Rattlesnake Training For Dogs

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It’s important to think about the types of animals your dog may encounter if you spend time outdoors with them regardless of where you live. Any dog who spends time outdoors should have training in order to build a strong history of reinforcement for checking in with you, coming when called, and staying in your vicinity. Rattlesnakes and other venomous snake species are native to much of the United States. Rattlesnake encounters are most common in the southwest US, where many facilities also offer rattlesnake aversion or avoidance training.   

The purpose of this post is to discuss positive reinforcement based snake avoidance training, but it is not an instruction manual. If you want this type of training for your dog, seek out an experienced, credentialed trainer who utilizes modern, science-backed, humane training methods.

The best and safest way to avoid rattlesnake bites is to simply avoid them altogether. Learn what they look like and where they live. Don’t take your dog out for hikes during peak snake season (generally spring and fall, but the specific times depend on the species). Use a well-fitted back-clip harness and a leash (or long line) to manage your dog and keep them near you. Train an emergency recall and bring high-value treats (something you know your dog LOVES and does not get often) to reinforce this very important behavior. 

Even with rattlesnake avoidance training, regardless of the method, there is no 100%, fool-proof way of avoiding accidents, such as a bite from stepping on a rattlesnake. If you know you are hiking in rattlesnake territory, plan ahead and contact the nearest emergency veterinary clinics to make sure they have antivenom stocked.

Rattlesnakes don't want to harm us

Rattlesnakes (and wild animals in general) have an important ecological role in their native spaces. Snakes have been around for longer than humans or dogs, and their natural defenses are part of the reason. It’s not hard to understand why a venomous animal should be avoided and may be frightening, but snakes don’t seek out large mammals like humans or dogs for prey, so they have no reason to approach us. Far from a dramatic rattlesnake attack story, rattlesnake encounters generally occur when we stumble upon the areas they hunt or rest (or if we go looking for them, but that’s another story). 

Rattlesnake bites to dogs occur when a snake defends itself (the same is true for human bites). Humans are more commonly bitten on extremities and dogs are commonly bitten in the face and chest if they are sniffing a snake at close range. See the section “What to do if your dog is bitten by a rattlesnake” for more information on rattlesnake bites. The next few sections discuss learning to identify rattlesnakes and the habitat they typically inhabit. The best way to avoid a rattlesnake bite is by avoiding the snakes altogether.  

Rattlesnakes near your home

If you have rattlesnake habitat near your home, experts can remove and relocate snakes. The Free Snake Relocation Directory on Facebook is one resource.

Experts recommend landscaping with fewer hiding spots such as clumps of tall vegetation like grasses and shrubs. If you can see sunlight around plants and under structures, snakes are more likely to hang out there. Rattlesnakes in dry climates like the southwest are often looking for sources of water, so avoid irrigation and sources of water like birdbaths, ponds, or pools. This is especially important during periods of drought. Rattlesnakes are becoming more common and active with climate change. Rattlesnake exclusion fencing is an option if your property is surrounded by rattlesnake habitat. One-quarter inch hardware cloth is used for this type of fencing, and it is trenched into the ground. Rattlesnake exclusion fencing requires expert installation as gates are difficult to configure. This type of fencing is only worthwhile for serious snake problems. 

Should you encounter a rattlesnake near your home, you must remember that many species of rattlesnake and other venomous and non-venomous snakes have state and/or federal conservation protections. Do not handle or kill wild animals that you have no permit or license to handle or hunt.

Identifying rattlesnakes

Field guides are books written to describe and identify wildlife. Many field guides are very specific in the type of animals they ID, such as the U.S. Guide to Venomous Snakes and Their Mimics. Most state Departments of Natural Resources (DNR) have information on their websites about endangered and venomous snakes. Colleges and universities are other common resources; the Florida Snake ID Guide is one example.   

Being able to recognize different species of rattlesnake (and other types of snakes) is valuable not only in avoiding them, but also if a bite should occur. Venomous snakes have two venom glands, one on either side of the back of their skull. The back of a rattlesnake’s head is wider than the nose, which may give it a triangular appearance. Note this characteristic if you see a snake, as you may not be able to see their tail or rattle.

The Snake Hotline is a free resource to help identify snakes in hopes that they can prevent snakes from being killed. Text a photo and location to 805-401-0811, and Virginia Wildlife Management and Control will provide an ID if possible. 

Protect Your Dog

The easiest way to help prevent rattlesnake bites to your dog is to keep them on a leash. Even on a longer line, you know where they are and can help bring them away from potential danger. 

