Is Snake Aversion Training the Exception or Not?

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?

photo of Lilly in hospital after first rattlesnake bite

Lilly, the canine heroine from Champion of My Heart, a dog blog, 10 hours after a rattlesnake bite to the face. Swelling here is down 75% from its worst.

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:

  1. I used a dog agility cue OUT!, which means move away.
  2. 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:

Since in our chosen WordPress Theme, it’s hard to find the comment link … we’ve made a big one here.


How Your Donations Help!
Do you want to help spread the word about pain-free dog training? Then, we need your donations today!

Plus!!! We have new donation incentives. Take a look.

As our service project, we’re raising money for the Humane Society of Boulder Valley‘s upcoming No-Choke Challenge. (More details on how our efforts dovetail on our About Page and on the No-Choke Challenge page.)

Just click the donation button on this handy-dandy donation widget to get started!

If for some reason you cannot see or use the donation widget below, please visit the Never Shock a Puppy Donation Site instead.

Read More!
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.

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17 Responses to Is Snake Aversion Training the Exception or Not?

  1. Vicki says:

    I am so glad to hear that you would not use a shock collar for rattlesnake aversion training. I wouldn’t either. In my opinion, if you believe that shock collars are not a safe, dog friendly, humane choice, then you don’t use them for anything, not even things you think are really difficult to train. There are way too many things you can’t control when using shock collars (what the dog will actually associate the shock with it, will the dog learn to fear snakes or will the dog associate the shock with the environment, the owner, other dogs or people? We have no control over that. Not to mention the other fallout involved). I just feel like if someone can’t train a reliable recall with their dog then they need to be thoughtful about where they hike, when they hike and maybe even consider not taking your dog off leash in high risk areas during high risk times.

  2. Allie says:

    I wouldn’t use a shock collar either – though guess I see the logic. Snake bites hurt and are dangerous, that’s what fear is for – so there is some sense to using fear and pain in a situation which *should* be scary and is potentially painful.

    If there is any proof that pain isn’t magic though – it’s that Lilly was bitten *twice* and that didn’t create sufficient aversion. If snake bites aren’t enough – then how many times would you need to shock her?

    I’m really glad that there are better ways to train dogs!

  3. Nena says:

    I like that you changed it from “will” to “might” – I think too often shock collars are seen as guarantees. Every dog has the potential to blow off the handler if they perceive something else is more rewarding.

    • Yep. For me that’s an important point … there are no guarantees. At the same time, I know all too well that we’ve been very lucky. Dogs in our community die all the time from rattlesnake bites. For some reason, Lilly has done well and survived her bites.

  4. Alyson says:

    I appreciate that you used the word “might” as well, people often forget that no matter what, the dog always has a choice and the use of shock is definately NOT a guarantee. I think that for many of us the risks associated with the use of a shock collar are too high to justify their use even in this particular potentially life threatening situation.

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  6. Alicia says:

    Shock collars are a sensitive topic. With the right dog, like you mentioned, it would be appropriate. Not every dog responds the same way. There are also other alternative collars like citronella collars and vibrate collars. Also the beep collars. Reward based training only goes so far. It is great for teaching and molding a dog to certain commands – but given an extremely stimulating situation, unless your dogs deems you a higher reward than the stimulation – positive reinforcement just won’t work. In come other methods, which I commonly see people just yell at their dog. You won’t ever find out unless the stimulating situation happens. Of course avoiding the situations will help prevent that. But if your dog can learn to behave properly in EVERY situation, then you have trust and confidence, and perfect balance.

    best of luck.

  7. Pingback: Snake Bites: Avoiding Rattlesnake & Other Venomous Bites for Your Dog

  8. Laura says:

    How frightening! Misha is a city girl so hopefully rattlesnakes won’t ever be an issue for us. Our relatively minor issue is to find a way to teach her our little urban skunk is not a kitty to be chased, pounced on or played with. We were successful with recall the last couple of times, but I saw him shortly after she did so it was “leave it” rather than avoiding it to begin with. I would be interested in positive reinforcement skunk avoidance!

