Living in the Sonoran Desert with active dogs means being prepared to deal with desert dangers. While there are numerous forms of threatening wildlife here, the rattlesnake is one predator whose bite can be painful, costly, and even deadly. Rattlesnake avoidance training helps your dog gain a critical skillset to potentially protect himself and you.
Rattlesnake Avoidance Training? Are you for real?
Methods will vary.
There are probably as many different ways to conduct a rattlesnake avoidance training as there are trainers.
Matthew and I trust Crystal implicitly! After over two years of various training classes with her, she knows us and she knows our dogs. I feel like dog trainers and dog groomers are like hair stylists for humans. Once you find "the one" you never leave that person! Ever.
If Crystal has a method she prefers for rattlesnake avoidance training, then we're on board.
We've had two positive interactions with Dr. Vanya Moreno. Once when Bernie went through rattlesnake avoidance training last year and then this year's training with Lizzie.
Dr. Moreno explains every step of the process. She allows owners to feel the vibration from the e-collar their dog will be wearing.
She answers every question, but makes no ridiculous promises. While this training will help our dogs sniff out Western Diamondback rattlesnakes, there's no guarantee that they'll detect every kind of rattlesnake or even snake. We have many in Arizona.
According to Arizona Game and Fish, there are 13 species of rattlesnakes in Arizona. Plus we have the coral snake. Check out their Arizona Rattlesnakes page to see pictures of each of the 13 rattlesnakes plus the geographic areas they cover within Arizona.
Okay, so what happened during Lizzie's training?
1. Everyone greets Lizzie to make her feel a bit more at ease. She knows something is up.
2. Dr. Moreno lets Lizzie sniff the electronic collar. Crystal removes Lizzie's regular collar and puts the e-collar around her.
3. Crystal takes Lizzie over to a shed rattlesnake skin so she can sniff it at her leisure and get a good scent.
4. Dr. Moreno starts training by placing her 8-year-old Western Diamondback Daisy out on the patio floor where Lizzie can easily see and hear her rattle. Daisy has her fangs, but her venom glands have been removed. With Lizzie wearing the e-collar and a slip-lead, Crystal walks Lizzie in the direction of Daisy. As soon as Lizzie looks at Daisy, Dr. Moreno administers the lowest level stimulation. The first photo in this post shows Lizzie's reaction to a level 1 low stimulation. Crystal tells Lizzie, "Yes! Good girl!" as Lizzie quickly backs away from Daisy.
5. Crystal leads Lizzie away from Daisy and tries walking toward the snake again from a slightly different direction. Lizzie does not want to go anywhere near Daisy. Lizzie gets heaps of praise!
6. Dr. Moreno moves Daisy to another area in the backyard patio where there's a walkway. Daisy is off to the side, but as Crystal and Lizzie approach the snake, Lizzie sees and hears Daisy again. As Lizzie continues to walk forward looking at Daisy, Dr. Moreno administers the level 1 low stimulation again. Now Lizzie gives Daisy a wide berth. Again Lizzie receives lots of praise.
7. Dr. Moreno moves Daisy into a corner. As Crystal walks by her with Lizzie, Lizzie can hear the rattle, but she didn't want to go anywhere near the corner where Daisy was. No stimulation necessary.
8. Dr. Moreno moves Daisy into an elevated flower bed in another corner of the backyard. Again, Lizzie hears the rattle and walks as far away from Daisy as possible. Here's one situation where I am just fine with Lizzie pulling on the leash away from Daisy. No stimulation necessary.
9. Now Dr. Moreno switches to her 30-year-old Western Diamondback Ned. Ned has no rattle so he's a quiet rattlesnake. His silence allows Dr. Moreno to determine if Lizzie has learned not just the sound to avoid, but the scent and sight as well. For Ned's first placement, he's out on the patio. At first Lizzie avoids Ned, but then she looks at him with dog curiosity, so she does receive a level 1 high stimulation.
10. Dr. Moreno places Ned in a flower bed on the walkway we used to enter the backyard of Ruff House Ranch. Matthew and I act like we are leaving with Lizzie and Crystal. Lizzie smells Ned and backs away, exactly the reaction we want! Lizzie receives lots of praise.
11. Just to be sure that Lizzie has no more curiosity left in her about rattlesnakes, Dr. Moreno moves silent Ned two more times into two different flower beds. Each time Crystal tries to get Lizzie to walk by Ned, Lizzie pulls away again as far away from Ned as she can get. No stimulation necessary for either of these final tests.
