For this episode of K9 Conservationists, Kayla speaks with Ken Ramirez about snake avoidance
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Kayla Fratt 00:10
Hello and welcome to the K9Conservationists podcast, where we’re positively obsessed with conservation detection dogs. Join us every week to discuss detection, training, canine welfare, conservation, biology and everything in between. I’m Kayla Fratt, one of the cofounders of K9Conservationists, where we train dogs to detect data for land managers, researchers, agencies and NGOs.
Kayla Fratt 00:29
We don’t have any fresh reviews, so please take some time to drop one into our apple podcast feed they truly make my day.
Kayla Fratt 00:34
Today I have the absolute joy, I’m talking to the one and only Ken Ramirez from the Karen Pryor Clicker Training Academy about snake avoidance training. Ken Ramirez has over 40 years of experience in professional animal training with more species than I can count. For the last few years he’s been working on a project to teach positive reinforcement snake avoidance training. I’m super duper excited to get to this interview.
Kayla Fratt 00:56
But before we get into it, we’re going to dive into our science highlight. Today, we’re reading the paper titled Field Quantifications of Probability of Detection and Search Patterns to Form Protocols for the Use of Detector Dogs for Eradication Assessments, which was written by Benjamin Hoffman, Craig Faulkner, Laura Barrington, and Faye Lawton and published in July 2022, in Ecology and Evolution. So this paper focused on the use of detection dogs to locate yellow crazy ant populations for eradication. The goal was to investigate the probability of detection for the ants relative to a transect search line, and then assess how dogs search patterns in relation to transact spacing affected site level probability of detection. They also compare these metrics between two dogs. Both dogs were used for experienced koala detection Springer Spaniels, named Jett and Frankie. The dogs were working in northeast Arnhem Land in Australia, which is vegetation that they described as Savanna woodland dominated by eucalyptus and understory brush. So as far as I can tell, the project didn’t focus on training the dogs to discriminate between yellow crazy ants and other ants. But because most of the training did take place out in the environment, there were other ants around other way we’ll talk about it seems like the dogs were particularly jet was cute into the scent of the containers as well. So definitely more of a probability of detection, search coverage paper than necessarily discrimination or like operational level stuff. So anyway, for probability of detection, the experimenters used roadsides along areas with relatively low underbrush that were at least 500 meters from the nearest known at yellow crazy ant populations. They categorized each test as ideal or non ideal wind conditions based on the wind speed swirling and gusting. The work was conducted in the morning for dog comfort and to mimic when yellow crazy ants would be most active in an actual survey. So canisters they use metal shaker shaker casters with about 50 Ants were placed at least 30 meters apart along the transect at varying distances from the road. And to avoid tracking the canisters were actually set from the opposite side of the road. So they had someone kind of walk on the if you imagine two parallel roads, the canister was set from one road and then the dogs searched from the other so the dog couldn’t track the person over to the canisters. They were placed both upwind and downwind of the the road that the dog was going to search and this, the probability of detection section was just working with jet. The handlers were not told where the canisters were, or if the canister was hot or blank until jet alerted. Jet was then walked on a short lease to facilitate detection distance calculation, which makes sense for data analysis but might not reflect real life searches. So to quote if jet was walking seemingly randomly, not following the scent following the center of the center or pursuing the likes of a prior canister, he was ordered to return to the handler. Also, if he was indeed on the scent of a canister, but lost the scent or could not find it, he was called to return. If jet violated any of the rules listed above, the trial was voided, which I find interesting. I guess that makes sense, statistically, but I don’t really like the idea of eliminating trials where the dog did dog things that seems like you might be kind of inflating your numbers. I didn’t I read that section multiple times and didn’t quite understand why they did it that way. Now, to quote the results, jet was clearly able to detect ants both upwind and downwind, including 30 meters down when in non ideal conditions detectability was greatest at two meters with 86.1% detectability and declined slightly non linearly with distances up to 20 meters, so down to 33% 33.48% detectability, but was plateaued by about 30 meters where he was finding 26.23% of the canisters. detectability was consistently greater when the ants were upwind of the dog irrespective of the wind conditions. The calculated relationship between this distance and detectability was extremely strong with an R value of point 998. Jet did not find the control canisters and 69.6% of the opportunities but did inspect them and 27% or 23.7% of the opportunities and found in signal to the presence of ants. In 6.7% of the opportunities predominantly six of those nine times on the first day, so he was alerting to these blank canisters on the first day in particular. Next, the researchers quantified area coverage by creating a search area and then having the handlers walk transect spaced at 1520 or 25 meters at 45 degrees to the wind when possible. Basically, they wanted to see what percentage of the area that they were supposed to be searching the dogs came within two meters of at different transect spacing. So unsurprisingly, the dogs had best coverage at 15 meter spacing, and then a little bit less well at 20 and 25 meters spacing. Further quoting the paper quote, different working styles with the two dogs with jet moving faster and covering more area than Frankie meant that in one hour jet could assess approximately 9.2 hectares, with transect space 20 meters apart and