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A slithering lesson for dogs

Safety: Most canines don’t have a natural instinct to avoid rattlesnakes

Posted: July 30, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: July 30, 2011 1:57 a.m.

The Rattlesnake Avoidance Training Clinic on Aug. 7 in Castaic will offer a safe, controlled environment in order to train your dog to avoid rattlesnakes, which are prevalent on Santa Clarita Valley hiking trails, and in rural areas.

Curiosity doesn’t just kill cats. Inquisitive dogs can often be the victim of a fatal snake bite, especially during hot summer months in the Santa Clarita Valley.

“There are such a huge number of rattlesnakes in this area, and amazingly, a lot of dogs don’t have the instinct to stay away from them,” said Gina Gables, professional dog trainer and owner of Ma & Paw Kennel Canine Training Services in Camarillo. “By making dogs aware, and teaching them about rattlesnakes, you can avoid bites.”

Gables, along with reptile expert Kent Beaman, will lead a rattlesnake-avoidance-training clinic for dogs at a private facility in Castaic from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Aug. 7. The address is given upon registration for the class, which costs $80 per dog.

“If you hike or have a property that backs up to open space, it’s really important to teach your dog rattlesnake avoidance, regardless of the size of dog you have,” Gables said. “Even people who just walk their dogs, depending on how rural it is, can encounter snakes in strange places.”

Each registered dog and owner will have an individual 15-minute training session with a live snake.

“We use a real rattlesnake, which is muzzled so it can’t bite. Visually, we want the situation to look as natural as possible for the dog. We set up different staging areas that are exactly what a dog might encounter in a yard or on a trail,” Gables said. “Our first priority is the comfort and safety of all involved.”

When the dog alerts to the presence of the snake by visual or scent cues, Gables utilizes a remote electric collar to introduce a mild yet unpleasant stimulation.

“The dog begins to have a negative association with snakes and wants to stay away from them, whether they hear something rattling or catch a scent,” she said. “If the owner is observant of the dog’s behavior, he or she can possibly prevent themselves or others from being bitten, as well.”

According to Red Rock Biologics, manufacturers of antivenom, approximately 150,000 dogs and cats are bitten annually in the United States by venomous snakes. Additionally, dogs are 500 times more likely to be bitten by a poisonous snake than to get rabies.

While all dogs that spend time outdoors are potentially at risk for rattlesnake bites, high-prey breeds are even more in danger.

“I would say terriers or dogs that were bred to go after things,” Gables said. “All dogs are predators, so having that mentality, usually want to check something out a little closer.”

As such, snakebites tend to occur on a dog’s face or extremities. Snake venom contains components that are neurotoxic, affecting the nervous system, or hemotoxic, affecting the blood and vessels, or both.

Bite symptoms include swelling, severe pain, nausea, numbness, excessive salivation, muscle spasms and uncontrolled blood loss. Bites on the face or around the mouth, which contain a high concentration of blood vessels, are usually the most serious.

If your dog has been bit, it is crucial that it is brought to a veterinarian as soon as possible for antivenom treatment. (You may want to check in advance if your veterinarian carries antivenom, or find a local veterinary clinic that does).

Treatment is most effective the faster a bite is recognized. Mobility should be decreased as much as possible; carry the dog to safety if you can. Stay calm and quiet.

If you can’t get your dog to a rattlesnake-avoidance class, such as Gables’, there are several tips she recommends to stay clear of snakes:

- Control your dog with a leash while walking or hiking — off-leash dogs are much more likely to be bitten;

- Hike with a friend who will be able to go for help, and bring a cellphone;

- Do not allow your dog to explore holes in the ground or dig under logs or rocks;

- If your dog seems curious about something in the grass, back off immediately;

- Open paths where snakes are visible are the best route to take;

- Limit nighttime walks — rattlesnakes are nocturnal for most of the year;

- And if you hear or come across a rattlesnake, keep your dog at your side, then move away;

To register for the Aug. 7 rattlesnake avoidance clinic with Gina Gables, call (805) 523-3432 or visit www.


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