By Mark Pelley (The Snake Catcher)
Every week, I get four or five phone calls from Melbourne pet owners who have had their dog bitten or killed by a snake. Most of these occur in and around the home. As deer hunters, we’re in a unique position where our best friend is around the home, but at other times is out hunting deer.
We spend many months of training and a lifetime working with our reliable companions to know how to hunt deer with us. Our efforts create a dependable and reliable dog that knows what to do around a deer and when. We equally need a reliable training method to teach dogs to avoid snakes. Reliability comes from not only having the dog avoid a snake when you are present, but also when you are not around. Below is some specific advice to help you understand how to protect your pet.
At home, the most important thing to know is that there is nothing you can do to prevent snakes from entering your property. It does not matter if you live in a farm, rural suburbia or even in the city, snakes can be found everywhere. A few simple tips to help maximise the chance of seeing a snake that has entered your property include:
· Clearing undergrowth,
· Filling holes in the ground,
· Mowing the lawn regularly,
· Clearing away toys and tools which all make great hiding places for snakes,
· Keeping walkways clear of brush, flowers and shrubs,
· Cleaning up any spilled food, fruit or bird seed, which can attract rodents, and therefore snakes,
· Storing any firewood away from the house.
If Your Dog Sees a Snake
Snakes are not looking to interact with people or pets however they will defend themselves if threatened or hurt. Do not let your dog examine dead snakes as they still have venomous fangs and this will also encourage their curiosity towards snakes. Also, the snake may not be dead. Some snakes will stay still even when danger is nearby (for example, the death adder).
It goes without saying that all hunting dogs need to have exceptional recall. If there is a confrontation between your dog and a snake, you want to make sure that your dog will return to you if called away or otherwise will listen and not go near a snake.
How Does Your Dog Identify A Snake?
Dogs perceive the world predominantly through smell and sight. When a dog sees a snake, it does not comprehend the difference between a red bellied black snake (venomous) and a green tree python (harmless). The dog only sees a snake. It doesn’t matter if it is big, small, fat, skinny, the dog only understands that this is a snake of some variety.
When a dog smells it identifies an animal in three ways:
- Individual (as in – this is Mark, or this is Joe),
- Species (this is a dog, this is a snake, this is a human).
As long as the dog understands it needs to avoid snakes, regardless of gender, size or pattern, then your dog learns to avoid all snakes, not just specific varieties or only venomous snakes.
It is for this exact reason that it does not matter if you use venomous or non-venomous snakes as part of the training to teach your dog to avoid snakes. These snakes smell exactly like each other to a dog and look similar to each other as well. Further, it is again for this reason that rubber snakes can’t be used for training. The dog will be able to see and smell the difference between a moving live snake, and one made of rubber. The use of rubber snakes will be completely ineffective in teaching dogs to avoid live snakes.
What Happens if Your Dog is Bitten?
When a snake bites your dog, it injects venom into the tissue below the skin. Venom is rapidly absorbed from the site of the bite and carried by the lymphatic system into the animal’s circulation.
Depending on the type of snake, different types of toxins may impair many of your dog’s vital functions including the nervous system, causing significant pain, interference with natural clotting mechanisms, organ damage, paralysis, breathing problems and much more.
A list of the common signs and symptoms of a snake bite include:
· Shaking or twitching,
· Dilated pupils or difficulty blinking,
· Weakness or severe lethargy.
· Loss of bladder or bowel control,
· Bleeding from the bite wound,
· Blood in urine,
· Ataxia (loss of function of body movements) which can be seen as difficulty walking,
· Breathing difficulties (rapid and shallow),
· Excessive salivation (drooling),
· Coma or death.
The above are some of the more common symptoms. It is very possible that your dog could display some, all or other symptoms. Whenever you suspect your dog has been bitten by a snake, immediately take them to the vet for a proper assessment.
