Keeping your dog safe on the trail: A look inside rattlesnake-avoidance training

John Potash is the owner of Get Rattled, a company that offers rattlesnake-avoidance training for dog owners in Nevada and a few other Western states. He knows that humans hike past rattlesnakes without noticing—“probably a thousand of them”—but a “dog definitely picks up on (a snake’s scent), goes and investigates, and gets into trouble.” 

Investigating a scent can lead to a bite, which can be fatal and/or include an expensive trip to an emergency vet. A representative from Animal Emergency and Specialty Center in Reno said the cost of an emergency snake-bite treatment depends on a number of factors, including the severity, the time since the bite and the location of the bite. Veterinarians often hesitate to quote exact rates, but according to a blog post by CareCredit (a bank that provides a payment plan that many vets accept), “Snake Bites in Dogs: What to Do and How to Prevent Them,” treatment is “often more than $2,500.” 

There is a vaccine intended to protect dogs against snake bites, but not all veterinarians recommend it, and a 2022 American Animal Hospital Association study found no published data to support its efficacy. 

The Nevada Department of Wildlife recommends a few strategies: Keep dogs on a six-foot leash; never allow them to interact with wildlife; don’t let them stick their heads in holes or in places you can’t clearly see; and look into snake-avoidance training. 

I was skeptical of rattlesnake-avoidance training for my dog, because I mistakenly believed I would be able to see a snake in order to keep my pup away from it, and because we only hike in shaded areas at higher elevations, like Galena Creek Regional Park and Lake Tahoe’s east shore, in the evening. 

None of this, however, provides protection for dogs. Potash explained over the phone that not only is Galena a “hot spot” for rattlesnake activity, but that rattlesnakes have been sighted “in the high 7,000-foot (elevation) range.” 

Construction and climate change push snakes to expand their habitat. “I always tell people, ‘Always expect that there could be one somewhere … and if the temperature is comfortable for you, it’s comfortable for the snakes, too,’” said Potash. 

I signed up for a rattlesnake-avoidance class as soon as we hung up the phone, which is how Lady (my 9-year-old Lab/border collie mix) and I found ourselves at Rye Patch State Recreation Area in Lovelock on a stormy Saturday afternoon with a group of excited dogs and their owners, eagerly looking to Potash and his crew of two trainers for some peace of mind. 

Rattlesnake-avoidance training might look a bit different from company to company, but each version shares the goal of familiarizing dogs with the sight and scent of a rattlesnake, and creating enough of a negative association to avoid both in the future. 

At Get Rattled trainings, dogs are fitted with an e-collar and taken through three stations. The first station has a live rattlesnake—devenomised, but very much reactive. The second is a box covered in camouflage, housing a live snake and a shed skin. It aims to replicate a snake hiding in bushes. The third, made from a PVC tube stuffed with a snakeskin, aims to replicate a snake hole into which a dog might stick its nose. 

When the dog shows interest in the bait at these stations, it will be buzzed with the e-collar, which delivers an electric shock. Dogs are first administered the lowest setting for their size to gauge their reaction. Trainers then work their way up to a level that creates a significant impact on their behavior. 

The dogs go through each station before returning to the live snake for a final test. The trainer walks them around the snake to gauge their reaction, and then has the dog’s owner stand on the opposite side of the snake, calling for the dog to come. If the dog heeds the command while still keeping awareness of and avoiding the snake, the dog passes the class and is awarded a certificate. 

We watched the first couple of dogs complete the training; each was through in less than 10 minutes. Potash is adamant that this brief timeline is effective; he said dogs that return for their refresher course refuse to go anywhere near the snake. Sure enough, as Lady and I waited our turn, a mutt with long, shaggy hair sniffed near the bait at the first station—though keeping a much safer distance than the first-time dogs—and received a buzz from the e-collar. After that, he sat at least 20 feet from the live snake, resisting the tugs on his leash to get closer. 

Potash mentioned that every dog reacts differently to the training. Some dogs catch on quickly. “There are always those outliers that need more constant reminding for some reason,” Potash said, adding with a chuckle: “It’s always Labs.” Older dogs seem to take a bit longer to learn, too. 

After Lady completed the course, the trainer handed me her certificate of completion and a pamphlet of best practices. The usual trail etiquette applies: Stay on the trail; step on rocks, not over; give snakes a safe distance of at least five feet; remain calm. In addition, don’t point snakes out to dogs or attempt to approach, kill or play with a snake. These behaviors override the avoidance training, showing the dog that it is OK to be interested in the snake. 

I thanked Potash and expressed how cool it was to see a rattlesnake. 

“You might see more, now that you know what to look for,” he said. 

Get Rattled’s rattlesnake-avoidance training is $150 for new dogs and $100 for a brush-up session, recommended one year after the initial training. For dates and details, visit www.facebook.com/GetRattled/events.