Each year, roughly 8,000 humans are bitten by venomous snakes in North America. That number is almost certainly higher for dogs, though it is not reported on a national scale. Of the bites inflicted on us and our canine counterparts, the culprits are pretty much guaranteed to be a type of rattlesnake or cottonmouth. Both belong to the North American pit viper subfamily, which contains about two dozen species.
Pit viper venom varies in potency from species to species, with the Mojave and Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes delivering the most dangerous strikes. It’s hard to know how much time a dog has after a bite or how much tissue will be damaged, but the outcome is never good. While most dogs (and people) survive the bites, that’s not an assured result. And proper veterinarian treatment—if you can get to a clinic in time—is costly.
A better way to avoid the headache and potential heartache of having your pointer get struck by a rattler is to train him or her to avoid venomous snakes altogether.
Arizona resident and professional dog trainer Guy Mollicone is an expert on snake breaking. He says that many other trainers fail to give dogs real-world experience with snakes in training.
“If you don’t spend time in the wild where dogs are going to get exposed to rattlesnakes, it’s difficult to understand the process fully,” Mollicone said. “A dead giveaway for this is if the snake-breaking occurs in a glass or plexiglass cage. If that’s how a trainer plans to expose your dog to a venomous snake, you’ll get a dog that is terrified of glass or plexiglass cages, not snakes.”
Mollicone learned from some of the best field trainers around, folks who relied on their dogs’ health to make it through a workday. “The guys I trained under, they ran hounds or herding dogs out here in the American Southwest. They ran into snakes all of the time, so they needed to get the training and exposure right. This is why I break dogs on snakes as they’d be found in the wild.”
Mollicone not only captures snakes where he trains, he also milks and defangs them himself (don’t try this at home). It’s important that the dogs train with the type of snakes that they might come across in the field, he says. Pit vipers give off an odor that nonvenomous snakes, such as garter or bull snakes, do not. Since dogs heavily rely on aromatic clues, they need to learn what rattlers and cottonmouths smell like.
His first step to snake breaking is to introduce a dog to the snake on the ground in an environment where you might expect to find snakes. “After setting the stage for a safe encounter, I want to see if a dog would naturally get bit. I let the snake loose, and then give the dog the chance to see it, hear it, smell it and feel its presence. If the dog approaches too close and sticks his nose on the snake, he’s going to get bit. That’s a dog that needs to be broken of his curiosity.”
Mollicone tests dogs on snakes that rattle and those that don’t make a sound, because the canines need to be prepared for any type of encounter. He wants to be able to administer a correction as soon as a client’s dog enters the snake’s striking range, preferably right when the snake lashes out. He doesn’t shock with the maximum voltage, as some trainers suggest, rather preferring to fine-tune the correction with a rheostat dial. He prefers to have the dog walk in with its owner, so it is comfortable and he can stand back to observe and correct.
“Some dogs go in hot and aggressive, so I have to match that mentality to the correction. Others are timid and don’t need much persuasion at all,” Mollicone said. “I don’t ever want to over-do a correction, so I pay special attention to a dog’s body language during the entire encounter.”
This also allows Mollicone to follow through on the training, because not all dogs get the message from the first correction: “Some dogs just stand off after the first correction and watch. You’ll see them stand there thinking things over and then they’ll take a step forward toward the snake. This happens a lot with certain breeds, like terriers. When this happens it might take another correction or two to get the point across.”
Mollicone said that he divides his snake-breaking time between working with bird dog owners and general pet owners who live in areas with a high prevalence of venomous snakes. It’s a responsible move for anyone who owns a dog in snake-prone areas.
Vetting a potential trainer to make sure their process offers real world scenarios is as crucial as the training itself. Because of these complexities, everyday dog owners can’t do justice to proper snake breaking. You can teach your dog to make water retrieves or heel on command, but getting them to identify and avoid venomous snakes demands more intensive training.
If you’re a bird dog owner who lives in snake country or you have any plans of heading South or Southwest, consider finding a qualified trainer to snake break your dog. It just might save your four-legged hunting partner’s life.
Feature image via John Hafner.