    There is a really positive approach to snake avoidance that I’ve read about on Dogster. Nick is a hunting dog and spends most of his life off leash in a rural area. His human corresponded with Steve White at KPA and they came up with an interesting approach – teaching Nick to “Back up and bark” when he sees a snake. His human feels that, although it took longer to train, the results have been very reliable. Nick’s post is very interesting, it’s about halfway down in this thread, hopefully the link will work:

    It seems to me the most difficult hurdle is having access to a rattlesnake (or skunk) in a cage to practice on!

    Laura (and Misha)

  9. Stephanie says:

    I have a very “soft” dog, and while I’m sure a shock collar would teach her to avoid snakes, it would probably teach her to avoid EVERYTHING nearby as well – people with hats, bags, rocks, etc. I can’t imagine putting her through such training, when teaching a solid recall, or even using snake scent as a cue to target to me, would be just as effective.

  10. Becky says:

    I must admit I hadn’t even considered this an issue. Gracie is pretty much a city dog, though I’ve seen small, harmless snakes in my yard a couple of times and twice a year I take my dog to my parents’ farm where she runs freely in a large wooded area. But, this is timely information for me. I’m taking Gracie to a cabin this weekend and there will be lots of hiking. It now has me thinking of what to do if we come across a snake of any kind. Gracie’s “leave it” has become rock solid, and I will have to rely on that if needed this weekend as well as being very mindful of her supervision. If we continue to have these types of adventures, I expect I should start thinking of how we will train for possible creature encounters.

  11. Elisa says:

    Fortunately we live in the city and we don’t really encounter wildlife. We have gone camping and I have used a lead with my fiance’s Rottweiler and our foster dogs so that they don’t wander off but not used anything with my dachshund. I have not done much training yet with him (he is a puppymill survivor so still getting over other issues) but I am happy that he is very much attached to me so he never wanders off. I like the idea of gasping and running away, when we go to the dog park he doesn’t play with many other dogs so I run around with him, I could start adding a cue in to our regular play so he associates the cue to moving away quickly with me. Thank you as always for the great info and Moxie my dachshund is my first dog!

  12. Deb says:

    Very frightening, Seamus has never encountered a snake so I don’t know how he would react but I would never shock him into avoiding one. I understand the dilemma as I would never want my dog to be bitten by a rattlesnake, but I can’t get past using pain to make my point.

  13. Kim McMunn says:

    Wow. While I understood the risk of rattlesnakes, I had never really considered the actual affect on a dog owners daily life (well, before reading the various blogs about it today). I am now very happy that I don’t live in rattlesnake country, as I’m not sure what I would do. I can see how shock aversion would be tempting for many people, yet I know it would not be a good idea for my dogs (or for the majority of dogs, in fact).

  14. Lori says:

    This is an interesting question; in 3 of 4 of my dogs- I would not use a shock collar- even if it meant it might save their lives because they have very soft temperments. With my one dog, I am still not sure I would. I have said in the past I would “NEVER” use a shock collar on my dogs for any reason- but if I continued to have rattlesnake encounters where my dog was bitten multiple times- I may reconsider if it stopped him from approaching rattlesnakes ever again. I would use it as a LAST resort after every other training option failed.

  15. Dana Pierson says:

    I agree that shock collars are barbaric – who thinks that fear and pain are actually viable motivators? So glad that you’ve shared some infinitely more human and effective training tips, Roxanne!

    We are adopting a new puppy this Thanksgiving and can’t wait. He’ll be our eighth rescue via National Borzoi Rescue. That prize basket would certainly help us help him to grow into a confident, happy, and healthy dog so here we are keeping all twelve paws crossed!

  16. Pingback: Training the Pain-Free Way