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Snake Avoidance Training: Your Questions Answered

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Last month I shared my positive reinforcement snake-avoidance training protocol). Since then, I have received numerous emails and questions about the protocol; I have not seen such a huge response to one of my articles in a very long time! Clearly, positive reinforcement snake-avoidance training is important to many trainers, so I thought I would answer the most frequent questions I’ve received to date.

The protocol focuses on working with dogs on their home property, but how would you adapt the plan to work with snake encounters on a walk or away from home?

One of the biggest challenges that people have with snake-avoidance training is dealing with snake encounters when the handler is not present. Therefore, the protocol focuses on mechanisms to deal with reinforcement in the handler’s absence and on keeping the dog from going back out and encountering the snake again. There are two common alternatives to the protocol:

  1. Return to the car. As snake avoidance is an important and useful behavior on long walks away from home, many dogs are taught to recall back to the car. A few handlers take the self-locking kennel with them on the road and set it up outside the car.
  2. Return to trainer. Probably the most common alternative is to teach the dog to recall to the handler. The handler should have a target of some type that the dog can touch to indicate that he is coming back after encountering a snake. This alternative is a simpler option since you are not concerned about the handler or trainer not being present. Just like the original protocol, it is important to teach the dog that un-cued recalls, recalls not connected to seeing a snake, are not reinforced.

What was the greatest distance achieved when asking a dog to return to the kennel?

In snake-avoidance training, we always approximate to a full mile. However, we have seen three dogs respond at distances close to two miles. As the distance increases you run the risk of the dog losing motivation or forgetting the reason for running—particularly if the dog encounters distractions along the way. Expecting a dog to maintain the desire to get to the target so far away from the snake is a tall order. It is important to work up to those distances. One of the keys to success is to make sure that the reinforcer for coming back from the snake is of very high value.

How do you develop the distance needed for long returns to the kennel?

One of the prerequisites for snake-avoidance training is a strong recall. A recall is such a critical behavior for most dogs, and one of my criteria for a good recall is distance. I always build as much distance as possible into my recall training. Like most distance training, it is important to increase distance in small increments. It is also important not to increase the distance at every session. It is helpful and, in fact, essential that you ping pong between longer and shorter distances. Ultimately, that variety builds duration and keeps the dog from predicting the length of each recall. In the early stages of training, it can be helpful to work from a known home base, because the dog will know where the high-value reinforcers are coming from and this will help him return more quickly. Once the recall is well-established in a known area, it is easier to move to novel locations and approximate distance in unique locations.

There was no discussion about developing duration of the kennel behavior. Isn’t that an important step?

It absolutely is a critical component to the success of this protocol. Duration was not talked about in the original article because the kennel behavior is a prerequisite for snake-avoidance training. Duration is one of the most important aspects of a good kennel behavior. It needs to be well-established long before beginning work on snake-avoidance training (unless you don’t plan to use the kennel as part of your plan). Just as with distance, duration must be approximated gradually, alternating between shorter times and longer times in the kennel.

Were live snakes ever used during training?

Live snakes were not part of the original training plan. However, during the training we had several live snakes donated to our project. We tried using the live snakes during the training, but they proved very uncooperative and, ultimately, we did not find them useful. Each time we tried releasing a live snake to test the dogs, the snake slithered quickly into hiding and was not useful to our training. However, since we completed the training, we have had many instances of dogs encountering a live snake and responding appropriately based on the training.

How did you rig the kennel to close on its own?

We used a series of pulleys that guide the rope, which is pulled when the dog pushes on the target. The motion of pushing on the target pulls the kennel door closed.

How did you build a self-locking kennel?

We used a simple gate latch that is available at most hardware stores. When the gate closes, it automatically locks the gate in place. (See the video)

Did you have any failures in training? What were the reasons for the breakdown? What should we be aware of to avoid those mistakes?

We had many dogs learn the snake-avoidance protocol and use it successfully in real-world situations. However, there were failures that usually showed up early in the training. Those failures were due to a variety of problems.

  1. Not having a solid reliable recall. The protocol is based on an excellent recall that works over great distances in novel surroundings. If dogs were not well-trained with a reliable recall proven in multiple scenarios, they were not able to complete snake-avoidance training successfully. Over the years that I have used the protocol, it was this aspect of the training that generally predicted if a dog would succeed.
  2. Not having a reliable kennel behavior. Although this is not an essential component for all versions of the protocol, it is critical if you want the dog to be confined and not go back and re-encounter the snake after being reinforced. When the kennel behavior is needed, not having it well-trained will cause this protocol to fail.
  3. Poor practice frequency. There is a fine line between practicing too often and not practicing enough. The right number of trial sessions will depend a great deal on your dog’s learning history. It is important that all dogs get exposed to snakes as a cue to recall in various locations and contexts. But testing the recall at great distances needs to be done sparingly. The behavior often breaks down due to inappropriate maintenance practices.
  4. Past experience with snakes. An unpredictable factor is the dog’s previous experience with snakes, and what happened after the dog encountered snakes in the past. The more experience a dog has with snakes, the more time you will need to spend during the training to overcome or negate that experience. For some dogs, past encounters with snakes have been a punishing experience and it may take time to overcome that fear. For most dogs, experience with snakes produces a strong desire to bark at or chase the snake. You need to remove the threat and the reinforcement that comes from barking or chasing the snake by making sure the snake’s only value is as a cue to recall. Often that requires use of artificial snakes of varying sizes, colors, and manners of movement presented in a variety of contexts.
  5. Other problems. The only other real problems tend to be the same as we see with any type of training. Poor use of reinforcers, poor set-up of the environment, poor observation, common errors for all of us.

I appreciate everyone’s interest in the snake-avoidance protocol and am eager to continue answering your questions. I hope this additional information was beneficial.

Happy Training,

Ken

 

 

 

 

 

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