Bailey, a German shorthair pointer, gets a first whiff of Washington’s only poisonous pit viper, a Northern Pacific rattlesnake. A shock administered moments later conditioned Bailey to give these reptiles a wide berth when encountered in the field. Photo by Mike Maltais
BY MIKE MALTAIS
Some 76 owners of pet and sporting dogs braved bouts of inclement weather to have their canines trained to avoid rattlesnake encounters during an annual clinic hosted by the Methow Valley Veterinary Hospital in Winthrop.
The training, conducted by Natural Solutions Wildlife Enterprises based in California, began Saturday morning (June 29) and continued throughout the day despite an afternoon delay to allow a thunderstorm and heavy downpour to pass.
Owner Eric Briggs noted that the wet conditions actually facilitated a dog’s ability to smell the rattlesnake.
“The hotter and drier it is, the harder to pick up the scent,” Briggs said.
Briggs and crew fitted each dog with a shock collar before putting the canine through a series of encounters with muzzled rattlers and rattle sound effects.
One of those dogs, a purebred German shorthair pointer named Bailey owned by Brian Dickinson of Snohomish, is a working dog for upland birds.
“We hunt chukars mostly,” Dickinson said, and added that snake encounters are not infrequent.
Bailey was first exposed to a baby Northern Pacific rattlesnake, the only pit viper indigenous to Washington state. Once the dog noticed the reptile and approached for a closer look, the handler administered a mild electric shock that the dog immediately associated with the snake.
Bailey was then introduced to an adult Northern Pacific and was already showing some reluctance to approach the snake.
Next, Bailey was led near a camouflaged device that emitted the sound that a buzzing rattler would make. Once again a reinforcing shock was given as the dog investigated the source of the noise.
A Mohave rattler indigenous to California was then placed midpoint between Bailey and her owner, who was instructed to call the dog to him. Still on a leash, Bailey gave the snake a wide berth as she chose an indirect route back to her master.
Chase, a 3-year-old retriever mix owned by Chad Avetez from Spokane, displayed similar reactions at every encounter in the training.
The results followed form for each dog put through the 15-minute session. In every case a marked distaste for rattlesnakes punctuated the final stage of each canine’s conditioning.
This is the second consecutive year that Natural Solutions has held the popular snake aversion training hosted by Mike and Heather Marrone, owners of Methow Valley Veterinary Hospital.