Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks: Is Rattlesnake-Avoidance Training Effective?

Cochran, Chip

Hayes, William K.

Department of Earth and Biological Sciences

Loma Linda University

Loma Linda, CA 92350 USA

Shelley, Erin L.

Natural Solutions Wildlife Enterprises

Yucca Valley, CA 92284 USA

Dogs frequently interact with venomous snakes. An estimated 150,000 dogs suffer venomous snakebite in the United States each year, experiencing high levels of morbidity and death. Owners experience emotional distress and often pay large medical bills. The snake usually fares worst of all, as it is typically killed by the bitten dog or by the angry pet owner. A small service industry has emerged to provide canine rattlesnake-avoidance training. Because no published data exist on the effectiveness of these programs, we tested the effectiveness of training methods of one prominent Californian company, Natural Solutions Wildlife Enterprises. Using a blind study design, one of us (CC) led untrained (N=84) and previously-trained (once, N=42; twice, N=18) dogs through a standard training sequence at four stations: (1) a neonate rattlesnake; (2) shed skins (isolated odor stimulus); (3) rattling sounds (isolated audible stimulus); and (4) an adult rattlesnake. When the dog fixed its attention on the snake or snake aspect at each station, the trainer delivered a brief electronic stimulation via a commercially-available collar to provide direct associative learning resulting in a conditioned reflex response. We measured two variables at each of stations 1, 2, and 4: number of stimulations to induce retreat, and distance of nearest approach to the snake. MANOVA for the four dependent variables suitable for analysis revealed a highly significant effect of prior training. Post-hoc multiple comparisons indicated that previously trained dogs, regardless of whether trained once or twice before, responded after fewer electronic stimulations and at greater distances than naive dogs. Dog size had no effect on behavioral responses, and no interaction existed between training group and dog size. These findings suggest that a single training session using the protocol adopted by Natural Solutions Wildlife Enterprises can result in a measurable level of rattlesnake avoidance.