Dogs conditioned to avoid snakes |

Dogs conditioned to avoid snakes

F. T. Norton, Tribune News Service

Six minutes of misery during a Snake Avoidance Clinic gave dozens of dogs and their owners potentially life-saving training.

Hosted by the Nevada Wildlife Federation in conjunction with the German Shorthaired Pointer Club of Reno, about 55 animals went through the one-on-one clinic over two days in Pleasant Valley, where dogs were introduced to rattlesnakes while simultaneously being shocked by a collar.

“We are hoping for the lifetime of the dog, the dog will avoid snakes and not get bit,” said Cindy Smullen, of the Pointer Club.

Government statistics estimate that each year about 8,000 people receive venomous bites in the U.S., and nine to 15 humans die. There are no records for numbers of pets bitten.

During the clinic the snakes are wild and loose and have been milked of their venom by handler John Potash of the Wild Rescue Foundation. The milking doesn’t make the snake less likely to strike, but Potash said it helps minimize damage if the snake does bite.

The dogs are fitted with a shock collar with four levels of shock — tingle to extreme — that is operated by a hand-held remote transmitter. The dog is then brought on a lead by a volunteer to two snakes in different environments. One area is where the snake is loose on the ground so the dog can see the snake and hear its rattler, the second atmosphere is a caged snake so the dogs can become familiar with the scent.

Once the animal sees, hears or smells the snake, the electric shock on the collar is stimulated, causing the animals to jump away and yelp in pain.

“It’s a little distressing to hear her scream,” said owner Tony Twite, whose 18-month-old Labrador-mix, K.C., successfully completed the clinic. “But it’s better than having a snake bite and the dog dying.”

Twite and his wife, Brenda, originally from England, recently moved to Hidden Valley from West Virginia.

“We let her run free through the desert here and we thought hopefully this will prevent her from getting bitten.”

Bill Canepa of Reno brought his three Labradors — Copper, Ginger and Sierra — for the clinic. Sierra had been through a similar clinic two years before, but for Ginger and Copper this was the first time.

“We see a lot of snakes when we’re out Chukar hunting,” Canepa said. When asked if the clinic worked for Sierra, he said he wasn’t sure.

“We’ve never really had an experience. But that’s what you want right?”

After the third shock most of the dogs got the picture, said Willie Stevens of the Pointer Club. Stevens controlled the remote that sent the shock to the dogs.

“If that doesn’t work, we will put a gopher snake right in the dog’s face,” he said.

Ginger was unlucky enough to have to meet the gopher snake, but by the time it was over, the snake was the unlucky one.

While using the gopher and shocking Ginger, the Labrador was so upset from the shock, she picked the snake up in her mouth and quickly dropped it.

The snake was unharmed and Ginger gingerly slunk back to Canepa.

Stevens said the dog is not the only who could be saved by this training.

“If you watch your dog’s reaction, this could save your life too,” he said.

Lorna Weaver, executive director of the Nevada Wildlife Federation, said this is the first time her organization has offered this clinic here.

“Quails Unlimited in Carson City has done this class for the last seven years but they are always overbooked,” she said. “We saw a need and wanted to provide this service.”

The Nevada Wildlife Federation is an all-volunteer organization dedicated to preserving Nevada’s natural resources, particularly wildlife and wildlife habitats.

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