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Snakebite Watch 2010

Here, at last, the story of Lilly’s recent snakebite. While unraveling what must have transpired before that Thursday morning when Lilly woke up with a swollen cheek, our best guess is that a snake got her sometime Tuesday or Wednesday of that week. The fact that she suffered a bite a couple years ago may explain the delayed, less-severe response this time — almost like the first bite “vaccinated” her to the venom (at least a little).

Click through here, if you want insights into our reasons for NOT giving Lilly the actual rattlesnake vaccine.

My drama-soaked brain cannot recall if Lilly began indicating pain early on Wednesday or not. If so, then the bite happened sometime Tuesday when she was loose on the property. If not, then it probably happened when I sat outside to work on Wednesday and let both dogs poke around.

Just like Lilly’s first snakebite in August 2008, I didn’t hear her cry. She didn’t suddenly seem to need any comfort, so I have no idea when or where it happened.

(Courtesy Alert for Cathy Lester … there is a snake photo below. Delete and/or stop reading now.)

First Indication

Our first indication came when I grabbed both sides of her face to get a good smooch on, and she cried out in pain. Based on hand placement, I assumed the source lived somewhere around her ears.

So, we got out the flashlight and had a look. Considering her pointy-pointy ears serve as collection dishes for everything that blows hither and yon, I saw that a good cleaning was needed, but nothing else.

I also checked her teeth, fearing that the one broken tooth may not be alone, but again, I saw nothing … no swelling, no clear evidence of injury.

Puffy Cheeks

Thursday morning, I got the pups up as usually. Everyone pottied. Everyone ate, and it wasn’t until Lilly jumped on the couch to kiss Tom that she once again screamed in pain.

And, there it was. A big, puffy cheek on the right side. Last time, she suffered an injury to the left side. While I did not take pictures before flying down the mountain to the vet, it looked very much like this.

Our dear sweet heroine indeed turned the other cheek, and the snake took a bite.

Longtime readers might recall that I assumed the first snakebite was instead a bee sting. This round, I thought for sure she had some kind of dental abscess.

You could call it wishful thinking, but honestly … because the swelling didn’t happen in the first hour, like it did with the first bite, I just could NOT fathom it being another snakebite.

On Further Examination

So, after one of the vets at our regular veterinary hospital checked Lilly’s teeth and could clearly isolate the swelling separate from the gums and ONLY in the cheek and lip area, we went looking for injury.

And we found it.

  • Bruising, about the size of a nickel
  • Two distinct fang holes, which solves the mystery of bull snake versus rattlesnake

This is a rattlesnake bite, pure and simple.

(For the record, he said that tooth-related swelling would appear more on the upper cheek, right below the eye. So, my physiology was WAY off.)

I enlarged the area of the photo and highlighted the bite marks, which are now raised, like an inserted barb pulled the skin up and sort of inside-out … leaving a bump.

Even nearly two weeks later, the punctures remain raised and visible. They do not, however, seem to be painful … after lots of antibiotics and steroids.

Size of Snake

The holes in real space look just 1/4 inch apart, which tells me we’re probably talking about a smaller, younger snake … and not like this big one we found out back in summer 2007.

And, if we’re right, then this little guy may have siblings somewhere on our land. I certainly hope not, but that’s our fear. That we have a snake den around the house. Until Tom feels better, we’re in no position to go on a hard-target search for the possible den.

BUT, I dug around and found a few rattlesnake factoids:

Momma snake only cares for the babies for about 7-10 days.

Younger snakes have less venom control than older ones.

So, I guess we’re lucky that Lilly either has some immunity to the venom now, after two bites, or perhaps this one did have some control over venom delivery.

Snake Aversion Training

I’ll call upon your vast resources. Have you ever heard of snake aversion training that doesn’t include … well, aversions?

I just cannot imagine Lilly doing well with punishment in the name of teaching her a healthy fear of snakes. She has so much unhealthy fear as it is. I cannot bring myself to add to them.

And, yet, I certainly don’t want this to become a regular feature in our life, and I cannot keep Lilly imprisoned inside all summer.

Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related. I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.

Crystal Saling, CPDT-KA KPA CTP - June 25, 2010

Hi, I am Edie’s dog trainer and she is right, I am very anti-aversive.

Snake aversion training holds a very strange place in the dog training world. I know snake aversion trainers who in all of their other endeavors use nothing but positive reinforcement- based training techniques.

Some people feel the ends justify the means. But before you think about snake aversion training (with a shock collar) consider the following:

1. Some dogs become aggressive when strong physical punishers are used on them- this means that some dogs actually learn to attack snakes.

