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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Snake avoidance training using clicker training!

With all the snakes we've seen around here lately, including the one that bit me and the one Gracie found after a little agility practice that Mum thought may have been a Copperhead, we needed to do something, and something quick!

After Mum and Gracie saw the third snake and Mum couldn't tell exactly if it was a dull milk snake or a copperhead, Gracie and I had to go out for the next night and day on leash. Not fun when you are used to running around the yard like wild the wacky dogs we are!

The next morning Mum saw the skin from the snake she and Gracie saw the day before and used tongs to take it inside and get a good look.

After looking really close, Mum is pretty sure that this is the skin from the snake that bit me the other day; the Eastern Milk Snake; and definitely not a Copperhead. It eased her mind a lot, but Mum was still thinking about how interesting Gracie and I find snakes and that the likelihood of us seeing a Copperhead is increasing rapidly.

Here's the snake skin Mum saved.

After finding the fresh snake skin and doing a little Googling about snake aversion/avoidance training, Mum got a bright idea! Why not use the snake skin to teach us to stay away from them? The skins look a lot like a snake and they really smell like snakes, which would help a lot in our training.

What Mum found on Google was that most of the SAT is based in shock training. WHAT?! Well, we are not ever going there! I'm 18 lbs, and a very soft dog, so using a shock collar on me...well, it just isn't going to happen. 

Gracie, Mum and I are really good at clicker training, so Mum started teaching us snake avoidance training using clicker training that very day and it's working, working really, really well! 

This is what Mum did with me:

1. During our first session, Mum refreshed me with my 'Leave' command. It's still really, really good, so we progressed to the next step. If you need to refresh or need help in teaching your dog leave it, here's a great vid utilizing clicker training.

2. On the back deck, she put me in a sit stay about three feet from the snake skin and had me stay. Dang I was a sniffing fool! Mum could see my nostrils really working and taking in the scent. And I was very interested. Luckily it was a little breezy that day and I was down wind, which helped as well.

2. After a while I got even more interested and started making my move to get closer, so Mum used my really reliable 'Leave' command to keep me from the snake. When Mum says 'Leave' sometimes I sit, but more often come closer to her. I get lots of good clicks and treats for that.

Yep, yep, I've got that apprehensive look about me.

3. But Mum wanted to try and take the SAT to a safer level than just my behavior when she says 'Leave'. Distance is important with snakes. So when I started shaping into backing up with the leave it, Mum clicked and rewarded the instant I moved a paw back, saying yes and giving me a jackpot.

4. After a little more time passed, I then began shaping into barking and backing up when I saw/smelled the snake skin from about 2-3 feet away. Yes, even bigger jackpot!!!! Now we're talking...I'm becoming a snake alert dog...that's what we want! By this time, Mum didn't even have to say 'Leave,' which is important as she may not see the snake before I do, so that command has been faded now.

5. Mum stores the snake skin in a glass jar and gets it out everyday to work with us; using only stainless steel tongs to touch it. We've also progressed to Mum hiding it in the house and in the yard and it's working great.

6. As we've worked in the yard, I've progressed even further to sniffing areas where Mum thinks the snake may have been recently, and I am backing up fairly reliably. Now we're working on increased distance.

It's working great! As with everything that is this important, we are going to continue to work and work (well it's a game to me) on our snake avoidance training very regularly. Our overall goal is for me is when I smell/see a snake that I bark, let Mum know and come back to her or at a minimum back up a few feet from it and always, always leave it alone.

We hope we don't encounter any more snakes, dangerous or not....they are just yucky!!!

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Note: A lot of people have asked me what to do if you don't have a snake skin. Well, we hear that there are fake snakes that you can purchase to work on this skill. You may not be able to include the scent part of the training (unless you can find snake scent somewhere (for us we would need Copperhead, some may need Rattlesnake), but utilizing a variety of snake look-a-likes is one stage that we will be including in our SAT. These fake snakes are probably going to be rubber, which offs a significant smell very similar to many dog toys on the market. So we will be washing them thoroughly with soap and water when we get them, and then bury them in a pile of decomposing leaves and dirt for a time period, to hopefully get rid of as much rubber smell as possible. 

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