How long does Rattlesnake Avoidance Training take?
Around 10-15 minutes. Dogs are smart.
You're okay with using an electronic collar on your dog?
For this 10-15 minute training that could save my dog's life, yes. Given how much we're outside walking, hiking, and exploring, we prefer that our dogs spend a few minutes where they may feel uncomfortably surprised rather than spend days possibly weeks recuperating from a painful rattlesnake bite.
The e-collar has a low and high stimulation for 18 different levels, so technically there are 36 levels of stimulation.
When Bernie went through this training, he didn't seem to feel the absolute lowest levels. I can't say I'm surprised. Holding the e-collar in my hand, I didn't feel anything with the level 1 low setting. The level 1 high setting felt tingly like when your foot falls asleep.
Lizzie must be more physically sensitive because Dr. Moreno never went higher than the level 1 high setting for her.
Why was your trainer Crystal handling Lizzie and not you?
Because I'm chicken!
That's an actual rattlesnake coiled up on that patio!
I could have handled Lizzie during this training. I have that option. But this control freak dog mom is perfectly comfortable handing over the leash to Crystal. Matthew and I trust her with our dogs.
It's also smarter for me to let Crystal handle Lizzie. Crystal and Dr. Moreno have a chemistry between them that benefits Lizzie. Neither of them want to hurt Lizzie. They want her to understand quickly that rattlesnakes should be avoided.
Crystal knows how close she needs to walk Lizzie to the rattlesnakes to make this training fast and efficient. She knows what behaviors to look for and mark. Her timing is much more precise than mine would ever be. When Lizzie backs away from the rattlesnake, Crystal's marking that desired behavior with praise immediately.
How much does the training cost?
With Ruff House, a session costs $125. Ruff House invites Dr. Vanya Moreno from Animal Magnetism to the backyard of Ruff House Ranch to conduct these trainings.
The Humane Society of Southern Arizona also offers rattlesnake avoidance training on their campus for $105 for the first dog, which includes a follow-up session if one is needed. A second dog may register for $85. Their classes are conducted by Arizona Animal Experts, Inc., and Paul Blaushild from A-dobe Dog Training.
Many dog trainers in Tucson offer rattlesnake avoidance training. It's a topic to discuss with them and your veterinarian, especially if you have concerns about your dog's health.
How dangerous are rattlesnakes?
- According to the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center, the human fatalities from reptile bites has dropped to less than 1% each year.
- According to PetMD, there is no centralized data base for tracking the number of pets bitten by rattlesnakes.
While rattlesnakes can hibernate, the weather in Arizona is moderate year-round, so rattlesnakes can be out at any time of the year. Check out this short video from Arizona Animal Experts, Inc. featuring a rattlesnake removed from someone's home in Tucson in January.
Here's another video from National Geographic Wild of the Animal Experts removing mating rattlesnakes in Arizona. Yes, mating. Don't worry. The video is PG.
What are the signs that my dog has been bitten by a rattlesnake?
The Veterinary Specialty Center of Tucson (VSCoT), Tucson, Arizona's 24/7 Emergency Animal Hospital, has a detailed reference article called Prevent Desert Dangers covering various wildlife in Arizona. For detecting a rattlesnake bite, they list the following symptoms:
- Rapid swelling at the bite site
- Intense pain
- Puncture marks from fangs
- Oozing blood
- Rapid breathing
- Pale gums
How expensive is treating a rattlesnake bite?
According to Andrew Carlton, DVM of Sahuaro Vista Veterinary Clinic, treatment costs may range from $1,500 to $5,000 or more.
Anti-venom is not cheap!
How much venom a rattlesnake injects into a dog varies, and there is no way for a veterinarian to determine that amount. The amount of anti-venom your dog receives will also be affected by your dog's weight.
If you see your dog bitten by a rattlesnake, take him to your vet, an emergency vet, or the closest vet if you're traveling, to seek immediate treatment.
Can a dog who has been trained to avoid rattlesnakes still get bit?
Yes. I spoke to Kathy Niles, a local realtor with CNN Realty Services, about what happened to her 25-pound Labradoodle Ginger.
Kathy and her husband Clayton had Ginger rattlesnake trained when she was about 8-9 months old. Trainers recommend waiting until a puppy is at least 6 months old before signing them up for this training.
