A nightmare for every dog owner, snake bites are a tragically dangerous and costly event. If your dog is bitten by a snake you can expect to be paying in excess of $3000.00 for treatment at the vet, and there is no guarantee of survival.
You are unlikely to find the location of the bite through the dogs fur, so don’t waste your time bandaging, most often snakes will strike the face or front legs as the dog is investigating. The best thing to do is to restrict movement and quickly get to the nearest vet without delay, the more time that goes by the less chance your dog has of survival.
Call ahead to make sure there is antivenin in stock. There are over 80 species of venomous snakes in Australia, although Brown snakes and Tiger snakes are the most common in Greater Melbourne. They are more toxic at the beginning of the season which can vary according to the weather anything from August to November. Snakes inhabit areas close to water sources with lots of vegetation and cover as this is where they find rodents and other small prey. So be wary when walking along creek or river paths.
Good quality snake avoidance training teaches your dog that snakes are to be avoided at all costs as a matter of self preservation. Teaching the dog to not only avoid when they see a snake but also to create distance when they smell the snake as well. It is an affordable proactive investment, rather than having to react post bite.
Victorian Dog Training Academy are the only organisation in Victoria that uses real live venomous snakes during the entire training process. You can’t get better than the real thing. The snakes are provided by Snakebusters.com.au, owned by world renowned reptile expert Raymond Hoser. Raymond has named over 500 species during his career and can give some valuable insight in to snake behaviour and education on identifying species to the dog owners who participate.
As snake avoidance training grows in popularity there are inexperienced operators taking advantage of people who are worried and merely trying to protect their dog. These people trust the operators and depend on them to get it right for their dog, unfortunately they don’t know who is competent and who is not, effective snake avoidance training involves the use of remote training devices (electronic collar), there are side effects created when this training is performed incorrectly.
What do you need to be aware of when shopping for snake avoidance training?
Make sure you will be working with a “dog trainer” not a snake handler alone. You need help from someone who is experienced and understands canine behaviour, how dogs learn and how strong associations are reliably made. This is not something that is picked up in a small amount of time. The consequences of going with inexperienced operators can be significant. Here are some things to consider.
Venomous species are of utmost importance. Odour is very important for the dog to understand what they are meant to avoid, the very first time your dog smells snake odour is the most important repetition to provide feedback for. They will never forget this first repetition; all subsequent repetitions are secondary to this. Having strong association for venomous snake odour means the difference between avoiding a snake 10 meters away in long grass or sniffing something similar but being curious to investigate further. This is a very common behaviour in dogs, when an association has been formed they need to be sure that the “horrible thing” is not present. This is why post training they investigate areas of residual odour (where a snake was) so thoroughly, they want to be sure it’s gone and if possible which way it went. When they smell something similar it often causes forward movement (investigation) you do not want this occurring in real life. A dog that has been trained on python odour will commonly go forward to investigate tiger snake odour because it’s not quite the same and they want to be sure of that. When venomous species are used, the dog is sure of what they are smelling and exits the scene quickly. Another reason it’s important to use venomous species is generalisation in training. If you were to use non venomous species you are banking on generalisation occurring across all snake species, dog trainers know that for generalisation to occur the consequence (whether good or bad) needs to be significant, surprising, a big deal. This means that in the context of snake avoidance the electronic collar setting needs to be higher, this makes it more likely for incorrect or suspicious associations to be formed, it’s also harder on the dog. It makes it more likely the dog will associate things like the location of the training, the people who are present, sticks on the ground or snake shaped objects etc. Best practice is using the lowest possible settings that still get the desired result. Only an experienced trainer can do this. We have heard horrible stories of long lasting side effects of sub par snake avoidance training. If someone tries to explain that you don’t need venomous species, steer clear.
As touched on before the goal of snake avoidance is that the dog forms an independent association. The only relevant information being that venomous snakes are bad. We need the dog to understand they should avoid venomous snakes on their own, this is of paramount importance. In real life we can’t rely on you calling the dog away from the snake, we can’t even rely on you seeing the snake. If you are on a walk with a snake avoidance trained dog, you most likely won’t even see the dog avoid. You are not equipped to detect snakes, your dog is. We want the dog to avoid snakes when they are off lead, when they are at home in the back yard, independent of you. All our snake avoidance procedures are designed with this in mind and great care is taken in the way we handle the dog during our sessions. We rarely walk the dog on lead into the path of a snake on the ground, we don’t coax the dog to come near a snake when it doesn’t want to, and we certainly don’t hold snakes in the air, dogs should be able to trust the picture of something in your hand, if you have a ball or a tug or food in your hand for training the dog should be optimistic about this. If you as the owner and guardian of your dog is telling the dog to come over to something scary just to be corrected by an electronic collar, what do you think that will do to the trust in your relationship? These are the types of things that will give snake avoidance training a bad name. Apart from the trust issues there is the chance that the training will not be effective due to the dog associating the owner as part of the overall picture. When a behaviour is punished the vast majority of dogs will not perform the behaviour when the source of the punishment is present, in most cases this is the owner, however they will still engage in the behaviour when the source of punishment is absent, think digging, chewing etc. This is why independent association is so important, and the only way to reliably do that is via electronic training aids.
Positive snake avoidance training, apart from being an oxymoron there are serious problems with people taking money for this approach. Positive snake avoidance techniques are useless, it involves the owner installing the snake as a recall cue for the dog, this is only relevant when the owner is present, so the dog will not avoid when alone. Furthermore, for this cue to be installed reliably you need dozens and dozens of repetitions, private or group sessions simply can’t cater for this, you would need to have access to the snakes on ten or more separate occasions which is not feasible. It also makes the dog have an indirect positive association with snakes which is very, very dangerous. When you teach a dog to come successfully, the sound of the command takes on its own intrinsically reinforcing quality, meaning good feelings occur in the brain when the dog hears the command. To do this with an external visual cue (snake) is similar to a touch command or even an indication in scent detection, if it is not rewarded to dog will go back there, closer and closer. Tragic.
If you intend on using electronic training aids in the future for other training purposes or you already are, a discussion needs to be had about whether snake avoidance is appropriate for you and if so exactly when it should be performed.