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While hiking in the desert with her owner, little terrier Roxy is happily bounding down the trail when a movement in the rocks by the trail attracts her attention. Being the good little rat dog that she is, this intrepid terrier immediately lunges over to the rocks to investigate, her natural instinct being that of a hunting breed, bred to go after rodents and evens snakes! Fortunately,the rattlesnake hidden in the rocks is a reclusive animal, with a warning device, and as it coils and rattles its warning to stay away, Roxy’s owners notices and calls Roxy back. Also fortunately, Roxy is obedient and responds to her owner's recall, narrowly missing a deadly bite from a venomous snake with more than enough venom to kill little Roxy! If you live in an area with lots of rattlesnakes you will want to make your dog snake smart, and train your dog to stay away from the venomous rattlers. Even if you do not live in an area with rattlesnakes, teaching your dog off-leash, 'leave it' commands is useful in case you are ever in an area with venomous snakes, and leave it commands can be used to keep your dog away from other dangerous critters and hazards too.
If you enjoy hiking in areas where rattlesnakes can be present, teaching your dog to be aware of rattlesnakes and stay away from them can be a life-preserving skill. A dog can be injured and even killed by a rattlesnake bite. Teaching your dog off-leash recall and 'leave it' commands are useful for calling your dog away from a snake, but additional training to identify and stay away from the snake without input from the handler may be necessary if your dog is liable to encounter rattlesnakes without you present, such as may happen with rural dogs or if your dog ranges far ahead of you or in the bush while hiking.
Treats to reinforce commands to stay away from a snake will be required for training. A rattlesnake toy or model will be helpful in training your dog to stay away from rattlesnakes. Noisemakers that sound like rattlesnakes are also available to help train your dog to identify and avoid the sound of a rattler. Such noises can even be simulated on a smartphone.
The Leave It Method
Present a treat to your dog on the palm of your hand and say “leave it”, then close your hand around the treat to hold it in your fist.
Reward leave it
Your dog will try to reach the treat, sniffing and licking your hand. When your dog stops, say "good" and provide the treat. Repeat daily for several minutes a day until well established.
Start dropping treats on the ground, and saying "leave it", with your dog on a leash. If the dog responds to the 'leave it' command and sits, or backs away, provide another high value treat. If not, repeat "leave it" and remove the dog.
Place a toy snake on the ground. Put your dog on a leash and when he goes to investigate, say "leave it". If your dog leaves the snake, reward with treat. If he approaches, say "no", and walk with your dog on the leash in the opposite direction.
Put a piece of string around the toy snake and have an assistant wiggle the snake. Say "leave it", and immediately retreat with your dog. Repeat often until your dog learns to react to snakes by backing off from the situation.
The Move Away From Sound Method
Obtain rattle sound
Purchase a device that makes a rattlesnake sound, or download the sound to your smart phone. Have an assistant hold the noise making device. You do not want to train your dog to approach the sound--you will be teaching your dog to approach you when they hear the sound.
Call your dog
Take your dog outside in your yard. Have your assistant make the rattle sound. When your dog notices the sound, immediately call him to you. Ask your dog to sit and look at you and provide a high value treat.
Repeat, moving farther away from the assistant, so the dog has to leave the sound and run back to you to perform the alternate behavior and receive a treat.
Practice on trails
Practice this behavior frequently out on trails and associate a toy snake with the sound, if desired. Your dog will learn that when they hear a rattler they should immediately come to you and perform their behavior for a treat.
Teach dog to come to house
Go in the house and stand with the door open, while your dog is outside with the assistant, and have the assistant make the noise. Close the door and have your dog come to the house and bark or paw the door to get your attention to perform his trick and get a treat. This will also serve to notify you that a snake is in your yard.
The Negative Reinforcement Method
If you live in an area with rattlesnakes and your dog is often unsupervised where he is liable to come into contact with rattlesnakes, such as a rural dog with a large yard, the use of negative reinforcement may be necessary to ensure your dog's safety. Determine if this is appropriate and necessary for your dog and try other options first.
Use electric shock or stimulus collar
Fit your dog with a shock collar, or if your dog is responsive, an electronic stimulus collar that makes an annoying vibration. Educate yourself about the proper use of these devices.
Introduce toy snake
Plant a toy snake in your yard and make a rattler sound to associate with the snake. When your dog approaches, engage the warning on the shock collar.
If the dog continues to approach the snake, engage the shock stimulus.
Repeat as required
Repeat and put the planted toy snake in different locations, and move with string if possible until your dog learns to avoid the snake immediately when he sees it.
By Laurie Haggart
Published: 11/24/2017, edited: 01/08/2021