In many areas of the world, dangerous snakes are simply a reality. They co-exist with humans (and our dogs) in sometimes not-so-harmonious ways, popping up in backyards, long hikes, and sometimes even inside the home.
In my home of Port Orchard, Washington, we don’t have much in the way of wild snakes, much less venomous ones. But not so far away in Eastern Washington, Oregon, and other surrounding areas is the Western Rattlesnake. In Idaho, you get both the Western and the Prairie Rattlesnake. And once you get into warmer areas like California, Arizona, and Utah, the number of venomous species start to become too many to count.
Understandably, this poses a risk not only to humans, but to our pets. And unlike humans, dogs do not typically have a natural fear or wariness of snakes to keep them safe.
This is because the only way for a dog to build a fear of snakes is through association. In nature, the only way for a dog to build this association is by having run-ins with snakes that result in undesirable circumstances. In the case of many venomous snakes, this learning often comes too late, as a single bite from many types of venomous snakes can be enough to cause severe medical concern and sometimes even kill an average dog.
Do Dogs Naturally Avoid Snakes?
If a dog has had a run-in with a snake that resulted in an unwanted consequence — a venomous injection, a small-injection or non-injection bite, or even a missed strike that significantly spooks the dog — a dog may learn to avoid snakes on their own.
However, this is not always the case, and the behavioral outcome really depends on the dog itself and the experience had. Some dogs naturally respond to threats by becoming avoidant. Others, however, become reactive or aggressive, in which case a dog that becomes fearful of snakes through experience might react in ways that could land them in even more danger.
On a base level, some dogs may have a fear of snakes simply because they seem foreign to the dog. A dog with a naturally wary temperament may avoid a snake on sight on the basis of the snake not being a familiar concept.
So what will a dog do if it sees a snake? This also depends on the dog, and the experiences the dog has.
When suspicious of a new animal, even wary dogs will often linger around the animal out of curiosity. These dogs might bark or keep a little bit of distance, but that does not immediately keep them out of harm’s way.
Dogs that have a little bit of “spice,” as we call it, or dogs who are especially fond of attacking vermin-type animals, may dive right in to a fight and be met with an unpleasant surprise.
If a dog is especially skittish, you may have a dog that actually avoids snakes if fully confronted with one.
The only way to really predict what your dog will do if it sees a snake is to train it on what to do if it sees a snake through snake avoidance training, a part of the crittering umbrella.
I talk about how we train crittering in my article, Crittering: The Ultimate Dog Training Guide.
Why Are Dogs Not Afraid of Snakes?
The main reason that dogs are not afraid of snakes is because they are not specifically taught to. When puppies are developing, we dog trainers put a lot of emphasis on socialization: the process of, essentially, introducing the puppy to the world, normalizing the many sights, sounds, smells, textures, people, animals, etc, that they will encounter as adults. It’s during this phase that puppies absorb what the world is and how to respond to it.
When a dog has never seen a snake before, they don’t have context on what that animal is. They don’t know the animal will strike at them if they get up in its business. They don’t know if the animal is venomous or not. In fact, they don’t know what venom is.
To a dog, there is not necessarily a reason to be afraid of snakes unless they learn that there is. And unfortunately, unless we proactively train them to avoid snakes, the learning experience can be very punishing or even fatal.
This is why there is actually an entire branch of dog training focusing on snake avoidance (or, snake aversion). In areas where dangerous snakes are common, it is really important to have your dog trained do turn the opposite direction upon sight, smell, or sound of a venomous snake.
How Do I Train My Dog to Stay Away From Snakes?
Training a dog to avoid snakes looks a lot like our crittering protocol detailed in my article, Crittering: The Ultimate Dog Training Guide. In this protocol, you would use the scent or the visual on the type of animal you are teaching your dog to ignore, and work them up with reward and the use of a quality e-collar.
For e-collar starters, I recommend the following articles to ensure beginners begin right.
How to Condition an E-collar or Remote Collar
How to Find Your Dog’s E-Collar Working Level
The Ten Commandments of Dog Training Corrections
What is the Difference Between Shock Collars and eCollars?
However, when it comes to the final segment of the training, snake avoidance or snake aversion training differs in that you would enforce that your dog keep a wider distance from the animal. This may look like higher levels even during practice sessions, to get a true aversion response that results in the dog completely avoiding going anywhere near the snake.
In this training, for a sterile practice session you may end up borrowing someone’s pet snake to do your drills. You might play rattlesnake sounds and condition it to always mean a recall, if you’re in an area where rattlesnakes are prevalent. We always like to use whatever resources we have in order to set dogs up for success with our practice sessions.
When it comes to the real-world training, this comes down to applying a strict correction for interaction with snakes. If you’ve done your practice sessions well, you may never have to enforce this step. But be aware of your surroundings, and be ready to correct your dog if they attempt to go near a snake. This is true for even non-venomous or “safe” snakes, as to a dog a snake is a snake is a snake.
And, of course, always generously reward your dog for the right response to these situations. We want to make sure we keep our dogs safe, so use all the tools in your toolbox.