Exploring the great outdoors with your canine best friend is one of the most popular pet parent pastimes for a reason. Dogs make the best hiking, camping, swimming, and adventuring buddies we could ask for.
Like most things worth doing, though, there's inevitably some element of risk. While all kinds of wildlife can be dangerous to encounter, venomous species like rattlesnakes seem to be the most universally feared. Whether we like it or not, snakes have been a valuable part of our ecosystems for about 90 million years, and they likely won't be leaving any time soon. It's up to us as pet parents to learn more about our reptilian neighbors to keep everyone, our dogs included, safe!
Rattlesnake behavior 101
Whenever we are entering a natural environment, it's prudent to learn the habits of local wildlife. By learning a bit about rattlesnake ecology and behavior, we have a much better chance of avoiding encounters! Rattlesnakes, like all reptiles, are ectothermic ("cold-blooded,") and they cannot regulate their own body temperatures. This means that you are most likely to see snakes sunning themselves out on open trails and rocks earlier in the morning. If you are hiking early in the day, be mindful and keep an eye out on flat sunny surfaces.
As it starts to heat up in the afternoon, rattlesnakes will tend to find shade in brush, under rocks and in tall grass. For afternoon adventures, you'll want to avoid letting your dog walk through, sniff, or investigate heavily brushy areas. Dusk is when rattlesnakes are most likely to be actively hunting and moving about in search of prey.
The biggest safety precaution is to keep your dog on leash while in rattlesnake territory! Many rattlesnake bites happen when a dog has unwittingly stepped on a snake hidden in the brush. The best way you can ensure your dog's safety is to keep them on established trails and within view. To give your dog some extra freedom, you can use a long leash to give them extra slack when it is safe to do so and you can clearly see the path.
Choosing the right trails and environments can also play a part in avoiding snake encounters. Generally speaking, hiking paths with heavier foot traffic tend to have fewer snakes. Rattlesnakes are brilliantly camouflaged and can easily blend into rocks, brush, and other terrain. Opt for wide, flat trails with plenty of visibility. If there are obstacles on the trailhead like logs or boulders, step on them rather than over them, as many snakes will press themselves up against natural objects for protection. Bring a hiking buddy or two whenever possible, and always know where the closest 24 hour emergency vet is to wherever you are exploring.
Training for snake safety
While unexpected emergencies can happen to anyone, having a few well-trained behaviors under your belt can help you navigate the great outdoors with more peace of mind.
- Hand Target: Teaching your dog to touch their nose to your hand has a lot of applications! You can use this to recall your dog, to guide them away from hazards, or to help them maneuver safely.
- Stay: Never overlook the power of a good "don't move" cue! You can use a stay to check blind corners or other areas for snakes, or ask your dog to stay put in the event that one is spotted down the trail.
- Leave It: It can be very helpful to teach your dog the skill or orienting towards you away from a distraction. You can use a leave it cue to ask your dog to avoid possible snake hiding places like brush and gopher holes, or even a live snake in the unlikely event of an encounter!
Rattlesnake “aversion” training: more harm than good
If you live in rattlesnake territory, you have likely seen advertisements for "snake aversion" or "snake avoidance" training. Unfortunately, these well-marketed classes do much more harm than good. Typically, these trainings involve the use of an e-collar (shock collar), and the teacher pairs the sights, sounds, and smells of snakes with being shocked. There is currently no reputable evidence that this approach is actually effective in teaching dogs to avoid snakes, and there is a mountain of studies demonstrating the dangerous and adverse effects of shock collar use. It is unfortunately common to see dogs develop a generalized fear of trails, reactivity on leash, or even aggressive responses to snakes.