The life of a hunting or ranch dog and the nature of his work is inherently dangerous. In the outdoors, domestic dogs are exposed to the elements and always at risk of a venomous snake encounter. Snake avoidance conditioning is often referred to as snake proofing or de-snaking and is very effective at teaching dogs to steer clear of snakes.
I put my first lacy puppy through a snake avoidance class when she was about a year old. Four years later she will still alert to the smell or sight of most snakes which is not only beneficial for her, it lets me know that a snake is present.
During a snake avoidance class, the instructor uses an e-collar as an aversion tool. Defanged snakes are placed on the ground and the dog is given an opportunity to wind the snake and make visual contact. Timing is important and a good trainer knows how to read a dog’s curiosity and body language and apply a high level of stimulation at just the right moment to divert the dog away from the snake. In most cases it only takes one incident for the dog to learn. After the initial experience, the dog is led down wind to a concealed snake to ensure he recognizes it by smell alone. Ideally, the dog should learn to identify snakes with all three senses, sight, sound, and smell.
Sometimes the instructor puts the snake in between the dog and handler and asks the handler to call his dog. This is to confirm that the dog has learned to give snakes a wide berth. When tested in this manner, my dogs will dig their heels in and refuse to move any closer, even if led toward the snake.
It’s important to note that not all species smell the same to a dog. Though rattlesnakes are most often used because they are most likely to bite and very deadly, snake avoidance trainers will usually bring a cottonmouth and a copperhead to give the dog a full range of smells to identify. According to Harlen Winters, a trainer from Burnet, Texas, rat snakes, coral snakes, or dead rattlesnakes will not produce the identical smell that the dog has learned to avoid. Just last week, however, my dogs alerted at the smell and sight of a fresh snake skin in the yard. I don’t know if they were going by scent or sight but they avoided that particular area for two days. Harlen also recommends a yearly refresher course and most trainers will do this free of charge.
Despite all our efforts to keep our dogs safe in the woods, accidents do happen. Sometimes a dog will inadvertently step on a snake. If a dog does get bit by a venomous snake, immediately administer Benadryl at 1mg/pound and take the dog to the nearest vet for a round of antibiotics and fluids. Antivenin is expensive and many vets don’t keep it on hand but it is beneficial if given within 24 hours.