Avoid hiking with your dog during peak activity seasons. This depends on the part of the country you’re in and the species of snake, but in general rattlesnakes are most active in spring and fall. Avoid trails with good rattlesnake habitat such as lots of weedy cover. 

Educate yourself about rattlesnakes and their behavior and you can avoid run-ins altogether. As previously mentioned, print field guides are an excellent resource, but there are plenty of resources available online. See the previous section “Identifying rattlesnakes” for details.

If you are backpacking, consider a GPS tracker and/or satellite contact unit in case of emergencies, such as SPOT GPS. Most importantly, if you are hiking in rattlesnake territory with your dog, plan ahead and contact the nearest emergency veterinary clinics to make sure they have antivenom stocked. With or without rattlesnake training, this is important information that could save your dog’s life. 

Why Not Shock?

Most rattlesnake avoidance training involves using a shock collar to create a negative association with rattlesnakes. The evidence against using aversive equipment such as shock collars and the unwanted side effects they can cause is well-documented. Additionally, according to experts, there are no studies on the efficacy of rattlesnake aversion training. 

Regardless of your feelings about rattlesnakes, the treatment of snakes used to help train dogs to avoid them should be considered. Many trainers use defanged rattlesnakes. Because these animals use their fangs to help guide prey items down their throat, and the venom begins the process of digestion. Removing the fangs not only causes pain but makes it difficult to eat or digest. Removing the venom glands is another common inhumane practice, especially because it is most often performed by people who own snakes rather than by a veterinarian. There are programs that muzzle snakes rather than surgically alter them and trade them out frequently throughout the program so they are not stressed.  

Positive-reinforcement based training for snake avoidance does exist, but is not as common as methods that utilize shock collars. Seek out programs that specify how their training works or speak directly to a trainer to avoid programs that use shock collars. A positive-reinforcement based program may require your dog to have an established repertoire of behaviors such as those in the next section. 

Important Skills

If you’re into outdoor adventure and your dog likes to tag along, here are a few useful skills to help you and your dog have a great time when you’re out and about. These baseline skills are also valuable should you choose to do snake avoidance training. Remember to practice new skills in low-distraction environments, such as inside of your house, and ease into more distracting environments gradually. 

With any training, go slow, break the behaviors down into the smallest possible components, make training sessions short and fun, and use lots of positive reinforcement in the form of small, smelly treats. If you need help, reach out to a credentialed trainer who utilizes modern, science-backed, humane training methods. 

Reinforce attention

Building a strong history of reinforcement for simply looking at you is an easy way to help your dog check in and pay attention to you when you’re out and about. Start small. In a low-distraction environment like your living room, say your dog’s name. When they turn and look at you say “yes” (or click) and give them a treat. Do this a lot at home, and then start to do it in more distracting environments like your yard or outside near your home. 

Carry treats on walks so you can practice. If your dog checks in on their own, say “yes” and toss them a treat. If you don’t have treats and your dog checks in, be sure to tell them how good they are! A canine in rattlesnake terrain needs to be able to pay attention to their handlers, and reinforcing attention is part of how you get there.

Hand target

To begin target training, hold your hand flat (with the palm perpendicular to the ground) and close to your dog’s nose. When your dog’s nose touches your hand, say “yes,” and hand them a small treat from your other hand. If a clicker is more your speed, click and treat! Repeat this many times until your dog understands that holding your hand out flat means each time they touch it with their nose, hear a marker, and then get a treat. This exercise takes most dogs only a few minutes to understand. 

Once your dog understands how to target your hand, you can begin moving your hand further away and in different positions. With some practice, you can use the cue to target your hand to get your dog to move by your side when you are out walking. 

U-turn

One easy way to train a u-turn is to use a food lure. Take a smelly treat your dog likes, and hold it to their nose. Using the lure, move the treat in toward you as you move backward. Turn your body so you’re walking side by side going the other direction. Give your dog the treat or toss it out in front of you for them to chase and eat.

Practice slowly and indoors first. Add a verbal cue to the behavior once your dog easily follows the food lure around into the u-turn. Eventually you can eliminate the treat lure and just reinforce the u-turn at the end by tossing a treat. 

A u-turn is a great way to move away from a snake!

