Every year an estimated 150,000 dogs and cats are bitten by venomous snakes in the United States. And while most snakebites occur during these warmer months, Arizona residents shouldn't be too frightened, as only a small number of those bites are fatal, and with proper training, incidents even can be avoided.
Many facilities throughout the Tucson area provide rattlesnake training for dogs, such as the Humane Society, Sublime Canine, Twin Peaks Veterinary Center and more. Often called avoidance or aversion training, the classes may not only save your pet's life while on a hike or in the backyard, but protect you as a pet owner as well.
JJ Belcher, founder of Sublime Canine, has always worked with animals. Originally working as a bull rider in rodeos, he now teaches a variety of dog training and obedience classes.
"With cactus and black widows and the Colorado River toad, it seems like everything is dangerous here," Belcher said. "But I saw that snake avoidance was especially important because it's a common occurrence. Dogs are curious by nature and snakes are very interesting, so we get a lot of dogs bit out here."
According to American Veterinarian, a snakebite is a medical emergency, and treatment at a veterinary hospital should not be delayed by attempts to provide first aid. First aid should consist of limiting the animal's activity and transporting it as quickly as possible. Most field treatments are "ineffective at best, and some can harm the patient." But don't let this worry you too much, as only an estimated 5 to 10 percent of snakebite cases in dogs are fatal.
There are multiple types of rattlesnake training for dogs, but one of the most typical is an electric collar treatment, where a dog is introduced to a rattlesnake and receives a shock whenever it expresses interest in the snake.
"We're mainly trying to break the curiosity," Belcher said. "So ideally in the future when the dog encounters a snake it will remember the experience and realize they're not fun to interact with... It's a pretty immediate thing with most dogs, but some take a little more training if they have a high prey drive. And I think the electric shock is something that can make pet owners nervous. Nobody wants to shock their dogs, but we've all been shocked and it's more of a surprise than pain."
After the initial session, the trainers also test to make sure the dog associates the shock with snakes. Certain breeds like Jack Russells, which are bred to hunt or chase wild animals, can be more susceptible to snakebites.
Inquisitive or protective personalities in individual dogs can also indicate a higher risk for snakebites. In fact, some dogs are bitten and survive, but don't learn to avoid snakes because they don't connect the pain of a snakebite to the delayed venomous effects. Belcher says it's not uncommon to see dogs that have been bitten twice.
Sublime Canine offers dog training for other animals, such as the Colorado River toad, but Belcher says snakes can be especially difficult because even a dog that isn't expressing interest in a snake can still be attacked. That is why an important step for pet safety is human education as well; Belcher says the most important step a dog owner can make themselves is simply being aware.
"Make sure you check your yard before letting your dog out," Belcher said. "Look in those places snakes are likely to be: against walls, under bushes. They're not typically going to be out in the open. They're trying to avoid predation as well. It's a good idea to make sure you scan your surroundings, and keep your dog on a leash during hikes. When the weather is good for us to go hiking, it's typically good for snakes to go hunting as well. So you really want to use caution, like making noise and being aware."
And for Belcher, the importance of snake attention isn't just hearsay. Even he received a rattlesnake bite while hiking locally, resulting in a multi-day hospital stay and more than a dozen treatments of antivenom.
"I was born and raised here knowing what to look out for, and I still got a random bite," Belcher said. "I never even saw it... The best snakebite prevention is teaching."