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I live in Utah (and in Colorado before that), and there’s nothing I enjoy more than to be out on a mountain hike with my dogs. There are many things that could injure our dogs on such an adventure: other dogs (the biggest danger if owners have no control over them), bears, aggressive deer, mountain lions, snakes, falling off cliffs, getting caught in a lightning storm, overexertion, humans on bicycles, humans on ATVs and humans hunting during hunting season.
Of all of these dangers, the one I keep seeing special training for is for snakes. When I see these expensive weekend clinics that promise to teach your dog how to avoid snakes using shock collars, it makes me sad that dog owners fall for it. What about all of the other dangerous animals lurking outside that could potentially harm Fido? Should we shock our dogs any time they start sniffing anywhere outside? Silly to think about, isn’t it?
There is training that is better done every day by the owner — and done without pain or force. For most of my adult life, I have lived in the country. I explore outside every day that I can with as many as five off-leash dogs (on my own property) even deep in so-called “rattle snake country,” and not one of my dogs has been bitten by a snake. We certainly have encountered many snakes on our walks. Once, I looked out my window and saw a huge rattlesnake moving past one of my sleeping dogs. Just then my dog sat up and looked at the snake. I tapped on the window and gave my dog a hand signal for “Stay,” and he did. The snake slithered off, and no one was harmed.
Here’s how I trained my dogs to stay safe — using no fear, force or punishment — not just from snakes, but from all kinds of potential dangers out in the world. You need four things: Relationship, Recall, Leave It and a Leash.
This is paramount in all situations with your dogs. I want my dogs to always love being near me. I work hard to clearly communicate what behaviors I love for my dogs to offer me, and they are richly rewarded for doing what I want them to do. The dog learns from puppyhood that I am tons of fun to be around and that he never has to fear me. I train dogs to seek me out for comfort, fun and assistance should they find themselves in any kind of trouble. If a dog has to choose between chasing wildlife or me, I always want him to choose me.
One of the top truly lifesaving skills to teach your dog is a solid recall. I start training a recall off leash. I use really motivational food, and when the dog is a few feet from me, I say, “Come!” and back up while holding out the training morsel in front of me. I do this in low-distraction rooms in my home where I can control the environment. Once I have compliance every time, I train with random rates of reinforcement but still in the house. I slowly add distractions, such as a toy on the floor or a less desirable piece of food. I am still working off leash. If you find you’ve moved too quickly, and your dog is ignoring you, adjust your training. If a dog ignores me after I have ensured he understands what I am asking, I just walk away and shut the closest door. I remove myself. I come back and ask again. It works.
Once I have an excellent indoor off-leash recall, I move outside but with a leash. After I have excellent recall work on leash, I will switch to a longer line and work up to yet another excellent recall. Finally, after many, many successful recalls on leash with added distractions, then and only then do I move to recalls with no leash outside. It works. It also takes some work, but your dog is worth it!
3. Leave it
“Leave it” is a crucial cue for your dog to understand. There are many ways to teach this one, just do so in a forceand fear-free manner. The last thing you want when you do come across a snake is to scream LEAVE IT at your dog, and he freezes in fear for being punished in the past while learning to leave something.
You can avoid all kinds of natural dangers simply by keeping your dog on a 6-foot or longer (but not retractable) leash. Even if you’re hiking in an area where dogs are permitted to be off leash, snakes (and other wildlife) have not read human rules and can be anywhere. If you don’t have the above three items down solidly, keep Fido safe and on leash.