All bark and no bite

Photo by Elise Modrovich / Special to the Sun:
“Clayton,” at the final exam, giving the rattlesnake a wide berth as he was taught.

 

By Elise Modrovich
Special to the Sun

The annual Kern Valley Rattlesnake Aversion Training, conducted by Natural Solutions, took place at the Burlando Ranch home of Marianne and Gene Fountain on the very warm and sunny first Saturday in June. The Fountains have been advocates of this training for years.

“We live in rattlesnake country,” Gene says. “If you hike on the trails, or even if you just let your dogs out to wander around the yard, it’s probably just a matter of time before they encounter one.”
Back in 2011, they realized their new dog, Ranger, needed the training, but at the time, they couldn’t find anything available closer than Tehachapi.

“We drove all the way out there, and Ranger just wouldn’t cooperate,” Marianne recalls. “Erick (Briggs, founder of Natural Solutions) just stopped everything, took Ranger for a walk, spent time with him, got to know him, and wouldn’t even start the training until Ranger was ready. We were so impressed, we asked them to come out the next year, and we’ve been doing it ever since.”

In 2012, their first year hosting, ten dogs signed on, including Ranger for his “refresher course.” This year, the Fountains had almost 100 dogs on the roster.

“Word’s getting out,” Gene says, adding, “People see the results and come back, tell their friends. It’s growing every year.”

The Fountains refuse to make any profit in the annual training. “We do it as a public service,” Marianne states. “Of course we pay Natural Solutions, but then any additional proceeds go to charity.”

In the past, the Fountains have donated to Wounded Heroes Fund K-9 for Veterans in Bakersfield, and our local Animal Shelter in South Lake. This year, the proceeds are going to the One Spade Youth Packers organization. The Fountains are also quick to point out they have a lot of volunteers, some who come from out of the county and even out of the state to help organize and run the event.

Several local businesses also donate raffle prizes, printing services, signage and even bottled water.

Marianne smiled, “It’s wonderful to see the whole community get involved.”

Erick Briggs, owner of Natural Solutions, who has been doing this kind of training for fifteen years, and Erin Briggs, co-owner, who has been involved with Natural Solutions for ten years, both have degrees in Animal Behavior. They have worked as trainers for film and television, done work with zoo programs, and have been naturalists, rescuers and advocates, “our whole lives,” Erin says.

“Our entire focus is always on the safety and well being of the animals, including the snakes.”

Ah yes, the rattlesnakes. Natural Solutions utilizes real, unaltered young and large adult snakes. For safety purposes, the rattlesnakes are carefully “muzzled” before being used in the training.
“The muzzles are very low profile,” says Erin. “We make sure they don’t affect their scales, the snakes can still eat, drink, and use their tongues normally once it’s on.”

So, who does the muzzling? “Oh, I let Erick have that privilege,” Erin laughs.

“We have very special tools, and you have to be completely dedicated and focused, but it’s still risky.”

Some snake aversion training programs don’t muzzle the rattlesnakes, but instead keep them in cages.

“We’ve found that often the dogs will develop a fear of the cage instead of the snake, which then translates into a fear of kennels, and sometimes even things like grates in a sidewalk,” Erin states.
Natural Solutions prefers to let the dogs encounter the snakes in a natural, open habitat, which is more consistent with how they would be encountered in daily life.

Additionally, some companies will put the snakes into restrictive devices like cups and pipes that can so severely restrain the snake’s ability to move naturally that it can actually cause them harm.
“We treat the snakes respectfully,” says Erin. “We pay attention to keeping their temperature constant, which is crucial for their health. We also bring multiple babies and adults with us so they have a chance to take breaks.”

The rattlesnake training itself begins with the trainer taking time to get to know the dog, finding out any special needs or issues, then slipping on and adjusting the “stimulation collar” and leash, and heading out to the large enclosed training area.

Erin is quick to point out the collars are set “Extremely low. It works like a PT Tens Unit,” she says.

“When applied, it causes a pinch or a cramp, something the dog notices and is uncomfortable for them, but that won’t send shockwaves through the body. If you get too severe with the stimulation, the dog can shut down, and then they can’t learn. You’ve defeated the purpose.”

The owners are asked to relinquish control of the dog to the trainer.

“We don’t want the dog to associate the stimulation with the owner,” says Erick. “We need them to believe it’s all coming from the snake.”

The training comes down to addressing three basic canine senses: sight, smell and sound.

First, the dog is introduced to the young rattlesnake. Curious, most dogs will go right up to the baby to check it out, at which point the stimulation is applied. Once the trainer is assured the dog has learned its lesson, they move on to the shedded skin.

“Rattlesnakes have a distinct smell,” says Erick. “After the training, some dogs will avoid anything that even remotely looks like a snake,” says Erin. “And others will distinguish and avoid the rattlesnake largely because of that smell.”

Next, the dog is led to a bush to hear that menacing rattle.

“Here they get an obligatory stimulation,” says trainer Chip Cochran, who has been Natural Solutions for five years. Cochran is currently working on his PhD in Biology, writing his doctoral dissertation on rattlesnake venom.

“They need to understand and want to avoid that sound.”

Finally, the dog faces the adult snake in the grass. The owner is asked to call to their dog, encouraging them to run right into it.

At this point, the vast majority of the dogs will give the big snake a wide berth, but if they don’t, the trainer will continue working with them until they can pass that final exam.

As a follow-up, Natural Solutions advises that dogs return annually for at least one or two more training sessions.

“We have found that the first training stays with the dog for about a year to a year and a half,” says Erin. “After the second year, it sticks, but really three times is best for long-term retention.”

The Fountains are already on board to host next year’s training in Kernville, and Natural Solutions holds sessions all around California year-round, so if you can’t wait until June, you can find their schedule at socalrattlesnakeavoidancetraining.com.