By Jane Anne Shimizu

When you live in the Southwest, especially in rural areas, you will routinely come in contact with the “locals.” The “locals” can be anything from the jumping cholla cactus to deadly creatures that often carry lethal poison or venom. Central Arizona’s Yavapai County, at an elevation of 5,000-plus feet, is particularly good territory for rattlesnakes.

Popular hobbies in Arizona include hiking, biking and enjoying the outdoors, especially if you have a dog. But a dog’s natural curiosity is a danger to them, because there could be a lethal rattlesnake around every bend in the trail. Rattlesnakes lie in wait for their prey, and many times when you are hiking in a canyon your dog will be the first to encounter the snake. If your dog has been snake-trained, however, it will immediately leave the area.

Avoidance Training

A dog bitten by a rattlesnake can die within minutes. Rushing them to the vet improves their survival chances, and there are measures veterinarians can take, but a snake-bitten dog is never the same again, as bites will affect the dog’s neurological system.

Every year in the U.S., approximately 15,000 dogs are attacked and bitten by venomous snakes. The highest fatality rates occur in Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, South Carolina and Texas. When temperatures move into the high 70s, snakes come out of hibernation.

Here in Arizona, we have our dogs snake-avoidance trained every year in the spring. First, as a precaution, the man who provides the training “milks” the snake of its venom (other trainers completely remove the snake’s fangs) and then the trainer introduces the dogs to the rattlesnake using an electric collar for purposes of negative reinforcement.

Dog snake-avoidance training.
Dog can smell a snake before they can see them.

The electric collar is set to the weight of each dog (since you wouldn’t shock a 10-pound dog with the same setting as an 80-pound dog). When the snake is agitated, the rattle is very loud. The snake has a distinct smell, and its arrow-shaped head stands erect. During training, if the dog pays any attention to the snake, it receives a quick shock so that the dog associates pain with the sight, sound and smell of the snake.

There are dogs that just don’t learn the first time. These dogs have to be zapped more than once, but usually by the third shock they won’t go near the snake again. The next year, when the dog is taken for snake-avoidance training, they often won’t go near the snake. If that’s the case, the trainer will tell the owner that they do not need to repeat the training.

Jim Walkington, from Viper Voidance in New River, Arizona, believes that the smell of a snake is even stronger than the sound of its rattle or the sight of its head. Jim has even successfully trained blind dogs, who rely only on the smell and sound. A dog’s highly sensitive nose can smell a snake 165 feet away.

Warning Signs & Vet Care

How can you tell if your dog has been bitten by a rattlesnake? If you are with the dog, then you may see the snake strike. If you don’t see the strike and your pet shows signs of pain, whimpering, swelling, unusual lethargy or bleeding from the nose, anus or skin, assume the worst and immediately go to the vet.

The sooner the veterinarian can begin supportive care, the more likely your pet will survive. At the vet’s office, they will start IV fluids and anti-inflammatory medications. They will take a blood sample to see how much venom may be affecting the dog and begin to monitor the dog’s clotting time. If you can afford the anti-venom, which costs anywhere from $600 to $1,000, the dog could potentially go home within one to three days of being treated.

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Lifesaving Vaccine

Short of denying your pet the outdoors, there is a vaccine meant for use in healthy dogs to help decrease the severity of rattlesnake bites. The vaccine is specifically for the western diamondback and provides the best protection against the venom of that particular snake. The vaccine has been shown to provide cross-protection against the venom of other types of rattlesnakes and copperheads, too. However, it does not provide protection against the Mojave rattlesnake, cottonmouths or coral snakes. Snake vaccine allows you more time to get to a veterinary hospital and reduces the amount of pain and swelling experienced by the dog. It also provides faster recovery times.

Part of the charm of living in the American West is that the land isn’t completely “tamed” yet. This requires us to pay attention to our surroundings and take various precautions. If you are afield with your dog, then both of you need to be aware of snakes and the danger they can present.

This article was originally published in SURVIVOR’S EDGE ™ Winter 2015 magazine. Print and Digital Subscriptions available here.

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