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Summer is rattlesnake season

Posted: June 30, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: June 30, 2013 2:00 a.m.

A caged rattlesnake eyes the dogs passing the cage. Live rattlesnakes are used so that dogs can be trained to avoid the scent of a rattlesnake in the wild. Photo by Dan Watson/The Signal

 

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When a jogger’s dog suddenly sprang several feet in the air, the runner was glad that his dog was trained to avoid rattlesnakes.

The man and his dog had been running when they suddenly came upon the hidden snake. Instead of a dog’s normal reaction, the surprised animal jumped and avoided the snake completely.

That is because it was trained by Sam Elder, hunter and owner of Four Winds Pheasant Hunting Club.

Elder, 73, has been using rattlesnakes to teach dogs avoidance to the poisonous reptiles for the last 10 years.

And it paid off for the jogger and the dog.

"The jogger’s life was possibly saved as well as the dog’s," said Elder.

Elder believes strongly in his program, "Snake Break," a rattlesnake avoidance program for all breeds of dogs.

And he brooks no opposition.

In fact, this outspoken hunter condemns groups who oppose his methods.

The aging, trim outdoorsman denies that the use of electronic collars for rattlesnake avoidance is abusive.

Calling critics "extremists", the iconoclastic gray-haired- huntsman vigorously defends the use of "e-collars" in training dogs in rattlesnake avoidance.

"It is not abuse. It saves the lives of dogs and people," he says emphatically.

The training teaches dogs to avoid the sight and smell of rattlesnakes by applying an electric shock each time the dog approaches a rattlesnake. Hidden in bushes, duel barrier cages house two large rattlers.

Opponents say the method is cruel.

Gabriella Ravani of "Great Dogs Training and Education" in San Diego passionately opposes the use of electronic shock in training dogs — even in the case of rattlesnake avoidance.

"There is no 100 percent in any training and nothing replaces vigilance around long grass, bushes and brush, a solid recall and a short leash on trails," says Ravani on her dog training website.

"E-collar snake breaking does not provide magical lifesaving results," continues Ravani.

She gives examples of three cases where the collars "failed miserably."

Ravani says snake aversion trainers "…like to pretend electric shocks don’t hurt…".

"In fact, in two of the three failures — it (e-collar training) failed miserably," continues Ravani. "My friend…took her Jack Russell Terrier to e-collar snake aversion training — one week later, her Hubby took two of their dogs to work with him and let them out to run in a field near his job…Dottie the terrier was frolicking, yelped, obviously bitten by a rattler, and despite an immediate trip to the nearest vet, Dottie died," says Ravani.

Ravani says that a friend of the above owner attended the same training.

"Her female didn’t learn that snakes were dangerous-instead her dog learned that being in groups of people and their dogs is painful. The dog is now ruined for agility and can no longer run in agility trials, the park like setting and crowd of people and dogs were too similar to the aversion seminar setting, resulting in a dog that is a shivering wreck on the agility field."

Elder admits that there are people in the training that sometimes abuse the dogs inadvertently. "One member of the club (Elder’s club) turned the collar way up and screwed up his dog," says Elder.

In the Snake Break training, only Elder uses the e-collar. Elder says he "uses the collars properly."

Elder contends that the great majority of dogs are not hurt by the low electric shocks. "The anti-rattlesnake program is very successful."

"It cuts training by two-thirds without abusing the dogs," says Elder.

Elder and six volunteers rotate during the appointed sessions with the dogs.

However, the owners "do call the dogs" to test whether the pet will avoid the rattlesnake cages, he says.

Starting with as low voltage as possible, the amount of electricity is increased if the dog continues to approach the rattlesnakes. The training "goes until the dog gets it," says Elder.

Some dogs are faster learners than others. A few don’t get it at all, he says.

"In that case we stop giving the electricity," says Elder.

"When the dog’s attention is on the snake, an unpleasant stimulation (the electricity) is applied to the dog. The stimulation is similar to static electricity," says the Idaho Humane Society’s snakebite avoidance program website.

On a bright Saturday morning in June at Mint Canyon School in Canyon Country, a group of volunteers from SCV Quail & Upland Wildlife Federation sat up cages with rattlers inside.

Under the direction of Elder, they surrounded the cages with potted plants and flags. The flags were meant for volunteers to see the direction of the wind.

"Katy" a two-year-old female English springer spaniel was set downwind from the snakes.

Though the long haired liver and white colored dog was specially trained in scenting through the "National Association of Canine Scent Work", her owners, Bess and Chuck Knight, felt she needed this additional training.

Katy was given a low voltage jolt the first time she approached one of the cages.

"Curiosity is what gets dogs and owners in trouble," says Derek Fong, chapter chairman of the federation.

And that ability to smell caused Katy to be curious. "A dog’s sense of smell is much greater than a human’s," adds Fong.

A human being has 50 million scent receptors.

Whereas, a dog like Katy has millions more; anywhere from 125 million receptors in a Dachshund to 300 million in a Bloodhound, says Stanley Coren, PhD, in his book, "Understanding Your Dog for Dummies."

"We are backed up to chaparral where we live in Stone Crest (a development in Canyon Country), says Bess Knight.

"It is more about training the dog’s owner than the dog," grins her husband Chuck. "We learned from the Snake Break trainers about the heating and cooling activity cycles of snakes, and where they engage in this (biting) behavior."

"We learned, particularly, to pay attention to our dog’s avoidance signals," added Bess.

Even quick learners like Katy will need retraining, says Elder.

"Dogs must be retrained every four years. Once I had a dog who forgot everything because I skipped a year. The following year the dog went right to the snake in the cage to smell."

Elder says in addition to physical harm, snake bites pose an economic problem.

"It cost $1.3 million dollars to save a girl who was snake bit not long ago," says Elder. "A vile of anti-venom is $600. After the vile is administered, vets have to flush the dog’s system, that — and the overnights — add up."

Sometimes avoidance training is the only way a pet can survive.

"The Mojave Green is the most deadly rattler—its venom is a neurotoxin and you or your dog’s chances of survival are not good," says Elder.

Seco Canyon Animal Clinic owner Terry Dayton agrees with Elder.

Dayton, who is a registered veterinarian technician, says while she is against e-collars in regular dog training, in this case "…it does a great service. It has the dog associate a shock with the sight and smell of a snake. They (dogs) won’t go by a rattlesnake for years."

She says her dogs are trained for snake avoidance by e-collars.

Dr. Jenny Johnson, a veterinarian on the Seco clinic staff, also has her dogs go through the snake bite avoidance program, says Dayton.

Rattlesnake avoidance training originally was designed for hunting dogs.

"Now 80 percent of the dogs are non-hunting dogs," says Fong. "People from recent burn areas such as Elizabeth Lake turned out this year for the training."

Fong says the training is a community service.

"We are a non-profit and what profits we make is given to wildlife conservation. We have trained over 400 dogs in the last three months," says Fong who has been the chapter chairman since 1992.

The program was sponsored by the foundation at Mint Canyon School in April, May, and June. The wildlife group holds this training every year in those months.

The "Snake Break" website is www.snakebreak.com. The contact number is 661-297-0876. Sam Elder’s website is www.pheasantclub.com. His e-mail address is sam.elder@verizon-net, or call 310-370-2238 and 310-720-8773.

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