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Snake Avoidance Training

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A few times a year, this topic pops up on clicker mailing lists. Poisonous snakes are a very real, very serious issue in many parts of the United States — and world. In some places, poisonous snakes exist but are fairly rare and can usually be avoided. In others, they show up in the back yard. In these places, it's not practical (or possible) to just avoid places with snakes. Since snake bites can be deadly, it's not surprising that traditional snake avoidance training relies on severe punishment intended to suppress any desire to interact with snakes.

Is it possible to train a dog to avoid snakes without relying on punishment? That was the question discussed on the ClickerSolutions mailing list recently, and some fascinating strategies were suggested. One method involved associating the sight of a snake with an extreme fear reaction in the handler and then reinforcing any hesitation, avoidance, or fearful behavior shown by the dog. Another poster recommended teaching the dog to alert the handler to the presence of a snake, similarly to the way a detection dog might alert to drugs.

This problem is difficult to address because any solution involves working with live poisonous snakes. Mistakes can be dangerous — or deadly — to both dog and handler. Could a person work with a dead snake or the scent of a live snake? Possibly, but if the dog does't generalize to live snakes, the result could be deadly.

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