Snakes and puppy dog trails

Summer is almost here, and for the avid hiker and dog lover, there may be a greater risk lurking ahead than the scorching desert heat.

Rattlesnakes. Blending in among the rocks at Red Rock, concealed along the shore of Lake Mead, even hiding in the grass of your backyard. Rattlesnake season is here. And dogs are more likely than humans to get bitten because they don’t recognize the danger.

But there’s something you can do about that. Get Rattled and Smarty Paws Canine Coaching will host their 17th annual rattlesnake avoidance training clinic for dogs in Las Vegas on Tuesday, May 23.

Get Rattled teaches dogs to recognize and avoid the sight, sound, and smell of rattlesnakes. 

“We want the first encounter to be as natural as possible,” says Josh Potash, the owner of Get Rattled, who has been licensed by the Nevada Department of Wildlife for over 25 years. During part one, the dog encounters a live snake on the ground. Don’t worry, your dog is perfectly safe: There’s a snake handler on standby, and the snake has had its venom ducts surgically removed.

They used to muzzle the snakes, Potash says, but “muzzles are stressful on the snake. The snake tends to act defeated once they’re muzzled.” Removal of the venom ducts is more natural. “I’m a snake person,” Potash says. “I care about the snake’s safety as much as I care about the dogs’.” 

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(However, there is a petition on Force Change that wants to outlaw the practice of removing snakes’ fangs and venom glands because it can lead to discomfort in eating and life-threatening dental infections.)

The next part of the training teaches the dog to fear the snake by its scent. The snake is in a cage or box, and once the dog sticks its nose in, it’s zapped by an electricity collar, teaching the dog to avoid that scent.

Next, a snake is placed between the dog and the owner. The objective is for the dog is to recognize that the snake is an obstacle, and that the dog needs to maneuver around it to get to its owner.  

The final assessment is the bravery test: whether the dog will approach or avoid the snake. “When the dog is with their owner, it is more likely to be brave,” Potash says. When it’s with its owner, the dog may be more willing to challenge the snake, so typically dogs must go through the course without its owner.

But not always. Because all dogs are different, the training sometimes has to be tweaked. “Small dogs are bound to their owners their whole life,” Potash says. It’s harder for them to be separated from their owners, so sometimes they allow the dog to complete the training with the owner.

By and large, rattlesnakes are reclusive creatures. They don’t actually rattle unless there is an immediate threat. Potash said that 80 percent of people who get bitten instigated it by attacking the rattlesnake. “(Snakes) don’t want to be seen,” Potash says. “They don’t want to be exposed.”