Rattlesnake Encounter! How to prevent them. What to do if your dog gets bitten.

Last Friday, I was hiking with Toki, her dog friend Milo, and Milo’s owner Josh on a local trail in the Santa Monica Mountains.  As we were walking and chatting, I noticed that Toki suddenly stopped, and  I looked up to see a four-foot rattlesnake barring the way in front of her.

You know that expression “ice in your veins”?  Well that was me.  My little baby Toki was facing off against a big, bad, rattlesnake.  He looked as thick as my forearm – I couldn’t see his trademark diamond pattern, but I could see his pale yellow rattle sticking straight up at the end of his enormous body.

Josh and I both screamed Toki’s name at the same time, calling her back.  We also grabbed Milo.  In the confusion, Toki ended up on the other side of the rattlesnake.  She looked at me, then the snake, and then me, and she backed up a few paces.  I gave silent thanks that I had enrolled her in rattlesnake aversion training 6 months ago.  Instead of risking calling her at that point, Josh ran wide around the snake and grabbed Toki.  We all retreated back to the wider fire road, where we regrouped and the adrenaline kicked in, and we took a shaky drink of water.

That was the biggest, baddest, scariest snake I have ever met on a California trail.  I’m so grateful that Toki escaped the encounter unscathed!

Toki and Milo, resting in the car after our rattlesnake hike

With my recent experience in mind, I want to share some safety tips and information with you, in case you ever run into a snake with your dogs:

First, prevention is the best approach:  Snakes are only active between around 50 degrees to 100 degrees F.  Because snakes prey mostly on nocturnal animals, they’re more likely to be on the move during the evening hours.  Understand where snakes are likely to hide (brush, tall grass, dry logs, rocks), but be prepared to meet them just about anywhere, including right in the middle of your trail in the middle of the day.  Keep your dog from wandering off into likely snake territory.  If appropriate, keep your dog on leash.  (I realize that Toki was off-leash in this case.  It’s a judgment call that you have to make, depending on the circumstances, your dog’s personality, and your environment.)

Second, if your dog spends a lot of time in rattlesnake territory, consider the rattlesnake vaccine, and/or rattlesnake aversion training.  Both of these options are not without controversy.  My vet informed me that the side effects and the questionable effectiveness of the rattlesnake vaccine didn’t justify administering the shot.  (Note: even if your dog received the rattlesnake vaccine, you must still seek immediate treatment by a vet if your dog is bitten.)  In the end, I decided not to give the vaccine to Toki.  (I would be curious if any readers have given this vaccine to their own dog and how it turned out.)

Rattlesnake aversion training is similarly controversial, because it uses shock collars to create a negative association with the smell, sight and sound of rattlesnakes.  (It’s important to train all three senses because many California rattlers are fairly quiet and often obscured by brush along the trail.)  Toki has a high prey drive – she’ll chase everything from lizards to seagulls.  In this instance, I felt that the aversion training was justified to potentially save her life.  I watched the training process and witnessed a profound difference in her behavior towards rattlesnakes by the end of the 15 minute session.  At the beginning of the training, she tried to tangle with the test rattlesnake multiple times, and if the snake hadn’t been muzzled for the training, she would have sustained multiple bites.  That scenario could have played itself out again on Friday.  In my opinion, that session prevented her from getting bitten by the gigantic rattlesnake we encountered on our hike, and I’m 100% happy with my decision.  (I welcome your thoughts on this issue in my comments, below!)

Third, stay calm, be careful not to get bitten yourself, and use your emergency safety recall word. (This article outlines the basic training technique for an emergency recall, and this article talks about the emergency recall in practice).  Your safety recall word is a word associated with your dog’s favorite rewards and that you use only in an emergency situation.  Toki’s emergency word is “Mayday”.  I didn’t have a chance to use it because the snake was between me and Toki, and I didn’t want to encourage her to run past the snake.  But having an emergency recall word is extremely helpful for this type of situation–or in any emergency situation for that matter.

Fourth, know what to do if your dog gets bitten by a venomous snake.  The following tips come from the Pecan Grove Veterinary Hospital website (which also has great tips on assembling a first aid kit for your dog).

