Does Snake-Avoidance Training Work?

In many parts of the country, Spring is the opening of months for snake sightings and dog owners the world over concern over their dogs being bitten by one.

Some folks submit their dogs on a yearly basis to Snake-avoidance training. Their rational being that it’s best to have their dog zapped in the presence of a snake while learning to avoid them than having a snake bite their dog.

Sure, no one wants his or her dog hurt or killed as a result of a snake bite, and if you are anything like me, even the thought of a snake will send your body into revolting mode. It is during “snake season” when I really wish I lived in Ireland!

I have heard over the years from clients that their dog actually did learn to avoid a snake as a result of the Snake avoidance training – thus a bite being prevented. And while I don’t deny that some dogs might learn this lesson… the procedure itself is not only real bad news for the dog (and their caring owner) but not as reliable as one might think.

The goal of the procedure as I understand it from websites and my client’s accounts is aimed at shocking the client’s dog in the presence of a (safe) snake. One that is kept at a distance or the venom extracted. Again the theory goes that the dog will get hurt badly by the administration of the shock, and as a result, he will learn altogether to avoid snakes. Period. The problem is that while the procedure appears to make sense, it is much more complicated than one might think to pull off “in real life”. Here is why:

First off: In order to create a negative association with the snake one has to make sure that:

  1. 1. The presentation of the stimulus (the snake) is salient enough and presented in a timely manner in order for the dog to associate – without any doubt the stimulus with the pain of the electric shock. I say without any doubt because it is not easy to set a training/learning environment in which we are in total control of the presentation of the stimulus and the association we are trying to achieve. If one was doing this type of training in the lab that would be one thing, but in the “real” world there are hundreds of other potential associations a dog can make with the pain of the shock besides the target stimulus: the snake.
  2. Now pretending that the above has been taken care of, our next goal is for the aversive (something that causes avoidance or fear in an animal) – in our case the electric shock is SO SEVERE that only one exposure is needed to get the message across to the dog. The problem is that very few individuals really have the oomph to hurt an animal this bad. Multiple presentations of higher intensity of shock/pain might be more humane, but it is not conducive to the learning that we are after. If, however, the pain is so severe that the dog has learned to avoid a snake we must decide for ourselves if we are comfortable submitting our dog to such level of pain by a stranger.
  3. Aversives have fallouts. If the result of the shock has been severe pain the dog might in the future avoid altogether a snake. Or it might very well attack it. Not all dogs respond the same way while in the presence of a stimulus they now associate with pain. The truth is that there is no way of knowing with absolute certainty how a dog will react.
  4. Dogs do not generalize well. This means that if the context is even slightly different from the initial learning context the dog will not necessarily respond in the same manner. This is one of the reasons why training any animal requires of multiple learning scenarios and practice under those precise conditions.
  5. So again, your dog might avoid a snake under similar circumstances as the avoidance training but he might not generalize that learning experience with a new encounter, and guess what? There is no way to know if he will or not with absolute certainty.

So how can we best keep our dogs safe from a potential snakebite?

There is unfortunately no full-proof methodology, but here are some ideas to consider instead of the Snake-Aversive training.

Set up a similar situation with a snake decoy that looks like a “real snake” pair that with the hiss of a rattler – you can download it online.

Practice recalling your dog from 20 ft. from your decoy and offer your dog some very high value reinforcer – something truly memorable.

Practice in many different scenarios. Practice having the decoy snake moving (not sure how to accomplish that with a decoy, but perhaps there is such a thing out there…)

Pay close attention to the visual stimulus of how snakes might look to your dog and practice again to call your dog away. A stretched out snake, coiled up etc.

This procedure might again work or not, for the same reasons that setting up a training scenario where we are in absolute control of the stimulus is difficult- even when one understands contingencies and principle of animal learning – but at least you are not hurting your dog badly and dealing with the very probable behavioral and welfare issues that working with aversives presents. I cannot say this loud enough! However, if the set-up is well thought out and practiced heavily, I believe the chances of recalling your dog from a snake just went up- way up. The catch is, of course, that you need to be aware of the location of the snake too.

Yuck!

During snake season – roughly April to November here in the Southwest consider other forms of physical and mental stimulation for your dog. Think of it as cross training! The change not only will most likely keep your dog safe, but we all know of the importance in a change of routine for mental stimulation and overall fitness. Here are my recommendations:

  • Avoid having your dog off-leash and instead take long urban walks while you and your dog practice some basic obedience skills. Allow your dog to sniff all he wants; great mental-stimulation.
  • Consider taking a class. My clients do tell me that after class their dogs are more tired than when they go hiking.
  • Teach your dog to retrieve; such as catching a freesbie.
  • Play with your dog tug or with a whippet.
  • Pull out the food-dispensing toy that you have been too lazy to fill for your dog to work with.
  • Learn clicker training so that you can work with your dog in the comfort of your home.
  • If you really want to hike with your dog, use a long line (first learn how to use one safely- email me if you would like this information) so that you have a better chance of having your dog encounter a snake.

The good news is that when the temperature begins to drop you and your pup can head back out to the mountains in appreciation of a new routine.

 

Finally, if you are concernd about snakes in your own property, consider fencing a part or all of your property. There is some good information online on fencing options. Look for: snake-fencing. Putting up a fence might be expensive and lots of work but worth every penny in peace of mind.