I open most of my Snake Safe (rattlesnake aversion) classes by telling my folks, “I’m going to tell you something and you won’t believe it until you watch it today. Rattlesnakes are invisible to dogs.”
That is a simple declarative statement, yet people don’t really grasp that I mean that literally. A rattlesnake can be on the ground 3 feet in front of a dog, and he will NOT see it. Dogs will not know it is there. I have heard it stated a hundred times by folks who go through the training: “My dog stepped right on it; My dog stepped right over it.” I personally have watched as dogs stood within 3 feet of a snake tens of thousands of times and observed that the dog did not know a rattlesnake was there.
As humans, we just don’t understand that. It violates our understanding of the ways we discern danger in the world. We go through our world with our eyes wide open, verifying everything around us by sight. We have color vision and our elevated visual plane that allows us to readily discern shapes from a distance.
The world our dogs see is very different from ours. Their eyes are closer to the ground which means they can’t see things on the ground from a distance as we do. Additionally, dogs see the world in grayscale, which means that while dogs are looking out over their already flatter world, they are also viewing the landscape in shades of gray. This means that the gray bump of a rattlesnake looks the same as all the other gray bumps that litter the ground in their world.
In order for our dogs to realize that they are not alone in their space, the snakes they come upon have to move or make a sound. Upon seeing movement, or hearing a sound, dogs will perform their version of “looking” at a snake. They circle downwind. They lower their nose to the ground towards the scent stream coming off of the moving or noisy gray bump which is the rattlesnake. Then they lean in even closer to put their nose on the unknown critter to discern what it is. When they linger too close while sniffing that particular gray bump- that is when bad things happen.
In order for your dog to be able to know what a rattlesnake is from a safe distance, for him to be safe and by extension keep you safe, your dog has to be able to recognize the scent of a rattlesnake and understand that it means danger, stay away. That requires your dog to have had some prior experience with a rattlesnake which educated him to avoid anything related to that particular scent cue. Maybe he learned about it from another dog. Maybe he figured it out from the way you felt and reacted when the two of you came upon a rattlesnake together. The only way to be certain your dog will know and recognize the scent cue of a rattlesnake, however, is to have him trained.
People often think they can keep their dog safe by putting him on a leash and heeling him all the way down the trail. People will assume that by keeping their dog within three feet of themselves, their human eyes will be able to spot and avoid a rattlesnake, thereby keeping both the human and the dog safe.
While I began this blog by stating that dogs don’t see snakes, we humans are not real good at it either. Certainly neither the vision of a dog nor a person is nearly as capable of snake detection as a dog’s nose. If a person thinks that they will be able to see even 1% of the snakes that they walk by, they are mistaken and again, I mean this literally.
If you live in a region where there is a danger of rattlesnake contact, be sure to get your dog trained to avoid them. Please contact me via my website: freerangedogs.com for more information on rattlesnake aversion Snake Safe training. I provide group trainings in a number of areas where rattlesnakes are encountered. It will be an educational experience for you and your beloved canine companion, and will keep you both safe.