Rattlesnakes are a danger, but dogs can be taught to avoid them

Jul 19 2010 - 5:42pm

DALLAS -- I was quail hunting in south Texas several years ago with a hunting guide who used a Labrador retriever to search for fallen birds. Somebody crippled a bird that fluttered down into a clump of buffle grass.

The gung-ho dog saw the bird fall, raced for the cover, stuck his head into the dense vegetation and suddenly jumped back with a panicked yelp. The guide grabbed the dog (a big, yellow male lab) and made a quick examination, but there was little doubt about what had just happened.

Sure enough, a look at the dog's broad nose revealed twin puncture wounds about an inch apart. A drop of yellow venom dripped down the side of the dog's nose. He had obviously been bitten by a rattlesnake.

As a hunter stomping around in tall cover, looking for fallen doves, teal ducks or early-season quail (south Texas snakes may be active all 12 months of the year), you would be dismayed to know how many rattlers have been within striking range.

The good news is a snake bites for two reasons: one is to secure food. The second is self defense. Unless you step directly on a snake, the odds of being bitten are very small. Research has shown that rattlers spend more than 90 percent of their time hiding patiently in thick cover, waiting for a rat or rabbit to wander by.

As long as the snake doesn't feel threatened, it's unlikely to bite. The rattlers that buzz like crazy and put on a wild west rattlesnake show are snakes that are surprised in the open and have no place to hide.

Unfortunately for our canine companions, they don't know enough to let hidden snakes lie. Upon smelling a snake, dogs have a tendency to advance face first to investigate the smell. Thus, the high percentage of snake bites that dogs incur is on their heads.

Dogs can be taught to avoid snakes, and the Lone Star German Shorthaired Pointer Club has as much experience as any local group when it comes to snake-proofing clinics. In the last 31 years, they've had more than 4,000 dogs come through their annual event. Actually LSGSPC has renamed their event a "snake avoidance clinic" and that's really a better term, because no dog is truly snake-proof.

Even if a dog knows a snake is something to avoid, it can always run into a snake from upwind and get nailed before it knows the snake is there.

Trainers typically use live rattlesnakes with their fangs removed. They put an electric training collar on the dog and allow its owner to bring the dog toward the snake from downwind. Most dogs go right for the snake as soon as they realize it's there. They get a mild electric shock for their poor judgment.

The exercise is then repeated. Stubborn dogs may require several shock treatments to get the idea. Most dogs eventually learn to avoid snakes, and their actions in the field can also alert hunters to a snake's location.

Don't try this exercise at home. Only experts should handle rattlesnakes and even the experts get bitten occasionally. One dog owner got the bright idea of putting a snake in a portable dog kennel so he wouldn't have to remove the snake's fangs or milk its venom.

What he managed to do was teach his dog to avoid a portable dog kennel. Dog owners who hunt or have pets in snake country should also talk to their veterinarians about the rattlesnake vaccine that greatly reduces the effects of snakebite.

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