2. Some dogs are so traumatized by the first go-around which shocks the dog for looking at the snake, that their brains aren’t thinking during the second go-around (that’s where the dog is shocked for approaching the scent of the snake). Most snake bites occur before the dog has seen the snake so making the association with the scent is imperative.

3. Some dogs associate the shock with the area they were trained in, the person they were trained by, or some other random thing they happened to be looking at while they were shocked. This can lead to fear and aggression toward people or objects and can lead to a dog who refuses to go outside to eliminate.

4. Once the central nervous system has been stressed greatly, it can take up to 6 days for the cortisol levels to come down to normal. Heaven forbid something else stressful happens before those six days are over, the dog could be more easily provoked into aggression.

5. I don’t know the exact statistic, but many (like 30 to 40%) of dogs who come into the emergency vet for snake bites here in Tucson have had snake aversion training.

6. If you live in an area with many species of poisonous snakes, your dog will have to be trained to all of them. Here in Tucson, we focus primarily on the Western Diamondback. But that wouldn’t protect my dog if I were hiking in the White Mountains- where there are several other species of rattle snake.

7. Maybe dead snakes smell different from live ones- but when I came home from herpetology lab after dissecting a dead Western Diamondback, the dog I own who has been “snake trained” didn’t show any signs of fear/stress/ altertness- I was really disappointed. Her snake aversion training was horrifying for me and for her- she did 4 back flips and I was in tears. I expected her to be really upset when I came home smelling like Western Diamondback. If I knew then what I know now about behavior- I would not have put my dog through the training.

All that said, every once in a while I come across a situation where I feel that that the benefits outweigh the risks (but that is extremely rare). If there were a positive class to send these dogs to, I would send them to that one in a heart beat!

On that note, there is a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner in California who is working on a all positive method of teaching snake aversion. The field is in its infancy, and she is collecting data to verify it’s efficacy. Unfortunately, I will have to hunt down her name since my old emails got wiped out when I changed web hosts.

    Roxanne Hawn - June 25, 2010

    Thanks SO much, Crystal … for the well-thought-out reply and great explanation. I could NOT agree more. I’m opposed to shock collars in 99.9% of situations, and since my girl is already SO fearful, I cannot imagine using even a “mild” aversive.

Edie Jarolim - June 25, 2010

Belatedly, I’m going to ask my trainer who is very, very anti aversive and we’re here in the land of rattlesnakes so there’s a lot of attention to snake training. You’d think that being bitten once would be an aversive in itself but Lilly’s not the only one that it apparently didn’t work on. A friend of mine had a dog that got bit twice as well.

Guess it’s the surprise factor. Those snakes! I don’t hate them, but I do have a healthy respect for their personal space….

AC - June 24, 2010

Ugh, Lilly…

Thought about aversion training for my Queen Pouncer, but decided I can’t do ANYTHING aversive with Kona. Kona’s also an extreme example of how dog’s don’t generalize. I have a hard time seeing how working one or two days with one snake in one location (maybe even a caged snake) would translate to avoiding snakes on the trails.

I think it’s so hard to override instinct with dogs (herding, chasing prey etc.) I think KB is a great example of someone who’s done that well, but from what I read on her blog, she practices all the time, in every kind of situation and starts her dogs really young.

So all that to say, I’m skeptical of how successful an aversion workshop would be in the long haul for any dog and know it wouldn’t work for mine. Sure wish there was a solution. . .

    Roxanne Hawn - June 24, 2010

    Yep. I don’t think aversions are the answer for Lilly, but I had the chance to interview several top dog trainers this week about something else, so while I had them on the phone I asked for their ideas, and one thinks that I we worked on me simply GASPING in shock when we saw a (fake) snake … that since Lilly is so tuned into my sounds and breath, etc. that she would pick up a cautionary note. So, essentially, I would Gasp and Backup, so that Lilly would too.

    I asked if she thought that conditioning would work, later … even when I wasn’t around … since Lilly gets bit when I’m not there, and she thought it might.

    It’s worth a try. When I have time, I might work on that a bit and blog about it.

Sam - June 22, 2010

Roxanne,

The most recent one I remember is right here, about halfway down the page. The thread started out as an obedience training methodology argument that, as usual, veered off-topic.

http://www.dogforums.com/2-general-dog-forum/77946-here-s-your-chance-2.html

I seem to recall there being more info than there really is, but since I found it, I wanted to post it anyway. Maybe something will spark an idea for you.

Hilary - June 22, 2010

Also, why did you cross out the line of younger snakes having less venom than older ones? I clicked on it and got a 404.

