Sunday, 16 December 2018
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Dogs can be trained to avoid venomous snakes

Carl Person, a degreed biologist from California, brought a few of his live snakes and a supply of “scents” to set up “training stations” last weekend to teach dogs to avoid three kinds of venomous snakes.

Person described his “Rattlesnake Avoidance Training course” this way.

“If your dog is naive, he/she will be introduced to a fairly unhappy rattlesnake … and almost without exception, a naive dog will go right up to the snake, and smell it,” he said.

“In the training, we give them three seconds, and give them a stimulus through a collar. I intentionally use this term because ‘shock’ sounds like we are hurting the dogs. We keep it low enough that most people can’t feel it. It s kind of like a chiropractor’s thing. However, the scents and snakes, and the stimulus, it works.”

Next, he uses several scent stations, plus a few live snakes. Dogs have “spatial” learning tendencies, he said, and trainers have to deal with this.

“We know they have a very hard time seeing this; we want to see them ‘lick’ and look. We have to know that your dog is using his/her ‘vomeronasal system’.”

Last weekend, he assigned clients time slots over two days, and on rural Kerr County property provided by resident Julie Adams, he set out 10 “scent stations” in buckets or other containers or on rocks, and had four live snakes in containers or hidden under a log and brush.

Adams said her sister saw an ad for this course and the two of them invited Person and a co-handler to drive across half the country with his snakes and supplies, after taking clients’ reservations online.

Person said he owns snakes as pets, “and some have names;” and he brought a couple of those for this class including copperheads, a rattler and cottonmouth.

He’s a biologist with a degree from Loma Linda University, California, and a herpetologist; and highly insured for this work, since he and partner Jared Fox designed this training course based on the biology of both snakes and dogs.

Person about six years ago, he observed another teacher presenting this training; and later was called to teach it himself.

“Dogs and snakes both use scent to tell direction, time, distance and identification quickly, their ‘vomeronasal system.’ They breathe in scents through the nostrils and out through separate slits. When a dog ‘gets this,’ it’s a straight-up lick with their tongue to spread that scent up, where it’s identified. That’s what we look for.”

The training depends on scent, mild stimulus and backing away from the danger.

He said cottonmouths and copperhead snakes spray a stronger “musk” and dogs usually react more quickly and strongly to that.

Matt Setsodi was handler for each dog while Person watched each dog’s reaction to the scents and snakes.

Person currently has four employees, picked for their affinity with dogs in general.

If the dogs are not getting the scent and immediately “licking their noses,” and looking for the snake, it did not work.

“This is the key,” Person said. “Sight and sound mean nothing if dogs are running through a field and step on one.

“Think about police dogs. They pick up a trail from a ‘suspect,’ and can find them (realize that the ‘perp’ is wearing shoes, and is running). That is the power of their vomeronasal system. It gives them a past (even what whomever ate), a present, and a future (long before you are aware, the dog knows who’s around the corner) awareness, all at the same time.

“We designed this course to tap into that,” Person said.

He said each client was asked at registration if their dog had experience with snakes, or was “new” to this. He’s taught “new” dogs from live snakes to scents; and experienced dogs from scent stations to live snakes.

How long does it take?

Person and his crew member(s) set the slots at 15 minutes; however, he tells clients they should plan for an hour.

Many breeds will be done in 15 to 20 minutes. He said they tap the dogs’ vomeronasal system to make sure.

“If you have a Border Collie, considered the perfect mix between ability to learn and wolf instinct, it should be about 10 minutes at most,” Person said.

He said most owners are looking for prevention; and many come with hunting or hiking dogs, or because their dog was snake-bit before.

He takes 50-100 dogs per two-day classes, and said in more than five years he’s had one dog bitten after this training.

However, toy breeds are a new dog — there were no toy breeds before the late 1800’s, he said. Dogs were not considered pets before then, they were mutualistic partners.

“A Terrier was there to guard the grains – not a house pet.”

Dog owners also must understand that some of the now-cherished breeds have changed dramatically from their original form with the advent of dog shows.

The English Bulldog is an example of relying primarily on sight and sound; however, their vomeronasal system still works.

Person said they will not go over 20 minutes with any dog.

“Their core temperature is 102.5 degrees F; and when they start to get overheated, the stress will increase and they shut down – no more using their vomeronasal system … just panting to cool down.”

What Person will do is let a dog owner get their dog retrained for free if it is not satisfactory.

He said cats generally can efficiently kill a snake with no training; and this training also works with horses, but insurance requirements are much higher.

Emergency information for

humans and dogs

Do not panic, he urged. “There is typically plenty of time to get to a hospital or veterinarian. Adult people and medium to large dogs will usually have enough time to get treatment started. However, for children and small dogs, time is limited.”

Do not try to capture/kill the snake for identification. The anti-venom available may cover all rattlesnakes.

Immediately remove any jewelry around the site of the bite. “Snake bites often result in severe swelling and these items will cut off blood flow increasing the probability of losing a finger or limb,” he said.

Do not use tourniquets, ice, cutting or any of the commonly marketed “Snake Bite Kits,” he said.

“Dialing 911 is the only thing you should do for a bite to a human,” he said.

Antivenom is the only treatment that works. Even if the pet has received the rattlesnake vaccine, they must have emergency treatment.

If it’s the owner who was bitten, do not attempt to drive yourself. “There is a high risk of passing out due to a drop in blood pressure.”

Remain still while waiting for an ambulance. If your dog has been bitten, and you can carry your pet to your car, that is best.

Keep the bite site at heart level if possible.

But the majority of bites dogs receive are on the face while investigating the snake. This type of bite will adversely affect the dog’s ability to breathe, he said, so the immediate administration of Benadryl and professional medical attention are needed.

Benadryl will help reduce inflammation and help reduce the risk of an allergic reaction. Consult your veterinarian for proper dosage.

Limit liquid intake because the body pumps fluids to the bite site, increasing painful swelling. If available, chew on ice to relieve thirst.

Especially for humans, avoid alcohol. It thins your blood as does the venom.


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