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July 19, 2010

Ginko is a doggone, five-star, full-fledged HERO! This morning, he protected Lilly from a rattlesnake coiled and ready to strike mere feet from the back of the house. I’m still shaking, and it’s been several hours since it happened.

Like Any Other Morning

We were doing our usual thing. Tom was getting ready to head out to a couple appointments, then work. I mixed up a fruit and protein shake to slurp down before Lilly and I did 3 miles that we try to get in before temps get too high.

It’s been hot, Hot, HOT around here lately, so we’ve kept the dogs cooped up for fear of snakes. BUT, it was early, still pretty cool … so Tom let the dogs out the back door to poke around.

Ginko on Alert

From my office on the back of the house, I heard Ginko bark. Not his usual, hey-I-see-a-person-or-dog bark. I headed that way to investigate, hollering at Tom to ask if they were out front or out back … because usually the barking gets fainter as they race to bark at whatever they see.

These barks were different. They sounded stationary and close.

The Noise

When I stepped out onto the back deck in my PJ’s, I heard what sounded like thousands of cicada, echoing out of the trees and off the house. This YouTube video is a good example of the sound.

Clearly, I have snake denial because for a few seconds I honestly didn’t recognize the noise. It was SO loud and seemed to be coming from everywhere at once.

React, Don’t Think

Ginko stood immobile on the deck, just above the three stairs, and barked again. That’s when I saw a pretty big rattlesnake coiled and ready to strike.

Lilly stood on the ground, just feet from the snake … well within its striking distance (which I think is at least 1/2 of the snake’s total length). Other than perhaps a car speeding toward her or a huge predator chasing us, I cannot imagine seeing anything much scarier.

I grabbed Ginko and shoved him inside the back door, while screaming SNAKE! at Tom who was back in the master bedroom.

I closed the door, turned to Lilly.

She wasn’t barking or approaching the snake, but she had sort of squared off with it. Coiled up, the snake was nearly as tall as Lilly.

OUT Cue to the Rescue

I needed Lilly to move away from the snake, without me having to approach it. So, I gave her OUT cue, which is used in agility to get dogs to move away from or around an obstacle … in this case, the large planter between the stairs near the snake and another set of stairs at the east end of the deck.

So, I ran toward the safe stairs, shouted OUT, and used the accompanying hand/arm gesture to get Lilly to move away from the snake.

And … she … did.

Because my voice, my behavior, and my high emotion scared her, Lilly went flat in the grass on the far end of the deck. While not ideal that she didn’t come straight to me when I asked, I was just happy that she was out of the snake’s range.

I had asked her to move away, and she did. I cannot expect more than that.

I ran down the stairs, grabbed her by the collar, and raced her inside … again, screaming SNAKE! SNAKE! to Tom.

So Far So Good

There is a chance that the snake struck before I got outside, but so far, both dogs seem OK. I keep checking each of them every hour or so, looking for pain or swelling.

With her first bite, she swelled and got really sick within the hour. With her second bite, it took at least a day for signs to show up.

Lilly is acting kind of funny today, but it’s entirely possible that she’s reacting to my anxiety vibe. (The snake is just one of a handful of other worries brewing in my day.)

Instinct, Ho!

We’ve known since Ginko’s first rattlesnake encounter (similar to today’s) that he has GOOD snake instincts and does not approach them.

We know from Lilly’s TWO snakebites — August 2008 and June 2010 (just a few weeks ago) — that she does not.

Everyone marvels that my fearful girl seems NOT to fear snakes. I wonder if today’s encounter will change that. That sound was really something, and we know how sound sensitive Lilly is.

When I played the video (linked above) to make sure it sounded like what I wanted you to hear, Lilly got really freaked out.

So, there’s a chance that the sound + my reaction may have imprinted on Lilly. Or, that could be wishful thinking.

About the Author 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.

  1. Something you may want to consider is: why are they coming to your yard? I work in Phoenix to remove rattlesnakes from people’s yards, and very often when I arrive, it’s very obvious why they are there. Many people create rattlesnake heaven without ever knowing it. If you have a local rattlesnake expert, try to schedule an appointment to come inspect your property and find trouble areas that could be bringing snakes to your yard.

