The drone of cicadas in the live oak canopy above us fought for supremacy with the buzz of a western diamondback.
Several dozen dog owners, all of them obviously slightly nervous about the proceedings, waited in a quiet circle for their turn at “snake-proofing” their animals. Their dogs, unaware of the events unfolding around them, sniffed and rolled and bounced about the yard in front of the vet’s office.
Kay Winter, widow of Central Texas dog training legend Harlen Winter, moved back and forth between her notebook and the small open area where daughter Cory worked the snake tongs and the control to the training collar that applied the aversion-producing shock that each dog wore as it approached the 3½-foot rattlesnake coiled and waiting in the shade.
This training exercise, apparently invented decades ago by Harlen Winter in an attempt to save many hunting dogs that were dying each year in the field, plays out many times before and during bird hunting seasons in Texas.
The snake, which is prevented from biting by having its fangs removed or its mouth taped or otherwise kept closed, is placed in an area where the dog owner can walk his dog in from downwind. Most dogs, being dogs, will scent the snake and decide to get a better look at the source of the smell.
When the dog is close enough to elicit a strike or other movement from the snake, the trainer hits the button on the hand-held device that delivers a mild shock to the dog’s neck and body.
It’s classic aversion therapy that can last a lifetime, but that gives the dog one more leg up on avoiding a possibly fatal snakebite. It’s best for bird dogs, which spend much of their time running through thick, tall cover following quail or retrieving doves, but it will work on almost any animal.
“I think the strangest thing we ever trained were some llamas,” Kay Winter said. “Llamas are like horses. They can only breathe through their noses, and if they can’t do that, they die.”
Harlen Winter had told me once that he had used the technique on cats and other domestic pets, some small and some large.
“We did a miniature Chihuahua one time,” Kay Winter said. “It only weighed 2 pounds.”
An animal that small wouldn’t have a neck big enough to hold the collar. So what did they do? “We put the collar around its abdomen, and that worked,” she said.
Harlen Winter was quick to try the electric shock of a hand-held self-protection device to help offset the effects of snakebites on his hunting dogs. I watched him zap a golden retriever that had backed out of a bunch of grass snorting from the effects of a bite to the nose; the dog went from near death to hunting again in half an hour with no visible ill effects of a shock to the bite area over his nose.
There is debate about the effectiveness of using those devices on snakebite, though I’ve seen them work more than once. I’m not recommending them over the care of a veterinarian, but it could be helpful should your dog be bitten far out in the field.
And finally, there’s the rattlesnake vaccine that vets carry now to use as a preventative in the event your pet is bitten. It won’t completely reverse the effects of the bite, but it does lessen them and can save your dog’s life if you happen to be far away from quick treatment.
There will be snake avoidance clinics throughout Central Texas during the summer and into the fall, and they are an inexpensive and quick counter to a possible death sentence should your dog be bitten.