Rattlesnake Avoidance Training

Published: Aug. 28, 2006 at 1:15 PM MST|Updated: Sep. 8, 2006 at 10:45 AM MST
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By J.D. Wallace, KOLD News 13 Reporter

The sound of a rattlesnake's rattle, a warning hard to ignore, is one most of our four legged friends don't understand.  Bill Tiley's scotty dog, McGregor, learned the hard way.

"The snake stood its ground and McGregor went and investigated, and he came off the loser," Tiley said.

"To treat can be very expensive, especially the small breed dogs like Pomeranians, Chihuahuas, and those can have a much more difficult time with venemous bites, and it can require intensive care and it can cost thousands of dollars to heal a rattlesnake bite in a dog," said Kartner Neal, DVM, with the Humane Society of Southern Arizona.

Neal should know.  As a veterinarian, she's seen numerous rattlesnake bites on dogs and cats.

"Snakes have very dirty mouths.  They have a lot of bacteria, so oftentimes, you can treat the original bite, but in the long run, you'll have an infected wound," Neal said.

But there's hope for dogs at least—rattlesnake avoidance training.  Steve Buhrke has been doing it for years.

"For most dogs it only takes two or three minutes.  The longest part of the training actually is getting the dogs to focus in on the snake for the first time," Buhrke said.

The dog, like a beagle named Baxter, must first be wearing a remote control electric collar.  With two de-fanged diamondbacks and a fanged mojave in a cage, Buhrke makes sure Baxter is looking at each snake, before he buzzes the dog.

"It's not going to burn them, it's not going to give them a heart attack, a seizure or anything like that.  It's harmless, it's just something that tells them, you know, 'ah!'" Buhrke said.

By mildly shocking the dog, it associates that pain with the sight, smell, and sound of a rattlesnake, training it to avoid them.

"I don't want them to key in on the sound on at least one snake.  I want them to find him by the smell, and by the shape of the snake and everything," Buhrke said.

That's why one snake's rattle is covered.  Tiley brought four scotty dogs to Buhrke's Pet Resort.  Piper, one of the scotties, was the only one never before trained to avoid rattlesnakes.  The other three still avoided them.

"Yeah, that's a good sign, yeah, that's what we want to see him do.  He's not trying to get near it," Buhrke said as they tested one of the trained dogs.

Tiley wanted to make sure, since the three trained dogs attacked a king snake.  But that non-poisonous snake smells different than rattlers, so it appeared that the dogs still knew what they were doing.

"I'm happy that they're still well trained.  It's been a little over a year since they were trained," Tiley said.

Others brought their dogs, from the Nolans' terrier mix named Snickers, to the Kurowskis' shihtzu named Oreo Kooky.

"I just wanted to make sure that she didn't think a snake was a friend, 'cause you never know where they could be.  They could be under our shrubs," Marje Kurowski said.

"We feel this training is very good, and she has reacted positively to it," Donald Nolan said.

"In this area, I definitely recommend that dogs receive training to avoid rattlesnakes, and then also talk to your veterinarian about the new rattlesnake vaccine that's available," Dr. Neal said.

Some dogs will react more severely to the shock than others, which can be hard to watch, but a small price to pay, in more ways than one.  Buhrke charges $50 per dog in his groups, the Humane Society will charge $65, all compared to possibly thousands if a rattler strikes.

"If we don't teach them to stay away from the snake, then they can get killed by it.  And so, a hundredth of a second of pain is worth the dog's life," Buhrke said.

The kind of training Tiley's scottys seemed to remember.

Burhke's Pet Resort offers groups on Wednesday at 6pm and Saturday at 10am and charges $50 per dog. Call 235-3765 for reservations.

Humane Society of Southern Arizona charges $65 per dog.

Call the Companions for Life Center at 795-6181 for information.

—Sunday 10pm Newscast