Partner Dogs

Noa Holt-Shannon, Partner Dogs dog trainer, walks one of the dogs from cage to cage during a rattlesnake avoidance training session on April 2 in Cave Creek.

Around 9 a.m. on a Tuesday, northern Scottsdale resident Rebecca Bruening arrived to Partners Dog Training in Cave Creek to hand off her greyhounds, Grace and Mak, for rattlesnake avoidance training.

This wasn’t their first time taking the course, either.

“We’ve had four dogs that have been struck [by rattlesnakes],” Bruening said.  

Bruening was one of many first-time and returning pet owners who arrived to Partners Dog Training, a pet training facility.

Christopher Oosthuisen, productions manager and snake-avoidance director, said they train about 30 dogs daily this time of year from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. – an average of 100 dogs per week.

And for good reason: With warmer temperatures, snakes are slithering their way out of hibernation, increasing the chances of a close encounter with a slithering thing.

“They’re ready to awaken,” said Phoenix Herpetological Society Executive Director Dan Marchand, who highly recommends rattlesnake avoidance training.

“I don’t know who wouldn’t take their dog in and give them a little helpful boost or something that would help them to be more aware of their surroundings,” he said.

Michele Peltier understood the importance of getting her dogs trained.

Her friend’s dog got bit a week before she made the long drive from Apache Junction to Partners Dog Training with her dogs, Molly and Bella.

She said rattlesnake avoidance training “just eliminates the trauma that they have to go through” if they get bit.

After all, she said, “We live in a desert; There’s going to be things that are going to bite you.”

Partners Dog Training began offering rattlesnake avoidance training 17 years ago and since has trained over 16,000 dogs to avoid rattlesnakes.

During the training, which usually takes less than 10 minutes, dogs walk through a desert habitat where they’ll encounter three rattlesnakes safely encased in double wire mesh cages.

As dogs approach the cages and pick up on the scent and the sound of a rattlesnake, the trainers give them a negative association to that scent and sound with a small nick from an e-collar.

“The dog doesn’t know that it’s a rattlesnake,” Oosthuisen said. “The dog just knows, ‘When I pick up on that scent or when I pick up on that sound, I don’t like that.’”

Marchand said the training benefits the owners as well since the dog can alert them to a snake before they’re seen.

“Oftentimes, your dog will find [the rattlesnake] before you will because we don’t have that acute sense like dogs do. They can smell it several feet away from where you would be standing,” he said.

When a dog has picked up on a rattlesnake, signs to look out for include flattened ears, the tail tucked between the legs and a closed mouth.

“If a dog does show these signs, don’t keep coaxing it into that same area; Let it walk out and so forth, because that could be a sign there’s a snake in the area,” Oosthuisen said.

Though not required or guaranteed, the training is worth the $99 for newcomers or the $79 refresher course, Oosthusien said, noting, “Even in the most crowded cityscapes, you can still come across a rattlesnake.”

The US Food and Drug Administration reports that about 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the US each year, with 10-15 deaths. Most bites occur between April and October.

In the Valley, the Herpetological Society receives calls for snake removals as early as February, and recently received a few calls about bitten dogs, though none involved fatalities.

“No fatalities as far as the dogs go, as far as I know,” he said.

According to Partners Dog Training, medical bills for rattlesnake dog bites can run upwards of $3,000.

With no studies or statistics on snakes’ canine victims, it’s difficult to determine how common of an occurrence it is. Nor will you find studies regarding how long dogs will fare following a snake bite.

If your dog does get bit, carry it to an emergency animal hospital immediately, experts advise.

Marchand said PHS will have anywhere from 600 to 800 snake removals in the northern Scottsdale area alone every year.

“One of the hot areas, of course, is the north Scottsdale area; We have a lot of open desert between homes. Even the subdivisions have lots of open desert between the homes,” he said. “The further we go out from the city, we’re going to have more concentration of snakes.”

As a newer resident to northern Scottsdale, Bruening said she lives in an area where encountering wildlife is common and her dogs “are super-curious around everything that it just gets really dangerous.

According to Oosthuisen, about 35 to 40 percent of Partners Dog Training's clients live in Scottsdale, and half return at least one to two times a year for the rattlesnake avoidance training. Eighty percent return within two years.

“We suggest a year to keep it as fresh in their minds as possible because some dogs will go up there and immediately catch the scent. But even then, we want to instill it in them that you always, always, always need to avoid it just in case something were to happen,” said Partners Dog Training trainer Noa Holt-Shannon.

Around the home, rattlesnakes are typically found anywhere in one’s yard, hiding next to the home’s foundation and around corners, even in the foyer.

If you let your dog run loose in the backyard, Marchand advises owners keep the yard maintained and survey the backyard before letting the dog out.

“Keep it trimmed up so that you can visually help look for stuff that shouldn’t be there,” he said.

While out on a walk, keep the dog on a short enough leash so the dog can’t wander off the trail and stick its nose in bushes.

Arizona has 13 venomous species of snakes, but the western diamondback rattlesnake is the most common snake found in the desert.

To identify a poisonous snake, specifically in Arizona, Marchand advises to look at the head of the snake. If it’s larger than its neck, it’s poisonous. If its tail is blunt, it’s venomous.

Partners Dog Training uses eight diamondback rattlesnakes for avoidance training.

The team cares for and rotates the snakes so they get rest.

“We had a couple of herpetologists come out to see our training process, see our conditions and so forth, to make sure that we’re giving them just as good treatment as we would give dogs,” Oosthuisen said. “We’re not just dog people; We care about all animals and all God’s creatures, and we want to make sure they’re not being stressed out, that they’re eating properly, that they’re healthy.”

In the end, awareness of one’s surroundings and where your dogs are walking is key.

“Snakes are everywhere,” Oosthuisen said. “Don’t let your dog run around off leash and don’t let them chase critters or balls into the desert. Most of the time, if you stay away from snakes, they will stay away from you.”

And if you find a snake in your home or backyard, Marchand stresses not to remove it on your own.

“Please ask for assistance because we have the right equipment, we have the right training,” he said. “Snake bites are just so costly and so painful. It’s really not worth it.”

PHS charges $75 for snake removals. Call the rattlesnake hotline at 602-550-1090 for removals.