in other sorts of training. Most notably, guide dogs are trained to ignore the blind person's cues to walk forward as a team if the dog sees something obstructing the blind person's path. It could be something low on the sidewalk or something up high, but the dog is specifically trained that the disabled person's cues should be obeyed except when this discriminative stimulus is present. So, why can't we do this with rattlesnakes? The answer: we can!
In this course, I ask participants to conduct all of the training off-leash if a safe, enclosed area is available. Why? Because this training is all about making good choices. We may not be with our dogs when they encounter a rattlesnake, or we may not know it is even present for us to be able to call them away from it. Therefore, we have to introduce them to the concept of choice by introducing them to very easy choices. They are always given the freedom to choose, but the deck is heavily stacked toward them making a particular desired choice. We do this by controlling the situations that we present to our dogs (described and demonstrated in detail in the training). If needed, a smaller training area or one that is less distracting could be chosen to begin training. Once dogs understand the desired choice behavior and have exhibited it consistently, we present situations of gradually increasing difficulty. However, the dog knows the right choice and has had a very strong history of making that choice over and over. In other words, he has a pattern of good choices, strong incentive to make those desirable choices, the self-control to do so, and is set up for success! It is easier to learn by making the right choice over and over than by being told "Wrong! Guess again!".
This training will help create an overall more obedient dog with stronger owner/handler focus and an understanding of particular boundaries. It will help build a strong owner-dog relationship while avoiding the pitfalls of using physical punishment.
Sign up for my on-demand Rattlesnake Avoidance Training course here: https://www.confidentcaninesdogtraining.com/rattlesnake-training
As a reminder, training -- whether using shock collars or positive reinforcement -- is not a guarantee of future behavior, or that a snake bite will not occur. Training is only as good as we make and maintain it, but dogs are also living beings that make their own independent choices. Environmental conditions can also make a snake more difficult to detect. Even management keeping your dog on a short leash is never a guarantee. My program provides you and your dog with the best training available to help them make good choices in situations where they detect the snake.
For more information on the sympathetic nervous system response, visit the resources below:
Lanese, Nicoletta. "Fight or Flight: The Sympathetic Nervous System". Live Science. May 09, 2020. https://www.livescience.com/65446-sympathetic-nervous-system.html
"Everything You Need to Know About Sympathetic Nervous System". New Health Advisor. 2020. https://www.newhealthadvisor.org/Sympathetic-Nervous-System.html