Earl the McNab

Earl the McNab
Earl the Mcnab

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Rattlesnakes and Shaker Cans

It's the trifecta of perfect conditions for seeing a lot of rattlesnakes here on the ranch: hot weather, sustained drought, and moisture around our trees and container plants. Rattlesnakes don't usually rattle me, and they're fine when they stay in the desert, but there are occasions when you don't have time to catch them and you have to eliminate the threat. The last two to visit us were within inches of the cat exercise pen outside - while the cats were in it - and all of our dogs were milling about. 

In my experience, McNabs are innately snake smart. When Earl was but a pup, several months old at the time, I had left him in the courtyard while feeding the horses. As soon as I heard his "rolling bark" I knew there was a snake in the yard. He wasn't just barking in one place; he was moving as he barked, and McNabs have beautifully communicative barks. I can tell from their barks whether the cows are loose, or if there's a coyote passing by, or if there's a visitor they don't recognize. Earl was giving his best snake bark.  Sure enough, when I breathlessly made it back to the yard, he was about five feet away from the rattler. It was his first exposure to a rattlesnake and he knew to give it space but alert me to the danger.

Since then I've reinforced that snake awareness with all my dogs using a shaker can and an available dead rattlesnake.  McNabs are so easy to train this has worked well. Certainly I don't discourage anyone from having their dogs professionally snake trained, but I'm personally hesitant to have others handle my dogs , and this method has worked adequately for me so far. My greatest concern now with the McNabs and rattlers is that they accidentally step on one while focusing on something else. Ethan, most of all, loves to leap over walls, rocks, and anything else in his path, and he is always climbing onto haystacks and then flying from them. Ethan does his own stunts, and it is glorious.

I keep a "shaker can" handy for snake training. If you're unfamiliar with shaker cans, they're just aluminum cans with pebbles inside. Don't fill the can; just add enough that the pebbles make some noise and have enough weight you can toss the can. This morning I sacrificed a Fat Tire to make a new can up. Fat Tire is too hoppy, anyhow. If you wish, you can buy a shaker trainer here: Dog Shake Trainer (affiliate link). 

Every time we must neutralize a snake, I behead it and safely dispose of the head. Remember that rattlesnakes can bite you or others after the head has been severed. Once you've distanced the head from the snake, grab your shaker can and let your dog out so he'll "find" the snake. It's best to work with one dog at a time.

I don't recommend leading the dog to the snake. You want this to be as holistic as possible: let the dog "find" the snake and try to avoid having your dog associate you with the snake or the correction. As the dog approaches, wait for the moment he targets the snake - you'll see a sudden focus on the snake - and as his nose dips down toward it, toss that shaker can hard next to the dog's feet. Make it count. Refrain from yelling or vocalizing until the dog has backed off from the snake, then - if your dog knows the "get back" command - direct him to "get back" and promptly praise him when he does so.  

McNabs are noise sensitive and the shaker can, when properly used, can be highly effective. Do not overuse the shaker! It'll still be an effective training method but it's stressful to the dog and you can easily create neuroses without intending to do so. I do not use the shaker for any purpose except rattlesnake training. 

This morning, I had the opportunity to snake train Ethan. The rattler was coiled in the planter immediately beside the cat play pen. My husband promptly dispatched it, likely just minutes before a cat (or dog) tragedy would occur. As I prepared for snake training it was, of course, our little Papillon Amazon Warrior Mattie-K8 who first spotted it and darted toward it. I launched the shaker can at her and all three McNabs bolted. We then moved the snake onto the front steps - where we've found several rattlers in the past - and I let Ethan out again. One more toss of the can and he headed to the barn, where he hung out until I did chores. When he did come back in the house, he avoided the front steps entirely and came around the side. That's how quick McNabs are to associate the noise with the snake. It's also a dramatic reminder of how easy it would be to misuse or overuse the shaker can. Papillons, on the other hand, were bred to kill vermin. A Papillon or a terrier is going to be more stubborn and persistent about snake training, so recognize breed distinctions when doing your training. 

Place your snake in an area your dog will discover it.

Every time we must kill a rattler, I use the opportunity to reinforce the training session. If nothing else, it gives me a sense of whether or not the previous lesson "stuck." If your dog is leery and cautious as he catches sight or smell of the snake, you've already made an impact. If he immediately runs up to it and sticks his nose into biting distance, you know you still have work to do.

Shortly after our morning rattlesnake moment, I reached down to shut off a hose and saw the fellow pictured below curled up around it, basking in the cool water. He's one of our many beloved bull snakes-in-residence. Bull snakes do kill rattlesnakes, in addition to eating lots of delectable and destructive rodents. I do not snake train the dogs in any way around bull snakes unless the dogs begin to harass the snakes.

Similarly, we have a great number of Sonoran Desert Toads (also known as "Colorado River Toads") here. They're not venomous but they are poisonous - meaning, they will not inject their venom into you by biting or stinging, but they are toxic if eaten or licked. I'm happy to have the toads around but must train the dogs to stay away from them. Ethan, particularly, tries to play with his toad friends, but he has so far learned not to bite them or pick them up. Another joy of McNabs is they're not predatory creatures; they don't want to kill every small creature they see, and they're easy to discourage from doing so (although they do tend to want to play with or herd every small creature they see). Even Mattie-K8 the Papillon has learned not to kill or harass the toads.

There are a variety of methods to train snake avoidance. You know your dogs better than anyone, and you should choose the method that best suits you, your dog, and your situation. 

Copyright (c) 2018 MJ Miller * All rights reserved * No part of this content may be reprinted without the express permission of the author * Links,  however, may be freely shared * Thanks for linking, liking, tweeting, posting, and otherwise helping grow my readership * Most of all, thank you for stopping by and sharing my love of McNab dogs!

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