Protecting pets and wildlife: training teaches dogs to avoid snakes
A vet, a dog trainer and a snake wrangler have teamed up for a unique series of training sessions aimed at teaching dogs to avoid potentially deadly snake encounters.
Veterinarian Dr Shey Rogers hopes to see fewer clients this year.
We had all of our dogs bitten by the same snake. And one of them actually got bitten twice in two weeks, so we were definite that we didn't want to have to go through that again.
Dr Shey Rogers, Youngs Siding veterinarian
Her Youngs Siding practice on Western Australia's south coast has become a meeting place for local dog owners eager to trial snake avoidance training.
"Basically my philosophy is prevention is better than cure," Dr Rogers said.
"I'd rather not see dogs come in here with snake bites and then have to treat them."
Dr Rogers engaged Perth-based dog trainer Seth Pywell and snake wrangler Marcus Cosentino to run the sessions after all three of her dogs were bitten by a snake, one of them fatally, on her family property earlier this year.
"We had all of our dogs bitten by the same snake. And one of them actually got bitten twice in two weeks, so we were definite that we didn't want to have to go through that again," Dr Rogers said.
"It was a very emotional process and a very expensive process as well."
Dr Rogers said dog owners could feel helpless in the face of a canine's instinct to investigate snakes and other native reptiles.
And with anti-venom costing about $1,000 per dosage, a snake bite can be a costly experience for pet owners.
"It's financially a lot of money for most dog owners," Dr Rogers said.
"But also on the other side, I love my wildlife and I really don't want to see bobtails [lizards] coming in after being chewed on. It's heartbreaking."
Choosing treat, not snake
Snake avoidance training is a relatively uncommon practice in Australia.
Over two sessions, dogs are exposed to a range of reptiles and are taught to associate the creatures with a low-level electric shock delivered by a remote training collar.
When a dog goes for it, it’s generally the bobtail that will come off worse.
Marcus Cosentino, snake wrangler
The theory is that the next time the dog sees or smells the same reptile, it will avoid all contact.
During training sessions, dogs are rewarded with treats when they choose the right behaviour.
"The dog's natural response is that of investigation," Mr Pywell said.
"We're teaching the dogs that investigation brings consequences and if they avoid it, it brings rewards."
Protecting native wildlife from playful pups
Venomous and non-venomous species are used in the training, from the placid Tiliqua Rugosa (shingleback lizard) to the deadly Notechis Scutatus (tiger snake).
But it is not just dogs that are in need of protection.
Other native wildlife, including blue tongue and shingleback lizards, often become the target of playful pups.
Mr Cosentino said he would like to see similar training adopted by more pet owners to protect native wildlife.
"I knew that this was something that wasn't being done and I think it's really important for our natives," he said.
"When a dog goes for it, it's generally the bobtail that will come off worse.
"Snakes are very shy. A lot of them get a bad rap, especially the tiger snakes, but I've never met an aggressive snake — always defensive."