Teaching dogs to avoid rattlesnakes (or other hazardous wildlife, including coyotes, bears, mountain lions) is often the one scenario when some people justify using shock collars. Even people who would NEVER use one in everyday dog training sometimes say, “Yes, in this instance it’s OK.” Since my border collie, Lilly, has survived not one but TWO rattlesnake bites and narrowly avoided a third, I have something to say about this. (Keep reading. Details on this week’s GRAND prize below.)
Dog Training: Life-and-Death Scenarios
The question boils down to this: Would you use a shock collar to teach a lesson/skill that would save the dog’s life?
Essentially, traditional rattlesnake aversion training teaches dogs to recognize and avoid the site, sound, and smell of a rattlesnake.
Some dogs — like my big boy Ginko have a natural aversion. Others, like my Lilly, do not and stick their faces right in there. In her four known encounters with rattlesnakes (off leash), two resulted in bites. The first one nearly killed her. The second one wasn’t as bad. We’ve been VERY lucky.
Dogs who approach the snake out of curiosity or whatever receive shocks delivered at an increasing level until they leave the snake alone. Some dogs require very few low-level shocks over just a few minutes. Others, I would suspect, take longer and higher jolts.
Snake Aversion Alternatives
I had the chance recently, while working on an article for a national dog magazine, to interview Jamie Bozzi of SMRTDOG in San Diego, California, a certified pet dog trainer and evaluator, with numerous additional accreditations. Because California has BIG Western diamondback rattlesnakes, Jamie wanted to show you could train snake aversion without using shock collars. She did a pilot program with about 40 pet dogs of various sizes and breeds.
Essentially, Jamie also used site, sound, smell, but instead of shocking the dogs … handlers GASPED audibly and ran away from the fake rattlesnakes and the real bull snakes (laced with rattlesnake scent).
See snake. Gasp. Run. Smell snake. Gasp. Run. Hear snake. Gasp. Run. The key remained to sort of startle or scare the dog to teach “This is a bad thing, run away,” but no shock collars were used.
Many positive-reinforcement dog trainers think we need to stop thinking about snakes as an exception to the rule, and just think of them as any other cue. See snake. Do not approach.
It’s not all the different, they believe, than … See curb. Stop at curb. Wait for OK to cross street, for example. Dogs conditioned to behave a certain way in certain situations are MORE likely to repeat those behaviors.
Dog Training and Generalization
The real challenge with teaching snake aversion is whether or not dogs “generalize” the training experience to anything they encounter in the real world. The general consensus is that dogs don’t generalize well. They learn things in very specific contexts. So, if even one thing is different, the dog might not recognize that the situation called for Behavior A.
So, there are no guarantees that either method will work in all situations. That’s the rub. It changes the question to: Would you use a shock collar if it *might* save the dog’s life?
My Answer is No
For me, the answer is no. In part, it’s because the whole idea just goes against everything I believe about dog training. But, and I admit this freely, it’s because I have a very fearful dog who would be absolutely RUINED by a shock collar. And, I will NOT throw away all the years of hard work to protect her from snakes.
Will I regret that decision someday? Maybe so.
Would I think otherwise if I had a dog with a rock-solid temperament? Maybe so.
But, I also recently interviewed a woman whose famous bloodhound (Knotty, video clip) died of kidney failure 13 months after tangling with a big rattlesnake. We talked about snake aversion training using shock collars, and neither of us have done it. Both of us live in snake-endemic regions.
Dog Training Foundation Saves the Day
The last time Lilly squared off with a rattlesnake outside our house (just a few weeks ago), I used a combination of existing training to get her safely away from the snake without me having to go near it either:
- I used a dog agility cue OUT!, which means move away.
- I used a runaway recall, like we discussed earlier about teaching COME! Essentially I ran away and asked Lilly to come along.
I like to think I can keep her safe, if we’re together. Alas, both of her rattlesnake bites happened at home, while she was alone on our rural, mountain property.
What do you think?
Is teaching dogs to avoid dangerous wildlife the exception to the Never Shock a Puppy “rule”? Or, can you teach other forms of self control and responsiveness that will work just as well?
Prize Drawing #5 –> Our GRAND Prize!!!
This week, we’ll be collecting entries for the fifth of FIVE prizes we’ll be giving away during the Never Shock a Puppy campaign. All you have to do is post a comment to this blog entry before midnight (MDT), Sunday, Oct 17, 2010, to be entered into the random prize drawing.
Because we hope to reach out to first-time dog owners and new dog adopters, people who self identify as such in their comment below will get a couple of bonus entries. (We’re working on the honor system here, folks.)
You can read all the official rules to learn more, but for logistical reasons, we must limit entries to those in the U.S. and Canada. We’ll notify the winner next week via email, so be sure you enter your email address correctly. Once we know via private email conversations, where the winner lives and what size is needed, we can arrange for prize delivery and for the dog training contact.
This week’s prize package includes:
- A $100 electronic gift certificate to Best Friends General Store
- A new Halti head collar or harness from The Company of Animals (Thanks to our coalition connections through Best Friends General Store)
- A one-hour private lesson with a dog trainer in your area (paid for by sponsor K9Cuisine.com) and contacts gained via the No Shock Collar Coalition and Truly Dog Friendly)
- A $25 electronic gift certificate from K9Cuisine.com
- A toy supplied by Calling All Dogs
Since in our chosen WordPress Theme, it’s hard to find the comment link … we’ve made a big one here.
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Never Shock a Puppy coalition members (and others, we hope) are blogging from their own sites on this and related topics. Each of us explain our opposition to shock collars (and other punitive methods in our own ways), so we hope you find at least one blogger who “speaks your language” so that you can follow our campaign in a way that feels most comfortable to you. Check out this blog hop to learn more.