Emergency recall

The easiest way to train an emergency recall is to pair a very high value treat with a special sound, like a whistle. Train your emergency recall just like you would a regular recall. Grab your stinky, special treat, blow the whistle in short bursts in a repeating pattern, like three short notes, move your body backward away from your dog, and give them many small pieces of the special treat when they come running to you. Practice a few times a day starting at short distances indoors, working up to longer distances, and eventually out of sight. Practice indoors and in more difficult configurations before you practice outdoors. Don’t let this recall fail when you practice! If they can’t find you, move so you are in sight and they can get to you. 

The idea is to make the pairing of the sound and the special treat very strong, so practice daily for a while and keep the pairing strong. Does this mean you have to lug a high value treat and a whistle with you when you're out hiking? It sure does. Is this better than lugging a remote for a shock collar? We think so!

Flight cue

Simply put, a flight cue simply teaches a dog to turn and run the opposite way. It is also used to help dogs move away from stressors. Work with a professional trainer or take an online course to learn how to train this cue.  

How Does Positive Rattlesnake Avoidance Training For Dogs Work?

Rattlesnake avoidance training, at its core, teaches dogs that if they encounter a rattlesnake, they should not approach it. This is true of both aversive or shock-based and positive-reinforcement based training. 

Avoidance without shock is possible! One example of snake avoidance training, as designed by professional trainer Ken Ramirez, begins with dogs who already have a well-established targeting behavior, recall, and are crate trained with a kenneling behavior. He also utilizes a remote treat delivery system to reinforce the dog for getting into a kennel. This training teaches dogs to enter a self-locking kennel any time they encounter (see, hear, smell) any snake. This procedure is being tested in Nevada. 

The dogs’ recall is paired with a self-kennelling procedure. In short, they learn to run to the kennel from a distance and close the door. From there, they are exposed to the sight, sound, and real rattlesnake scent, and cued to self-kennel. The self-kennelling cue is then transferred to seeing, hearing, or smelling a snake. In other words, if the dog detects the presence of a snake, they put themselves in the kennel and close the gate. 

Other variations of positive-reinforcement based snake avoidance training classes pair a flight cue (training the dog to turn and run in the opposite direction by reinforcing them to do so) with the sight, smell, and sound of rattlesnakes. This type of training can be time-consuming, especially as the dogs are introduced to the sight, sound, and smell of snakes in different variations; it should be undertaken with the aid of a professional trainer. 

What to do if your dog is bitten by a rattlesnake

No training can prevent accidental bites that occur when a snake is startled at close range or stepped on. Not all veterinary clinics are equipped to treat venomous snake bites, so it’s important to locate the nearest veterinary facility that stocks antivenom. If you know you are hiking in rattlesnake territory, consider pet insurance. Antivenom is $300 - $1,000 per vial, and your dog may require more than one vial.

Although not all rattlesnake bites inject venom, if you see your dog get bit by a rattlesnake, there is no immediate way to know if they have been envenomated. Treat any bite as if it is an emergency. If possible, immobilize the affected area and keep it below the heart. Remove anything the dog is wearing that may become constrictive as the area swells (collar, bandana, harness, etc.). Carry smaller dogs to reduce activity. 

Take your dog to the nearest emergency veterinary hospital or clinic that stocks antivenom. Many of the older remedies you read about online for rattlesnake bites to humans or dogs may cause additional damage. Stay calm, comfort your dog, and get them to the vet. Many regular veterinary offices do not stock antivenom. Call ahead. If your dog is bitten by a snake but you’re not sure what species it was, the National Snakebite Support Network Facebook Group can help ID the snake.

Along with antivenom, your dog will require IV fluids, pain meds, and blood tests. Experts do not recommend benadryl, steroids, antibiotics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), or subcutaneous fluids.

Current evidence does not support the rattlesnake vaccine. Vaccines have conditional approval by USDA, and efficacy is not yet reported. Vaccines are NOT a replacement for antivenom, so even with a vaccine, a bite requires antivenom.

Stay safe and have fun with your dog

Outdoor adventures are wonderful enrichment for your dog. The smells, sights, sounds, and textures provide outstanding mental stimulation and outlets for instinctual behaviors. With some planning and training, you can both enjoy time hiking, backpacking, or other outdoor activities and leave the rattlesnakes alone. 

Trainer Review of this Article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.  

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Rachel McMichael 
Owner/Founder: UpSwing Total Pet Care - Certified Behavior Consultant Canine (CBCC-KA), IAABC Accredited Dog Trainer (IAABC-ADT),
CATCH Certified Dog Trainer (CCDT), Certified Trick Dog Instructor (CTDI), Certified Animal Reiki Practitioner