Dog trainer offers tips on safety in snake country

KINGMAN - Like the Pete Seger song, "Turn! Turn! Turn!" (to everything there's a season), there is a seasonal timeline that desert animals follow. Desert reptiles, especially rattlesnakes, are no exception to this cyclic ebb and flow.

For example, in the Sonoran desert, rattlesnakes do not hibernate in the true sense of the word. They don't disappear underground for five or six months, not to be seen again until spring. In the winter months, when the weather turns cold or rainy, they will seek a sheltered area and wait for better times.

Some researchers have described rattlesnake dens that contain dozens of snakes and claim that these snakes return year after year to the same spot. However, when the weather turns warmer - one or two winter days in or near the 80s - the hungry snakes can be out hunting for food.

Even in the winter, a daytime temperature close to 80 degrees will almost ensure that snakes are active and may be encountered by humans or dogs. Veterinarians in New River, Anthem, and Carefree have treated rattlesnake bites in dogs in December and January.

Arizona rattlesnakes, at least the ones that live below the Mogollon rim, mate in the early spring - March or April. Then, approximately five-and-a-half months later, the baby snakes are born.

Depending on when mating takes place, baby rattlesnakes can arrive anytime from late August to October. The female rattlesnake retains the eggs inside her body and the baby snakes are born live. Each baby rattlesnake is born coiled within its own glistening membrane sac. In the wild, the youngsters have to wiggle out of the sac and immediately begin hunting for their first meal, usually a small lizard.

Baby rattlesnakes enter the world equipped with fangs and venom - everything they need to subdue prey and feed themselves. Each baby, approximately 10-11 inches long and darker than the mother, is on their own at birth. The number of babies in a rattlesnake litter ranges from five to over 20, depending on the age and size of the mother.

Baby rattlesnakes do not have rattles. They have a nub on their tail called a pre-button. The baby must shed their skin several times before they have enough rattle segments to make noise.

If you are wondering if this missive has a practical side, be of good cheer, it does.

Don't wait for the first bite

One way to put this information to practical use is to apply it to your animals - especially your dogs. Many people who live in the desert areas of Arizona don't think of having their dogs protected against rattlesnake bites until they see the first snake in the spring or until after the dog is bitten.

However, anytime during the year is the best time to take your dog to school, according to Jim Walkington of New River. He owns and operates Viper Voidance, a specialized service that trains dogs to stay away from rattlesnakes.

According to Walkington, if you have dogs and live in the desert or hike there with your pets, your canines should be "snake-proofed." Dogs are curious, and without training, will approach and try to smell a rattlesnake.

"They are just doing what dogs do," Walkington said. "They're using their noses to try and find out what this strange critter is. The result of their curiosity is that often the dog is bitten."

Walkington said that 70 to 80 percent of the time, the rattlesnake bites the dog on the head or face.

A dog bitten by a rattlesnake constitutes a veterinarian emergency. Take the dog to your vet immediately. Walkington stated that five percent of the dogs he trains have already been bitten by a rattlesnake prior to him seeing the dog.

Lesson not learned

"I'm grateful to get the dog even after they've been bitten", Walkington said. "The fact that they have been bitten once imparts no special protection or knowledge to the dog. The dogs don't make the connection that the snake was the thing that caused them all the pain and suffering they experienced."

Walkington recalled that of all the dogs that were bitten previously, every last one marched up to the snake cage and stuck their noses down on the wire close to the snakes. He hastened to add that during training, his snakes remain contained in special cages that allows the dog to smell, hear, and see the snake but prevents the snake from striking through the wire.

Vaccine

available

Walkington also mentioned that a rattlesnake vaccine for dogs is now available. After it is administered, the canine begins to produce antibodies against rattlesnake venom. If the vaccinated dog is bitten, the result of the bite is reduced greatly. Consult your vet about the rattlesnake vaccine. Walkington mentioned he has vaccinated his own three small terriers.

According to Walkington, he has trained puppies as young as 4 months and adult dogs as old as 14. He added that with puppies, the timing for the training depends on the individual dog. Some puppies are fairly mature at four months, while others would benefit by waiting until they are five or even six months old.

Walkington uses live rattlesnakes in his training process because, he says, nothing smells like a live rattlesnake except a live rattlesnake.

"To dogs, all rattlesnakes apparently smell the same," Walkington said. "However, the dog's nose can discern the difference between rattlesnakes and non-venomous snakes such as bull snakes or red racers."

As evidence of this canine discrimination, Walkington says his own three dogs will avoid rattlesnakes but cautiously approaching a garter snake or a bull snake.

"I feel very strongly that it's important for the owner and the dog to work together during the training," he said. "The owner needs to see what their dog's reaction is when they detect a rattlesnake. Every dog is different. Some dogs bark at the snakes, others mumble, some drag the owner away from the snakes, while other dogs are very subtle but still avoid where the snakes are.

Jim Walkington is the owner/operator of Viper Voidance, a service in New River, Ariz., that trains dogs to stay away from rattlesnakes. He will hold snake avoidance classes in Kingman March 12-13 at the Game and Fish office, 5325 N. Stockton Hill Road. The cost is $75 per dog. Call Walkington at (480) 215-1776 for more information or to sign up for a day and time. You can also visit www.vipervoidance.com for more information.