  • Identify the snake if possible.  Note size, color pattern, and whether or not there is a rattle at the end of its tail.  (Know your local venomous snakes)
  • Restrict your dog’s movement.  (Note: ideally you should carry your dog, but I’ve read on multiple websites that your dog can walk out slowly with minimal ill effects)
  • Look the dog over carefully for fang marks, noting that there may be more than one bite wound.
  • If your dog was bitten on a leg, loosely immobilize the limb in a functional position.
  • Do NOT incise the bite wound to aspirate the venom.
  • Do NOT apply a tourniquet without veterinary assistance.
  • Do NOT apply ice to the area.
  • Seek veterinary assistance ASAP while keeping your dog as quiet as possible.

In addition, my vet recommends administration of Benadryl (1 mg/lb dosage).  I always hike with Benadryl Quick Dissolve Strips (which are easier to administer), in case of emergencies.  If your dog was bitten on the face or neck, you need to loosen the collar because the area could swell quickly.  Finally, control your emotions–you need to keep your dog as relaxed as possible, to prevent the increased spread of the venom.

Rattlesnakes are scary.  It’ll be a while before I go back out to that trail . . . On the other hand, I don’t want this experience to stop our outdoor adventures.  It just reinforces the importance of knowing how to prevent and treat a snake bite, and working on our recall training.  Also, please note that I’m not a vet, so double-check your snake safety protocol with your own veterinarian!  : )

Finally – I welcome any comments or suggestions that you’d like to share with my other readers!

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8 Responses to Rattlesnake Encounter! How to prevent them. What to do if your dog gets bitten.

  1. Jennifer says:

    Yikes! Glad to hear that all four of you are okay!!!!

  2. Thanks for the tips. Luckily we don’t have Rattlesnakes here in Western Washington…but that is why knowing what to do is more important. If we are off traveling and run into one with our dogs we wouldn’t be used to seeing/dealing with them.

  3. Yikes. My heart was thumping as I read your post. I’m so glad to read that everyone escaped unscathed. This type of situation is what keeps me up at night…worrying about the “what ifs”.

    We’ve been working with Gus a lot lately on listening. Although Gus is almost always walked on a leash, there are a few parks where we let him roam along the trail. We’ve often discussed what he’d do if a snake was on a trail and we want to make sure he’ll listen to us if we ever encounter one.

    What trail were you on on? We’ll be sure to avoid it when we’re there. ;)

  4. Pingback: Metropolis | The Daily Toki

  5. Bonnie says:

    I have lived in rattlesnake territory for 30 years and have lost one dog to her second bite. You are right that the evening is the worst time. In San Diego County we have 4 species of rattlesnake and it is important to recognize each one because the venoms differ. I have recently gotten my one dog vaccinated and went through the aversion training with her. Did it help? We will see. I do an off leash walk with the dogs every morning and have been fortunate so far to see no snakes at 5:30 am. Later in the day it’s a different story.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for posting your story and tips…I just killed my first rattlesnake a couple of weeks ago, only because it was coiled up and rattling at the bottom of my steps, and i have 5 dogs plus kids that were visiting me…I am going to seriously consider the aversion training that you described, I’d never heard of it before, plus I have had my (favorite dog ;-)) black cocker spaniel vaccinated for the last 3 years, because she is the most adventuresome, and is often wandering around by herself, usually chasing butterfly shadows, and I’ve seen no ill effects of her getting the shot every year, and it only costs like $20 at my vet’s office…I didn’t have the other dogs vaccinated because they don’t wander off like she does…(We live on 30 mostly wooded acres in Northern California) Anyway, Thanks again for sharing, You’ve opened my eyes, and possibly saved one of my dog’s lives in the future, and I appreciate it!

    • Anonymous says:

      My dog recently got bitten by a diamondback rattlesnake 4 days ago. We have been treating his bite. He got bit about 4 times on the face. His face is really swollen. He was weak. Now he’s gaining that strength back.

  7. Probably one of the best reads on how to prevent and deal with venomous snakes while hiking with your dog! I never heard of the recall word, but it is such a great idea! The Benedryl makes sense too. Thank you for sharing this …two years ago!

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