Canine Snake Avoidance
Previously I wrote an article in WoofMag and provided general advice about how to keep dogs safe from snake bites. The article was well received in providing general guidelines in understanding about what to do around the home and going for walks. Todays focus is specifically on
"staying away from snakes". This is achieved through Canine Snake Avoidance training.
WHAT IS CANINE SNAKE AVOIDANCE TRAINING?
Canine Snake Avoidance was originally developed in Australia by Seth Pywell, dog behaviour modification specialist (Perth). After reviewing traditional methods of teaching dogs to avoid snakes based on training developed in the U.S.A, he found significant weaknesses as USA or other training methods were unable to be ‘generalised’ to situations in the back yard, going for walks or in strange/ different circumstances especially where the owner was not present.
His training methods were originally applied to working and hunting dogs and were later modified to suit rescue dogs. All of these types of dogs, by their very nature, are extremely inquisitive in new environments and are well driven. Later, Seth has adapted his training to be applied to all types of family pet dogs provided that they have suitable temperament.
Training is essentially teaching a dog to make an association between the behaviour and the outcome of that behaviour and then to adapt when confronted with the circumstance warranting the desired outcome. For example, if you have trained a dog to “Sit” the desired behaviour would be for the dog to sit down.
Proper Canine Snake Avoidance training uses training techniques to teach a dog that it is to avoid snakes in ALL circumstances. To achieve this, we apply initial operant conditioning training whereby the dog cognitively learns that there is a desired behaviour when it visualises a snake (the dog learns to move away from the snake). The dog learns that mildly unpleasant stimulation when it moves towards a snake, and moving away from the snake results in praise and food reward. This needs to be established to a level of deep comprehension in the dog before any further training can occur.
The second phase of training involves classical conditioning techniques whereby an involuntary emotional state occurs when the dog identifies a snake (visually or through smell). The dog needs to develop an emotional state of fear when it sees a snake and is demonstrated when the dog vigorously pulls away.
HOW A DOG VIEWS SNAKES
To a dog, a snake is a unique creature that moves in strange ways. Dogs often interpret a snake as a very excitable ‘chew toy’ or something to play with or kill. Because a dog would likely not have had interactions with snakes before, it will be very curious to smell a snake especially because the odour would be different to anything previously encountered. The dog is likely to bring its nose extremely close to a snake to smell and as a result the most likely place for a dog to get bitten is on the nose/face.
Australia has the most venomous snakes in the world and snake bites are accountable for approximately over 6000 dog deaths annually. Upon meeting a snake most dogs expect that the interaction would be exciting and enjoyable as they quickly approach it. Some dogs recognise the danger of snakes and immediately try to kill it. Either way, the dog is interacting with a snake which brings about disastrous, painful and heartbreaking consequences. This is why it is important to do the proper training which produces “reliable” outcomes.
One of the biggest training issues that has occurred in Australia since this program was developed was that well-meaning, inexperienced operators (including qualified dog trainers) have attempted to duplicate this training method without truly understanding the principles and application of Canine Snake Avoidance Training. The result is ‘unreliable’ training whereby the methods taught by these operators only work with the dog in specific circumstances but not all scenarios. I’ve caught many snakes in homes where the dog has had an interaction with the snake AFTER completing training from operators who have attempted to duplicate Seth Pywell’s training methods but without actually learning the proper training methods. In these scenarios dogs have either been very aggressive towards snakes, or not being able to adapt the training because it was a different scenario.
What makes proper Canine Snake Avoidance training reliable is when there is the outcome of a dog avoiding all snakes in all circumstances, all locations and whether or not the owner is present. This is only achieved when the snake avoidance training has been ‘generalised’ for all snakes and locations.
HOW DO DOGS GET BITTEN BY SNAKES?
Almost all snake bites in dogs fall in to one of three categories:
Oblivious: The dog is oblivious to the presence of a snake and inadvertently makes contact. During snake avoidance clinics, owners can be surprised that a dog has not yet seen or smelt a snake despite laying metres from it.
Curious: Most dogs receive snake bites due to curiosity. The snake, its movement or odour invariably attracts the dog to investigate. In these circumstances, there is rarely any ill will towards the snake, rather just plain curiosity.
Snake Killers: Some dogs actively pursue and engage snakes due to hunting or other instincts. These dogs generally do better to avoid snake bites than other dogs however it is still extremely risky behaviour and endangers the life of the dog and snake.
CAN TRAINING BE ACHIEVED THROUGH ‘POSTIVE’ ONLY METHODS?
One of the biggest issues propagated is that ALL undesirable behaviours can be modified through ‘positive’ only methods of training. This includes rewarding a dog (with praise, food treats etc.) when the desired behaviour occurs and withholding a reward during undesirable behaviour from a dog. While all animals lovers should proactively promote as much positivity in training as possible, there are only a very specific set of circumstances that must be in play to render these ‘positive only’ techniques effective.
The issue with using this training technique when it comes to snake avoidance, is that the dog’s desire to interact with a snake will far outweigh any reward offered and furthermore, the withholding of a reward will not even be considered by a dog due to the overwhelming curiosity towards snakes. Consider what would happen when the owner is not present a snake appears in the back yard. In the dog’s mind, the reward of approaching a snake is far greater than anything else at that moment. Unless the dog learns cognitively that it must avoid snakes combined with a fear of them, it will not avoid a snake no matter how much you believe in positive only training.
FALSE TRAINING AIDS
Teaching canine snake avoidance training requires the use of live snakes. To rely on a dog mistaking an object for a snake is extremely flawed thinking. Teaching with rubber snakes, snake skins or something else will effectively to teach the dog to avoid only that but will be completely useless to teach dogs to avoid live snakes.
In Australia, there is no need to use venomous snakes as part of the training. It is common for some to make deceptive claims that you need to use venomous snakes to teach a dog to avoid venomous snakes. Proper snake avoidance training generalises for dogs to avoid all snakes whether or not they are venomous. To a dog, Australian venomous snakes do not look discernibly different to non-venomous varieties.
Similarly, the odour of any animal is detected by a dog in three ways:
Gender (male or female)
Individual (E.g This is Claire, or This is Mark).
Species (e.g. this is a snake, this is a wombat, this is a human).
A dog does NOT smell a snake and discern “this is a woma python” and smell another snake and say “this is a green tree snake”. Instead, when smelling a snake a dog would interpret: This is a snake, male, and identify an individual from a snake but still will just be a snake.
WHAT TYPES OF DOGS LEARN FROM THIS TRAINING?
Self-discovery is a very important in the canine snake avoidance training. The appropriate temperament for a dog is to be forward going, inquisitive of new environments. If your dog is extremely shy, clings to your leg and is too timid or shy to express itself in general settings, then canine snake avoidance training can still occur but would required a modified program after discussing the particular dogs individual needs. The dog also needs to be able to take food rewards and handling by a stranger in novel environments.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Pelley – The Snake Hunter is a Melbourne based venomous snake catcher and consultant. He frequently appears in the media for protecting the local community in notable snake catching scenarios. Mark has been trained and certified by Seth Pywell in the proper techniques and methods and teaches Canine Snake Avoidance for dogs in Victoria.