Rattlesnake Training for Bird Dogs

Kiri, from one of last season’s hunts. Don’t let a rattlesnake spoil one of this year’s hunts.

We’re now past the middle of July. Our days now have 30 minutes less daylight than we had at the Summer Solstice.

Towards the end of June we passed the peak of the spring runoff period and, surprise, surprise, the Big Hole River and other streams dropped like someone pulled the plug in the bathtub. With the hot weather of July, don’t be surprised if we will likely go to “hoot owl” restrictions on local fishing, in spite of the big and prolonged spring runoff period.

On a day trip to eastern Montana, just a week and a half ago, wheat fields were ripening and, in fact, combines were already harvesting the first of the winter wheat crop.

In short, summer, that most fleeting of Montana seasons, is now more than half over—even if it didn’t really start until the end of June, or so it seemed. For better or worse, autumn is now just around the corner.

That means, of course, that the hunting seasons, the best part of the year, are just six or so weeks away. For some people in a couple Facebook groups dedicated to upland bird hunting, the wait between seasons is all but intolerable, even when fly-fishing really isn’t a bad way to kill time.

I got a bit of a head start on the hunting season a few weeks ago when I did a little trap shooting at our Outdoor Writers conference, taking turns at clay pigeons, and exchanging some good-natured razzing and trash talk with Mark Herwig, editor of the Pheasants Forever magazine.

I took another step toward hunting season when I took our two-year-old Labrador retriever, Kiri, to a rattlesnake avoidance training session.

While the training session opportunity was advertised in the local daily, I’ll not mention where it was held or who sponsored it. At the class I asked if I could take some photos, and was told, “Absolutely not. Inevitably, some photos would get on the Internet and PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) would try to shut us down.”

In case you were wondering, what happens in rattlesnake avoidance training is that trainers lead a dog close to a de-fanged rattlesnake, letting it get a good dose of rattler scent, plus a simulation of the snake trying attack the dog, at the same time that the trainer is giving the dog a strong shock on an electronic training collar.

I was allowed to watch at a distance and it seemed clear that Kiri was unhappy about the experience, as she yelped with pain and/or fright.

After it was all over, the trainer said, “Now take her home and keep her quiet for the rest of the day. Give your dog time to digest what happened and to think about it.”

Indeed, Kiri was pretty subdued most of the day, seemingly reflecting on the morning’s trauma and trying to make sense of it.

The goal of the session is that if she picks up the scent of rattlesnake while out on an early autumn hunt, she would quickly back away from a nasty and possibly fatal encounter. I’m also hopeful that she might also alert me to the presence of rattlesnake when we’re walking along a river in late summer.

I recall a fishing outing on the lower Big Hole River with a previous Lab, Candy, who ran ahead of me through the willows and cottonwoods. She ran right by a rattlesnake, arousing the snake that then looked at me with annoyance, rattling its displeasure at being disturbed during its morning hunt for mice or voles.

My general attitude toward rattlesnakes is, “Live and let live.” They are valuable predators on small rodents and if not provoked will live out a peaceful life without nasty encounters with dogs and their people.

The basics of rattlesnake avoidance training have been around many years and it works, and I’m glad Kiri went through it. Still, I’ll be happy if she never has an encounter to demonstrate her new skill.

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