    1. Thanks, Bryan. That’s a good point. If we lived in a spot with a “normal” yard, we might have a fighting chance at keeping them away. BUT, we live in a rural area, with lots of pasture land. It’s been a VERY wet/green summer, so there is a lot of natural food … which means there are a LOT of rodents … which means there are a LOT of snakes.

      We do keep the wild grass that’s close to the house trimmed back so that we can at least see what’s out there, rather than stumble onto anything in the tall grass.

  2. OMG, Roxanne. Your story totally freaks me out! I have no idea how Sadie would react. I’m afraid she’d be more like Lilly and Ginko. I hope we never have to find out.

    I so hope all is okay. What a story.

  3. Whoa, that’s quite a story. I can’t believe that you had the presence of mind to use an agility command, and it worked! Thank Dog!!!!!!

    It does seem like you can use the audio track of a rattling snake to teach Lilly something. I’m not sure how to do it… whether to teach her a positive action – move away from the sound or teach her that the sound means that very bad things are about to happen so you better flee. Maybe Gigi can help…

    I’m just glad that everyone is OK so far. I know that nagging worry though. There’s about a 1% chance that the reason why they didn’t find a foxtail in R’s nose was that it had already moved toward the brain… so we are paranoidly watching for any tiny sign. Here’s to good health for all of our dogs!

  4. Ugh, how scary. I hate rattlesnakes, it’s the one thing that sucks about living here. Let’s hope this is the end of the snakes for you for the year.

    I’m also skeptical about the rattlesnake training programs. A snake in a cage in a training setting is a lot different from a snake on a trail which is a lot different from a snake on the dog’s home territory and since dogs don’t generalize well I’m not sure how helpful the training is.

  5. Wow, very very scarey! And I am super impressed that she listened to your out cue!!! I’m pretty sure that my dogs wouldn’t know how to respond to that in that strange and amped up context!

    1. Thanks, Laura. Maybe since most of our agility training happens at home, Lilly was better able to generalize the cue. Plus, we practice all kinds of cues in normal daily situations. Like I’ll use OUT to get her to move around the island in the kitchen, the coffee table, or flower pots outside.

  6. Oh…Scary!! Good for you for keeping it together enough to get both dogs away. A great example of how training and a good reaction can save a dog from trouble. Paws crossed that no one was bitten.

    Side note: When it gets really hot, rattlers will be more active in the cooler morning and evening temps. I think they’re pretty sensitive to temps and fry easily.

    1. Yes, thanks, AC. I believe KB said that once as well … that during her search-and-rescue training they said snakes were more likely to be out and possibly strike at those times.

  7. What a scary story! However, it seems to have a happy ending. I know Betsy has no snake fear…if it struck her she would have been relentless and gone back for more.

  8. OMD! What a very scary incident! Mom & I are crossing our fingers & paws (respectively) that neither doggie got bit.

    Not sure if you’ve already said…but has Lily or Ginko gone thru Rattlesnake Aversion Training? I might have posted this question before, so if I have please forgive me, but if not it sounds like it would definitely be something worth looking into! Mom put me thru it and while I haven’t encountered a snake since I am pretty sure I’d stay away from one if I saw it!

    wags, wiggles & slobbers

  9. I’m so glad you’re all okay. It sounds like in this one specific case Lily might need an aversive to save her life. I can’t recall: Did the snake bite classes you checked out seem to generalize at an unacceptable level?

    1. Because of my aversion to traditional snake training methods, we’ve only spoken to our own trainer about options. I also had the chance to chat with a few really BIG-name dog trainers recently for an article, and I asked them about options for a fearful dog like Lilly, and none of them thought the usual methods would work.

      Plus, I think YOUR trainer posted last time I wrote about snakes that something like 40-60% of dogs with snakebites in the area had actually gone through snake aversion training.

  10. What struck me most about what you wrote was that several hours later you were still having a physiological reaction to a fearful experience. I wish that more people could understand that for many of our scared dogs this is what happens to them. Just because an incident is over or wasn’t that scary to us, doesn’t meant that they’re not affected by it, for a long time.

    Fingers crossed that no bite occurred.

    1. Excellent point, Debbie. I indeed am pretty much a wreck. There are other upsetting things going on today, so it’s a combination of worries … BUT I think the fact that I’ve been under incredible stress for pretty much a year, but definitely since January, is making me much less resilient emotionally. I get upset easily and have a harder time letting it go.

      As you will see … when I get my rant on about a couple of issues later this week. :o)

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