When I first adopted my dog, Mali, I had big ambitions for all the hikes she would join me on and I couldn’t wait to hit the trails with her. Immediately, she was the perfect mountain dog: seamlessly weaving through switchbacks and following commands while off her leash flawlessly. I smiled at her curiosity as she sniffed every bush, climbed every rock, and burrowed her head into every hole she could find.
It never occurred to me that looming in those bushes and holes could be a rattlesnake (bad dog mom moment, I know) until her vet mentioned having her vaccinated against rattlesnake venom. I asked a slew of questions and learned all the facts: If a rattlesnake ever bit Mali the vaccine would simply give her more time before she needed treatment. The vaccine would not save her life on its own and she would still need anti-venom in order to survive. One vial of rattlesnake anti-venom, mind you, can cost well over $1,000 and dogs often need to be administered multiple vials. However, dogs who have been administered the vaccine have built up antibodies to the venom and may not require as many vials of anti-venom if they have been bitten.
While I believe the vaccine is a good precaution, I couldn’t help but think, “what if there was a way to prevent the bite from ever happening in the first place?” and “what would happen if I was the one who got bit on the trail?” I figured that if dogs can be trained to sniff out bombs then they must be able to sniff out rattlesnakes too: thankfully I was right. There was an abundance of rattlesnake avoidance training sessions all around Southern California and I was lucky enough that the shelter I adopted Mali from holds sessions a few times a year. I had no idea what to expect and to be honest I was horrified at the thought of having to use a shock collar on my dog but the trainer was quick to answer all my questions. The shock is used when the dog makes contact with the live rattlesnake, shed rattlesnake skin, or the sound of the rattle and it is meant to alert the dog that the snake is dangerous and potentially painful. Mali performed wonderfully and I felt confortable in knowing that she possessed the skills she needed to keep herself safe on the trail.
Then a month after her first training we were on a trail we frequent often and she stopped dead in her tracks. No amount of coercion or tugging on her collar could get her to move forward. I remembered her training and felt confident in knowing that she sensed the presence of a rattlesnake that I could not see. Just a few weeks following that incident we were walking on a dirt trail in our neighborhood when she exhibited the same behaviors, but this time, waiting about ten feet in front of us was a baby rattlesnake in the middle of the trail. The snake blended in perfectly with the ground, was no bigger than 10 inches long, and sat uncoiled with its rattler pointing toward the sky. I likely would have stepped right over it.
These are two circumstances that I can say with certainty that Mali may have saved both are lives but the skepticism in me kept me from being a believer until she had her second training lesson a year later. As the seasons changed and time went on I questioned whether she had still retained the fifteen minutes of training she had received. I was particularly nervous because just that morning I had seen another dog get bit while on a trail and was pleasantly surprised when at her second training session she wanted nothing to do with anything that involved rattlesnakes.
Being aware of places where snakes may loom on a trail and knowledge of precautions one should take should they come in contact with a rattlesnake are incredibly important to ensuring your safety. Having a dog that also possesses the knowledge of the dangers of rattlesnakes provides an extra level of security.
To find a Rattlesnake Avoidance Training event near you: *
* Note, I have included a few of the many companies in Southern California; there are many more nation-wide right at your fingertips. It is important to find a company that works well for your needs.
Dani is the Founder of Mountain Chicks and the primary author of the Mtn Chicks Blog. Here you'll find outdoor tips, travel experiences, gear reviews and more.