    Roxanne Hawn - June 22, 2010

    Shoot. I’ll go in and fix that. Sometimes when I insert a link, but also make the line a bulleted list, my software crossed the words out, rather than underlining them. It’s a technical glitch, not a comment on the content. Thx for letting me know.

Hilary - June 22, 2010

Thanks for this post with photos. I always worry about snakes here, too, even in my yard. But doubt they’d be rattlers. I wonder what Gigi would advise? My dogs always hover over the snakes they find, so I’m sure they’d be a good target. I’m also interested in Murphydog’s links; I’ll take a look. Don’t like aversives, either, but it’s a possible life and death matter, too.

Eric Goebelbecker - June 22, 2010

Being in New Jersey this isn’t something I have had to deal with directly. It sounds to me like Lilly is not a good candidate for the training since, with her timidity, the chance for fallout is greater than normal. I’ve heard the the better snake aversion trainers screen the dogs before they will do the training.

That said, I see a lot of criticism of the training with no real alternatives. I have read people discussing try to use the snake for a recall cue or something similar, but I havent heard about anyone offering this as a service, so I guess it never really took off.

    Roxanne Hawn - June 22, 2010

    Thanks, Eric. I’ll have to look around and see what I can find.

Murphydog - June 22, 2010

I put Murphy thru snake aversion therapy here in San Diego last March. We have a TON of snakes here, and last summer we came across a king snake and he decided to pick it up. As soon as it wiggled he dropped it, but if that had been a rattler, he would have been in trouble.

I had VERY mixed feelings about putting him through it. You can read about them on his blog here (http://dogcatgirl.blogspot.com/2010/03/rattlensake-avoidance-training.html) and see pictures & videos here (http://dogcatgirl.blogspot.com/2010/03/rat.html).

Murphy did really well with the training, and while we haven’t come across a rattlesnake since (thank goodness!) to test out the success of the training, I do notice him being more cautious when he’s sniffing bushes along the trails where we hike. At times he gets a little nervous over things that ‘look’ like snakes when we are hiking, but at other times he doesn’t blink an eye so I’m not sure if he might be smelling a snake or if its just him (he’s 16 months old and seems to be going thru a bit of a fear phase).

I am pretty happy with how the training went, however if Murphy was a super timid dog to begin with I am not sure I would put him through it. There are so many opinions about it (and the use of e-collars in general), but I finally decided I would rather put him through the training than run the risk of him picking up another snake that turns out to be a rattler. All in all, I don’t think he’s suffered any ill effects from it.

My suggestion is to find a person who does the training and speak with them about Lily’s personality and find out their suggestions. A good trainer will know whether a sensitive dog like her could handle the training (based on previous experience) and should steer you in the right direction.

good luck! Glad to hear she made it thru yet another bite!

Debbie (Murphydog’s Mom)

    Roxanne Hawn - June 22, 2010

    Thanks so much, Debbie. I’ll click through and read more about your experiences.

KB - June 22, 2010

I have never heard of a non-aversive way of teaching dogs to stay away from snakes. You’re situation is especially tough because you wouldn’t necessarily be there to “help” in any way in the real situation.

I’ll toss out that some situations might warrant aversives. Certainly, an aversive is much less bad than the consequences of a snake bite…

But, you might ask Gigi. She can perhaps come up with an idea.

    Roxanne Hawn - June 22, 2010

    Thanks, KB. Honestly, I cannot imagine Lilly not being Lilly, when I’m not there at times she encounters a snake. I think part of it is instinct. Ginko seems to have it. Lilly does not.

Sam - June 22, 2010

I’m sorry about Lilly’s recent snake episode, though it does sound like everything, thankfully, is under control now.

I’m not sure about the snake aversion stuff. We’ve had some pretty rowdy debates about it on the forums I frequent. Seems like most people, unfortunately, stick to the camp of negative reinforcement for it, though there were a couple that had ideas (only trouble was I don’t think anyone has put the ideas in to practice). If you want, I’ll try to poke around for you, though, and see what I find.

I can’t imagine you using aversives on Lilly, either. I myself can’t imagine having to do that with Marge.

Is it possible she didn’t see the snake and it lashed out because she was too close to it and didn’t even realize? If so, snake aversion training might do no good. Just thinking out loud here.

    Roxanne Hawn - June 22, 2010

    Sam, I’m pretty sure that she did surprise it, but also that she likely barked right in it’s face. I’ve seen her try to herd or control beetles or other bugs she sees, so a snake would fall into that category for Lilly … something that moves that she wants to control.

    Thanks for the offer. Don’t dig around in those archives just for me.

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