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NV Press: Dogs discover the risks of snakes

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Posted by W von Papineäu on September 03, 2002 at 09:41:59:

RENO GAZETTE-JOURNAL (Nevada) 01 September 02 Dogs discover the risks of snakes - Rattlesnake-avoidance class teaches dogs to be safe in the wild. (Cory Farley)
The Sheltie cross, an alert and curious dog, trotted across the packed dirt as though it owned the field. Sniffing here and there, he investigated a tree, a clump of dirt, a pile of leaves. He paid no attention to a small mound of rocks at the back of the lot.
Beneath the rocks — surprise! — was a Great Basin rattler, brought in for the day to help teach dogs to ignore snakes.
Since the Sheltie showed no interest, volunteer Cindy Smullen explained, he hadn’t yet had a “trainable moment.”
“Crook! Crookie! Come on!” Linda Herrera, on the far side of the rocks, called her dog. Crook bounded in her direction.
When he neared the pile, Willie Stevens pushed a button. Crook’s collar gave him a light shock — “light” to anyone not wearing the collar. He yelped, leaped into the air, nearly somersaulted in place and froze.
“Come on, Crookie,” crooned Herrera, obviously unhappy but determined to see job through. Crook would have none of it. His eyes were fixed on his owner, but he stood fast. After a few seconds, Herrera retrieved him, petted him lavishly, removed the shock collar and headed home.
Even those who knew the reason had winced when Herrera called her trusting pet into ambush, but they agreed it was necessary.
“You want to let them get the scent of the snake,” explained Stevens, a member of Reno’s German Shorthaired Pointer Club, which co-sponsored the rattlesnake-avoidance session in Pleasant Valley.
Though rattlesnakes are rarely seen, they’re common in most of Nevada, including the Truckee Meadows. A knowledgeable enthusiast like John Potash usually can poke around and find one.
Potash, of the Wildlife Rescue Foundation, handles all kinds of animals but is partial to reptiles. When someone calls to report a rattler in the woodpile, he’s apt to be the one who ferrets it out.
“I get 150, 200 calls a year,” he said. “I’ve probably had about 2,000 calls total” since the Foundation began in 1997.
The rattler in the rocks was one of Potash’s, saved from death by shovel in a suburban yard. He’d also brought a gopher snake.
About 80 owners signed their dogs up for the snake avoidance course, said Lorna Weaver of the Nevada Wildlife Federation, another sponsor. Many were preparing hunting dogs for the coming season.
“I was born and raised in Nevada,” said Bob Hamilton as he stroked Grace, a yellow Lab who’d just finished a run through the field. “I’ve only seen one rattlesnake in my life.
“But we hunt both waterfowl and upland birds, and some of those river bottoms are snaky.” Better to pay the $50 fee, he figured, than risk having Grace bitten.
“She’s so dang curious, I want her to learn,” explained Susan Kennedy of Gardnerville, watching either Misty or Piper explore the field. Kennedy’s German shorthaired pointers are so nearly identical that only she and they knew which was which. Both went through, both responded to the snakes and both got shocked.
The pointer club, of which Kennedy is a member, provided most of the workers for the classes. Classes ran over two days, but training for each animal took only a few minutes.
Each dog was fitted with a shock collar, leashed and led into the field by a volunteer handler. Owners stayed out of sight so the dogs wouldn’t be distracted (Herrera was an exception — Crook is so devoted to her that he was nearly unmanageable when she wasn’t visible).
The trainees were allowed to wander among the trees, but gradually were moved toward the rocks. To prevent bites, they weren’t allowed onto the pile, but did come close enough to catch the scent.
About half, like Crook, didn’t react to the rattler at all. Few showed any real interest.
If a dog did point or otherwise take notice, it received a shock. If it didn’t, Potash would place the non-poisonous gopher snake on the ground and the handler would lead the dog directly over it. Eventually all were exposed to the rattler — and immediately shocked to discourage interest.
“The dogs are all different,” said Paul George, a pointer club member and lieutenant with the University of Nevada, Reno police. “Some respond right away. Others take four or five times.”
As a rule, one or two of the harmless shocks was enough to make the point. One leggy mongrel barked and pawed at the rocks on her first trip through and got a shock. On the second, she started that way and got another one.
On her third pass, as clearly as any human could have, she turned her head in the opposite direction and marched stiffly past. Rocks? What rocks?
“I hate to see her get shocked,” her owner admitted. “But it’s worth it not to have her get by a snake.”
For more information on snake-avoidance training for dogs, call Lorna Weaver at 677-0927 or Quail Unlimited’s Rudy Hindelang at 267-5269.

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