Snake Safe Training
There are many trainers out there that have their own version of this concept as is to be expected, we all have our own way of interpreting information as well as delivering this info to our clients and their dogs.
Like any communications between our dogs and their handlers we have to ensure clarity, consistency, ethics, as well as with building a reliable response. Foundation exercises of Markers, leash handling, commands along with the basis of Operant Learning principles are a starting point in any training journey.
On the emotional side of any training we endeavour to 'build brave' and create an Operant dog that can make informed decisions based on prior learning pathways. What behaviours lead to appetitive results for the dog along with non appetitive consequences to actions. The warmer/colder game if you like.
When we begin the process of Snake safe training we have to be very mindful of the picture we need to build in the dogs mind as far as sight, locations, movement and most specifically scent. This scent MUST be relevant, it is the most critical factor as we want the dogs to change their behaviour not just on sight but on ODOUR before the dog can actually see the reptile.
This concept must also be taken further and generalised across ALL species of snake that the dog is likely to encounter where it lives. The top 4 elapids (venomous snakes) are the Brown, red bellied black, copperhead and the tiger. We could add to that by utilising other species as well to practice the behaviour prior to introducing the deadly ones. We could also add other reptile species in such as Skinks so that we generalise even further so that wildlife (even non venomous) do not become a dogs target to play with.
If we build a false or misleading picture for the dog by using a 'fake' snake on a string, a dead snake on a string or by only using non venomous reptiles then we are not giving the dog the true scent picture nor are we even giving it the true 'sight' picture either.
For example, a dog that is trained to indicate on Black powder so that it can search for guns and explosive devices. What would happen if we substituted the Black Powder for Black Pepper instead? Looks the same hey? Should be ok...
Or what about an enviro detection dog that is trained to find Koalas...lets just use a stuffed teddy up a tree...No?
So why would we do this to a dog with Snake Safe training??
Even a de venomated snake will have a different scent picture for the dog so why risk creating that incorrect picture?
Now consider the training itself, how will we create an aversive that is low enough to produce aversion/avoidance behaviour but not that high an aversive that it shuts the dog down and then learning stops?
How do we teach the dog that moving away from the reptile is the only way to make that uncomfortable feeling stop?
Also, how can this be achieved so that the dog works Operantly and does not require ANY feedback from the handler to achieve a safe outcome?
Could this be achieved by purely reward based means?
Could this be achieved more quickly by simply using a very high aversive once?
Refer back to 'the picture' above.
The 'one hit' wonder approach on a high level of stim on the ecollar just creates trauma and no learning, certainly not the carefully nuanced learning that is required to create a full picture.
A dead snake is just that, dead. No natural movement and smells more like dead meat than a live representation of what it was when alive. A rubber snake is just silly.
What about just using pythons? Possibly, but feedback is that the dogs have not recognised the other odours as a danger so have not changed their behaviours accordingly. Every dog is different.
How about the purely reward based concept? Can a reliable avoidance response be created in the dog by using a food reward and a recall?
Will you always be around to see the snake and call your dog away with food? Will your dog even want to respond to food if it chooses to chase a prey animal instead? such as a rapidly moving snake?
Do we actually run the risk of associating the sight/scent of reptiles with reward instead of avoidance? Again, every dog is different.
Initially this training was done without the dog's owner being involved much, just the trainer and the snake handler. Feedback has shown though that a better educated handler will allow the training to shine through and there is far less risk of them blocking or going against the behaviours we have set during the session.
What we need from the handler is to give up the driving seat so to speak and follow the dog in the avoidance behaviours. So if the dog hits odour and goes into the pattern of avoiding, stopping, turning back etc then the owner knows to follow and not just keep dragging the dog forward. We teach the owner to watch for 'tells' from the dog, what is your dog's personal response to odour? then sight of reptile? This is critical in the long term so that the training is not 'undone' by poor handling. At all times the trainer is still the operator of the collars remote.
I have mentioned above the use of the Ecollar. This is a training collar that allows the educated and trained handler to employ distance and clarity to the dog in the exact moment it is required to communicate clearly. In this way the dog knows in that moment of decision making, should I? shouldn't I?
Such an educated trainer can by subtle and layered means, build a gradual picture for the dog of what we want to achieve. The outcome being a dog that makes rational and well informed choices. An Operant dog.
In the hands of an untrained individual who may choose to use the 'one hit wonder' approach of just hit the dog with the highest level of stim possible then the ability for learning stops in that moment and trauma is the outcome.
The dog has not had any opportunity for the picture to be built, learn how to switch off the aversive or even how to avoid the aversive in the first place.
This goes against EVERYTHING as far as operant learning, animal welfare, morals of training and should NEVER be condoned by dog owners. This event will also cause long term behavioural issues of learned helplessness, destroy the relationship between dog and handler and may lead to suspicion based avoidance.
Was it the snake that caused this trauma? or was it the owner standing there watching? was it the person holding the remote? was it the car I was standing next to? Who knows how the dog will translate that event and what it will have avoidance type behaviours to?
Ecollars are an incredibly nuanced piece of kit if used by a well trained operator, they are not inherently 'bad'
It is not the tool that should be at fault, instead it should be the fault of the tool using it.
Choose your trainer carefully.