About 3-4 months later in July 2017, Ginger was bit by a rattlesnake in her fenced yard. No one actually saw the rattlesnake.
Before Kathy and her husband left for an appointment, they called Ginger inside and crated her. They were gone for less than an hour. When they got home and let Ginger out of her crate, they knew something was not right with her behavior.
Kathy saw a little bit of blood on Ginger's lip. Earlier in the day Ginger had knocked over a glass bowl breaking it. At first, Kathy thought maybe Ginger cut herself, but Ginger's behavior was just too out-of-the-ordinary.
They took her immediately to their regular vet. After running blood work, the veterinarian recommended they take Ginger to the Veterinary Speciality Center of Tucson, where Ginger was treated for a rattlesnake bite, received two vials of anti-venom, and spent the night at the emergency animal hospital.
Ginger is one lucky pup! Her people recognized that her behavior was off and sought treatment immediately. Kathy knows they were within the four-hour window, estimating that they were at VSCoT within two hours of the bite.
Kathy and Clayton picked up Ginger the next day and within two days this puppy whose one-year birthday was coming up was back to her normal self!
When I asked Kathy if her feelings about rattlesnake avoidance training had changed after what happened to Ginger, she said no. She and her husband took Ginger back for a refresher course, and they're thinking about doing another refresher with Ginger. If they have another dog in the future, Kathy said that dog would also go through rattlesnake avoidance training.
Where was the rattlesnake?
Kathy called out Animal Experts, Inc., and they determined that the snake had been hiding in some recessed rocks in the fenced yard.
The Niles' had just finished raising and leveling a special section of the yard for a play area. Since this area had a few Palo Verde trees, they couldn't bury the trees in dirt. Instead they kept a ring around the trees recessed and lined the ring with stones. The stones had not been mortared into place at the time of Ginger's bite. The rattlesnake found a comfy cozy spot in those stones, but was gone by the time Animal Experts arrived.
The consultant from Animal Experts walked the property looking for any means of entry, and determined that the gates were the weak points. Kathy and her husband had new gates with added meshes installed.
While the video below is not from Kathy's yard, it does show how Animal Experts can install snake fencing to keep snakes from climbing into your yard.
Does rattlesnake avoidance training really work then?
While no one can guarantee that your dog will detect every rattlesnake, this training gives him or her the skills they need to know to steer clear of rattlesnakes.
Crystal continues, "I would rather know my dog has been snake avoidance trained, and have the extra insurance even though it's not 100%. Otherwise I'm taking the risk that my dog will want to check out a snake, or not know what to do when they see a snake. I want to be sure that my dog will either avoid or bark at a snake, and with this training that is what you will get!"
Not 100% effective?
Crystal points out some typical dog behavior like your dog chases a lizard that runs under a bush and a snake is hiding under there. Will your dog be in prey mode or play mode? Could your dog be so focused on the lizard that they don't detect the rattlesnake until it's too late? Entirely possible.
Within Arizona there are just too many opportunities for dogs and humans to have rattlesnake encounters. Unpredictable rattlesnake encounters.
Matthew has witnessed Bernie putting his rattlesnake avoidance training into use on two different occasions.
Crouching Doodle, Hidden Snakeskin
Before we had Lizzie, Matthew was dropping Bernie off at our groomers. As they approached the plaza fountain, Bernie jumped back in a crouch that Matthew had not seen since we had been at rattlesnake avoidance training. Bernie would not go near the fountain, so Matthew gave him plenty of positive reinforcement, and got him inside for his appointment.
Then Matthew cautiously investigated the fountain, and found a piece of snakeskin lying on the edge of the fountain. Bernie caught the scent and wanted nothing to do with that snakeskin.
A coiled rattlesnake in our yard
Our yard is not snake proofed, so we go outside with the dogs every time we let them out. On an afternoon this past spring, Matthew had gone outside with both dogs. Lizzie, who had not been rattlesnake trained yet, ran to one corner of the yard. Bernie was taking his time when Matthew saw the same jumping/crouching motion out of the corner of his eye. Bernie had backed away from something.
Matthew saw the coiled rattlesnake and recalled Bernie, who responded promptly. Matthew was actually closer to Lizzie, so he scooped her up. Then he made sure he had Bernie's collar, and they all walked safely back into the house.
And that's enough for me and Matthew. As long as we live in the Sonoran Desert, any future dogs we adopt will be rattlesnake avoidance trained.