After years of adventuring in the backcountry with my rescue pup, Moo, who chases everything under the sun; one of my biggest fears is encountering a rattlesnake. In the past years, I previously would bring her in for the rattlesnake vaccine, which only saves “time” from when the venom enters the bloodstream and when the anti-venom is administered. The vaccine is incredibly controversial and after reading studies and talking to my vet, I decided this was no longer the route I wanted to take. My amazing vet, Dr. Lisa Gould out of Yorba Regional (Yes, I still drive from Mammoth Lakes to Orange County to see her) is not a huge fan of this vaccine and suggested I look into rattlesnake aversion training. Of course I was not excited about watching my dog get shocked as she does not do well with any kind of negative reinforcement and to be honest, this thought terrified me and was the main reason why I continued to put this off. I am aware that there are rattlesnake aversion training classes where they do not deliver a shock, however these are nowhere near as effective. At the end of the day, I am most concerned about teaching my pup to stay away from snakes on the trail. I was not able to find a reputable rattlesnake aversion company until I moved to Mammoth Lakes, and luckily I came across Get Rattled through a local doggy daycare company in town Sierra Dog Ventures. I have heard only great things about Sierra Dog Ventures and I knew they would not partner with any other company who was less than stellar. This post is strictly about my personal experience and insight to what I encountered. I am aware there are other options out there and everyone is entitled to their own opinion. I respect your opinion so please respect mine. I am hoping to educate at least one person and hopefully others can have an open mind after reading my experience. I included a link to all the videos of this training on my Facebook Page (since I can only load videos from YouTube which I do not not use). The photos I have posted were shot from my iPhone and not from my camera so I apologize for the poor quality.
Negative reinforcement and shock collars
I am totally aware that many people are going to assume I am a horrible person, a dog abuser, a mean dog owner etc. because I actively chose to pay $85 for an aversion rattlesnake course that used a shock collar as negative reinforcement. “Oh my gosh, how can you shock you dog?” You guys, I am overly obsessed with my dog and would do anything to keep her out of trouble or danger. She hikes with me, backpacks with me, skis with me, camps with me and paddle-boards with me and does all these adventures off-leash (where permitted). She loves to play and chase critters and she has come across a gopher snake and thought it was her friend. We recently moved to Mammoth Lakes, so the outdoor and backcountry opportunities are endless. The backcountry can be a viscous place, not only for humans but also for our furry companions and after my experience with this training, I strongly urge everyone to consider this for their dogs if they venture out into nature.
When I first adopted Moo and still to this day, any negative reinforcement has her running under the bed, with her tail in between her legs, yipping and peeing herself. As a result, she lives in a world full of positive reinforcement. She knows when she does something naughty just by the tone of my voice, (like for instance when she ran upstairs at 3am to pee on my rug and when I discovered it 10 minutes later, all I had to do was look at her and say “are you serious” and she immediately knew she was naughty). She is smart, sensitive and manipulative so it has been a journey, but one I would never trade for anything else in the world, hence why it has taken me years to take the plunge and accept that this rattlesnake course, although may be hard for me to watch, could potentially save her life. I can live with my dog getting shocked as a way for her to learn to stay away from snakes but I could never live with my dog getting bit by a rattlesnake knowing I did nothing to prevent it when there are lots of effective options out there. I view this training as a life-saving tool. This experience was not scarring nor traumatizing for either of us. Of course Moo nor I enjoyed the shock collar but neither of us walked away with a negative experience.
The quick and dirty
I arrived 15 minutes early, filled out some forms, paid my $85 and waited for my turn while I watched about a dozen other dogs and their humans go through the training. Moo made friends with every human and dog around and became an instant favorite with her spots and personality. We were quickly briefed on how the course would work and they made a point to say that each dog responds differently and may take a little while to “get it”. There were three rattlesnakes in the course: the first one with fangs and a rattler that was out in the open but without venom, the 2nd one was “hot” meaning it had a rattler, venom and fangs but was in a cage and the third was a snakeskin. This way the dogs get used to the sight, movement, sound and scent. The final test was for the dogs to go around the loose rattlesnake and come to the owners as they called their dog. There was a snake handler, a dog handler and a person that was in charge of shocking the dog if they made any type of interaction with the snake, this includes looking at the snake, sniffing the snake, going up to the snake, or any tail wagging or ear flapping at the snake. The point was for the dog to completely ignore the movement, sight and smell of the snake.
Moo was the only small dog at the training and of course the shock collar was 20 sizes too big for her. They improvised and off she went. Moo was shocked three times and each time she screeched, jumped and put her tail behind her legs; just like I knew she would. Of course, this was hard to watch, but her handler sat down and comforted her after each time. He was so compassionate it made my heart melt!
The amount of patience and compassion they had for her was outstanding. Each time she was administered the lowest level of shock because she is a small dog and has never been shocked before. She had three encounters with the first rattler, one encounter with the second and one with the third. The shock was delivered on the first and second rattler (twice on the first rattler most likely because it was moving and looked like something fun to play with). During the second rattler a gopher distracted her as he poked his head out of the hole and the trainer was excited to tell me how good her nose is. After two shocks with the first rattler, Moo made zero interaction with the snake and ran around to the other side. The final test was for me to stand across from the rattler and for her to go around the rattler and run to me. She ended up taking a shortcut to me (smart dog) so we had to make it harder for the next try. On the next try, she ran straight past the rattler without any interest and jumped straight into my arms. The whole training took about 20 minutes. It is recommended that each dog take this course two years in a row as a way to “refresh their memory” and depending on the dog they can then take the course every two to three years. I watched a dozen other dogs go through this training and they each had a unique experience with a very positive outcome. All of the owners were happy and I would highly recommend this training course and this rattlesnake aversion company.
I truly hope every dog owner looks into rattlesnake aversion training!
Thanks for reading and hope to see you on the trail