I live in Indianapolis, where the calendar runs January, February, Mud, Tornados, Welcome Race Fans, June. In the coming month I’ll be hearing about the Snake Pit at the Speedway — but at home, I’m preparing the Snake Kit.
It’s not really Laev’s fault. The owner of Laev’s half-sibling told me their sire is one of the most predatory dogs in the sport, even for a working Doberman. In a separate conversation, Laev’s breeder said her dam was the most critter-focused dog in their kennel. “Good heavens!” I cried. “She’s got it from both sides!”
The end result is, people who’ve trained this kind of working dog for decades have told me they’ve “never seen it this bad” — Laev’s prey-chasing, that is. She stashes her brain elsewhere for safekeeping while she flips out like a ninja at a pirate convention.
Now I normally don’t mind if she chases the squirrels and such; I have an entire woods outside my fence for their refuge. But I wish she would leave my snakes alone. The trees aren’t a sanctuary for them, they don’t ask for it like the teasing squirrels, and they keep a healthy dent in the invasive rodent population.
Snakes just emerging from hibernation aren’t noted for great decision-making, so she’s discovered several in the past week. Chipmunks flee rather than fight, but frightened snakes will strike (even our constrictors), so I get a noisy notification when Laev finds a snake, as she circles and barks and tries to outmaneuver it. Hence, the Snake Kit.
This year’s Snake Kit is very simple — a ready-to-hand bowl of raw eggs, from my friend’s backyard chickens and ducks. I got a great deal on them during worming, as they couldn’t be sold for human consumption, but it’s a safe wormer for dogs. Aren’t they pretty, in so many colors and sizes and shapes? I may add a whistle, which can be used to interrupt the snake hunt from a greater distance as we progress in the season.
So when I hear the bark which announces the discovery of a snake — it’s a distinctive bark, carrying aggression as well as frustration, since this animal is threatening in return rather than simply racing for a tree — I bolt for the Snake Kit. If I get a hint of awareness as I approach, if Laev looks at me or cocks an ear toward me as she circles, I might blow the whistle and reward a recall, but that’s a hefty requirement this early and isn’t usually worth the gamble. More likely, I’m going to join Laev at the snake (careful not to threaten it myself!).
Grabbing Laev’s collar and removing her from the snake might seem like a good short-term solution, but it’s not really the best option. For one thing, Laev’s brain might be switched off wholly during this encounter, but it will snap back on quickly enough to know I can remove her from the adrenaline and endorphin rush. I pulled her away from treed critters when she was a pup, even though I knew better, and I’ve paid for it for years. And that leads directly to the second reason I don’t grab for Laev’s collar — she has four legs, and I have two. If Laev doesn’t want to get caught, it ain’t never gonna happen.
So I’m fighting a different battle, then. I want not only to get Laev away from this snake, but to make it easier to get her away from other snakes, and to eventually build a strong recall away from snakes. I want to reduce her arousal at the prey and strengthen her response to me under arousal.
Last year saw the first Snake Kit, which was leftover whipped cream and a whistle. We started by just dumping whipped cream — directly into her mouth, if possible, but if she were frantic and darting, then onto the ground near her. Even if she didn’t stop to eat it, it distracted her for an instant. I could step between her and the snake if possible (the frightened snake determines whether this is safe) and then start pumping more whipped cream straight at her face.
After nearly a year of no snake practice, now I am doing something similar, but by presenting an egg to one side rather than having to start with full-contact whipped cream. Her ability to disengage from the snake to recognize and accept the food is a big step forward.
My choices of weapon are very deliberate; gooey treats which require licking will actually help to physiologically calm the dog. I want calm. Laev is working-bred, she enjoys a good fight, and pain or coercion will actually heighten her arousal. Food, and particularly licking food, brings her back down the ladder. If I can keep her licking, I can take her collar gently and ask her for simple behaviors, each of which can be reinforced with more licking, which allows me to ask for more behavior.
Once she’s aware of me and willing to eat, we begin moving (or targeting) away from the snake (while I pray it remains still and un-stimulating), treating with licks of cream for each new behavior. Eventually we reach the house, where I finish with a jackpot of whipped cream or present a bully bite chew to help vent any remaining arousal with mindless chewing.
A perfect system? In a perfect world, my snakes would sun themselves outside the fence. But this is the best option I’ve found thus far, and this morning Laev actually turned away from the snake to come to my hand. (I know this doesn’t sound impressive to those without hyper-predatory dogs, but trust me, this is big!) I hope to report more progress as we keep working!