If you Suspect your Dog is Bitten by a Snake
If you witness or suspect your hunting dog is bitten by a snake, it is important to never try to capture, identify or kill the snake. You only put yourself or your dog at greater risk by trying to get close to a snake to identify it. Capturing or killing snakes is illegal and extremely dangerous. You do not need to take a snake to the vet with you if your dog is bitten.
Instead, consider this advice:
· Keep calm and control your own emotions. Your dog will be able to read how you’re feeling,
· Keep your dog still and calm as possible and reduce any stimulus around him,
· Remove people from the area who will make the situation worse,
· Do not wash the wound, do not apply a tourniquet (cut off the blood supply), do not apply ice or alcohol or bleed the wound,
· If you can safely get a photo of the snake, then do so, otherwise leave it - time is better spent trying to save your dog,
· Call the closest vet to advise what has happened and take your dog to them as soon as possible. The quicker you do this, the better the chance of survival. Admittedly, if you’re hunting in the bush and hours away from a vet, the chance of survival may be limited, however, it is still worth trying to save your dog’s life.
What Happens at the Vets?
Once you arrive, the vet will assess your dog. Most people do not know what type of snake bit their dog so a broad spectrum anti-venene (anti-venom that treats all snake bites) is administered and is usually effective provided it is given in time.
Multiple vials are usually administered. Further, blood samples will be taken for testing and your dog will also need intravenous fluids and oxygen. Your dog may be in severe pain and may not show it or alternatively, may display different behaviour than usual. Initial recovery can take days or weeks and there can be a long-term recovery where your dog may need to be house-bound for months.
This process can be extremely expensive with fees typically ranging between $4,000 and $7,000 and thus I highly recommend pet insurance.
Training Your Dog to Avoid Snakes
I run regular canine snake avoidance training for dogs and specialise in teaching hunting dogs to avoid snakes. Hunting dogs often have a high prey drive and this can cause them to have a strong desire to approach venomous snakes.
The training includes the use of electronic training collars or ‘e-collars’. These training collars are often misunderstood as ‘shock collars’. In reality, there is no ‘electrocution’ whatsoever. Rather, the dog experiences the minimal levels of discomfort necessary and all use is regulated by best practice guidelines and specific legislation.
When used properly, remote training collars are an extremely effective tool in teaching dogs to avoid snakes. I have even applied a remote training collar to myself to have an understanding of what the dog experiences. When applied correctly, remote collars cause a strange discomfort but not actual pain. All training ensures e-collars are applied through compassion, empathy and a deep understanding of fear in an animal so as to not exploit this fear. Minimal dosage to achieve the desired outcome is to be applied at all times whereby the dog is taught slowly, deliberately and with supervision.
Effective canine snake avoidance training is focused around helping dogs comprehend that snakes are to be avoided at all times and in all circumstances. Initially, the dog must first understand that even though it wants to approach a snake, that the snake will cause it greater discomfort.
Once the dog understands what it is to do, and not to do around a snake, more reliable outcomes are obtained when we combine the learned behaviour (avoiding snakes) with an involuntary emotional response.
This process is repeated until it is established within the dog to avoid snakes in all circumstances, in all environments at all times. Our training occurs with different snakes over two separate sessions including both visual and olfactory (smell) cues for the dog. Hunting dogs can be taught individually or as part of a hunting group.
Is Previous Training Required?
A frequent question I’m asked is whether or not the dog needs to be previously ‘trained’ to a certain level of obedience before it can undertake snake avoidance programs or for the use of remote collars. It is not the case. Instead, before any training begins, we assess the dog to see if it is suitable for such training and this is based on the dog’s personality and health. We assess the dog’s emotional state, stress levels, aggression levels and general temperament. It is more the dog’s personality which is an indicator as to whether it is suitable for such training as opposed to its current level of obedience training. Keep in mind that veterinary certification may be required before an e-collar can be used in your state (as in Victoria) or their use may be banned.
How to Organise Training for Your Dog
If you’re interested in teaching your hunting dog to avoid snakes, or want to learn more about it, contact me to discuss training. Please do it now though, rather than wait for snake season, as summer sees me busy relocating snakes from houses and yards.