Once Shocked, Twice Shy


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 on the face. Two small puncture wounds on the snout or near the eyes can cause sickness, partial blindness, most definitely pain, and occasionally, death.

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

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


He also tried with less success to train some of the dog’s owners.

“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 administers 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 biting the dogs.


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 said as he watched 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.

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 collars are not harmful.

Mark Williams, a Santa Clarita veterinarian, agreed. Williams, who treats about eight dogs for snakebites every summer, said that the training collars--which usually administer a shock of 0.8 watts and 11.6 volts--are humane.

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 must 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 dog owners who live in rural areas or take their dogs camping or hiking.


Despite the apparent effectiveness of his clinic, Callaghan said 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.”