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Shock Value

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If curiosity killed the cat, as the saying goes, it hasn’t been too healthy for dogs either, at least not in rattlesnake-infested regions of Southern California.

Each year, hundreds of curious canines sniff up to local rattlesnakes and are bitten--usually right on the face. Two small puncture wounds on the snout or near the eye can cause sickness, partial blindness, most definitely a lot of pain, and occasionally death.

Patrick Callaghan, a dog trainer from Norco, runs a program to save dogs from their own natures. Employing what he calls “velvet and steel” training methods, he says he can teach even the most fearless or gregarious dog to recognize snakes as something to stay far away from.

Callaghan, who’s been training dogs for 30 years, needed only 20 minutes, an electric training collar and a couple of western diamondback rattlesnakes to teach that crucial lesson to some 80 dogs who completed his snake-avoidance clinic at Valencia Glen Park last weekend.

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He also tried with less success to train some of the dogs’ owners, dispensing some “steel” whenever they didn’t follow his instructions.

“Some of these masters are dumber than their dogs,” Callaghan grumbled quietly, when one owner ignored instructions.

The “velvet and steel” method works something like this: First a dog is fitted with a training collar that can administer a mild electric shock when activated by the remote control Callaghan holds. “It stimulates the dog” without doing any permanent harm, Callaghan said.

Then one of Callaghan’s assistants leads the dog by a leash over a short course where two rattlesnakes lie coiled on the park’s grass. The snakes’ mouths are taped shut to prevent them from actually biting the dogs.

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When the dog begins to sniff or show any interest in the rattlesnakes, Callaghan pushes a button and the dog receives a shock.

“I try to get into the dog,” Callaghan says as he watches a Labrador run the course. “I watch their breathing, their eye movements, the way they lick their lips, to see what they’re feeling about the snake.”

Dogs feeling the shock usually yelp or try to run away.

After a shock or two, the dog associates the snake with an unpleasant experience and usually won’t go near one again, Callaghan said.

Some dog owners expressed fear for their pets’ safety but Callaghan said the effects of the collar are not harmful. For one doubter, Callaghan placed the collar on the man’s wrist, and gave him a shock. He appeared convinced it would not harm his dog.

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“The only way a training collar is dangerous to a dog is in the hands of a novice,” he said. “There is no more humane or sure way of training dogs.”

Dr. Mark Williams, a Santa Clarita veterinarian, agrees. Williams, who treats about eight dogs for snake bite every summer, said that the training collars--which usually administer a shock of .8 watts and 11.6 volts--are very humane, especially considering that the alternative may be a destructive dose of venom.

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He said that although dogs usually recover from a rattlesnake bite, it leaves them sick for days. Because the venom attacks tissue, the dog may be permanently scarred. He added that it is also a painful experience for owners, who have to watch their pets suffer for days and pay $300 to $500 for veterinary treatment.

“It’s a lot cheaper to pay the clinic’s $50 fee,” the vet said, recommending the snake-avoidance clinic for any dog owners who live in rural areas or take their dogs camping or hiking.

The training appeared to work on the dogs that attended the weekend clinic. German shorthairs, Irish setters, golden retrievers or Dobermans, disciplined hunting dogs, pampered show dogs or just lovable mutts, they all became snake-wary.

To confirm that the lesson took, Callaghan’s assistant holds the dog 40 yards away from its owner with the snake between pet and master. Callaghan tells the owner to call his dog. In virtually every case Saturday, the dog either refused to move or walked around the snake, giving it a wide berth indeed. Two dogs, an Irish setter and a Doberman mix, ran completely out of the park and had to be dragged back to finish the exercise.

Avoiding snakes is the desired behavior, Callaghan pointed out, encouraging the owners to praise and reward their pets whenever they displayed it. That is the “velvet” part of the training, he said.

Callaghan scolded several owners who tried to pull their reluctant dogs by their leashes closer to the snakes.

“What you’re doing is breaking your bond with your dog,” Callaghan admonished one man. “You’re dragging him toward something that he has tried to communicate to you is bad. By doing that you’re telling him you don’t trust him.”

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Despite the apparent effectiveness of his clinic, Callaghan says that he offers no guarantees. “It works in over 90% of the cases,” Callaghan said. “But only death and taxes are for sure. Some dogs forget easily and that’s why people have to bring them back for refresher courses.”

But he is still very confident in his lesson plan.

“So your dog likes fighting snakes?” Callaghan asked the owner of a retriever that looked just like “Old Yeller.”

“He only likes killing them,” the owner replied, smiling.

About 15 minutes later, Callaghan’s technique had so thoroughly persuaded the dog against playing with snakes that when the owner called him, the dog took one look at the owner, another at the snake and sat down, as if to say, “No way, pal.”

“He doesn’t look like some bad snake-killer to me,” crowed Callaghan.


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