approximately 6.8 hectares with transect 15 meters apart, whereas Frankie could only assess approximately 6.9 hEXt hectares, with transects at 20 meters and 4.9 with transects at 50 meters. And for limitations obviously, the probability of detection research was limited by just using the one dog with one target. But paired with other detection distance research papers outlined in my article and the IBC journal that I’ll link in the show notes, we’re getting a clearer picture picture of what detection distance can look like. And with any research on probability of detection, this is just one environment one target odor, and a couple dogs, different terrain, vegetation and weather can have dramatic effects on set dispersal. To quote the discussion, “Regardless, to some extent, both dogs and handlers are able to adjust their search behavior if subjected to problematic environmental conditions, such as by increasing search time and denser education. Note that we did not alter search behavior among the environmental conditions assessed at least not consciously. Ultimately, detection probability appears to be most strongly influenced by the distance then by environmental variables, at least at distances of less than around 10 meters,” and quote, “the canisters were never placed far enough to do it away from the transects to determine at which the point at which the dog’s probability of detection reached zero.” So jet was almost certainly detecting the canisters as well as the ants as evidenced by the fact that he alerted to them nine times over the course of that probability of detection experiments. That first experiment, it’s no one’s we get into the results of the coverage section. Quote, “efficacy trial was a very strict linear and time controlled trial, it did not represent how a dog would detect ants under normal conditions, which is that it would be a mistake in which it is given free range to find at allow cents typically zigzagging across along and across the path by about 10 meters on either side, with as much time as needed to pinpointed detection. Therefore, therefore, we believe our efficacy data can be considered to be absolute minimum values.” Later on, they continue quote “Second is a consideration of how many times a dog has the opportunity to to set to assess any point location, the efficacy trial demonstrated what a dog is capable of for a single detection opportunity under strict linear behavioral and environmental and time conditions. It is clear from a visual assessment of path maps that any ants at a point location have the potential to be detected on multiple dog paths at multiple distances, both upward and downward. Indeed, this opportunity would exist for any point location at least four times and probably many more in some instances, because probability of detection is cumulative with each independent opportunity. This means that even relatively low probabilities of detection for individual opportunities can result in a high cumulative probability of detection. For example, for opportunities at only 60% probability result in a conduct combined 97.44 probability of detection.” So the authors finally closed with some suggestions, quote, saying quote, “maximum distance between transects should be 25 meters for larger sites of around 50 hectares and larger, either 20 or 15 meters for smaller sites. These spacings are to be determined by the handler considering the time available area to be worked when conditions, access conditions, etc, with the focus being to minimize area not accessed within 10 meters of the dock.”
Kayla Fratt 09:03
So I hope that you all found this science highlight really interesting. I know I did, I think it’s worth giving this article full read. Some of it is not the best translated to an audio medium, because so much of it is kind of about this probability of detection. And some of the maps and figures in the article were helpful for me as I was understanding it. So as always, you’ll find that in our show notes now let’s get to our interview with Ken.
Kayla Fratt 09:28
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Kayla Fratt 10:20
All right, Ken, welcome back to the podcast. I’m so excited to have you here.
Ken Ramirez 10:24
Well, thank you, Kayla, I appreciate the invitation. Always happy to be here with you.
Kayla Fratt 10:29
Yeah, well, every time you agree to come on, I feel like I’ve won the lottery. So genuinely, thank you. So I wanted to kind of start this out by kind of putting my cards on the table about snake avoidance and aversion and all of these sorts of things. Because I’ve been very torn on snake avoidance ever since really, I got my first dog. I grew up in northern Wisconsin, so it was never something I worried about. And then I got a dog when I lived in Colorado where rattlesnakes are a concern.
Kayla Fratt 10:56
So on one hand, you know, every dog that I personally know who was bitten by a snake didn’t really perceive the snake before the bite both dogs that I know, personally were playing fetch and kind of ran right over the snake. And I’ve always been skeptical that any sort of aversion or avoidance training would have worked in either of those cases or would have been relevant.
Kayla Fratt 11:19
And then on the other hand, I’ve always been very reluctant to go kind of that aversion route and you know, most traditionally done with like a shock collar. For a lot of reasons, you know, I know several dogs that have had pretty severe fallouts where they end up being scared of hoses or not wanting to go outside. And that’s not something I’m willing to risk. But then you know, even the dogs that do seem to come out, quote, unquote, okay, I worry a little bit about the long term efficacy and the care and keeping of the snakes as well. And then the last thing, you know, now I’ve run out of hands on hand three.
Kayla Fratt 11:50
My last big hesitation is that I did attend one of Amy Cravens positive snake avoidance training seminars several years ago. And I liked a lot of the concepts. But I worried a little bit about making snakes irrelevant or a source of reinforcement for my dogs. And I really understood, I think I understand how this approach works in theory, but I worry that I’m not kind of a clean enough or clear enough trainer to do a good enough job. And then I would train my dog to seek out snakes for me.
Kayla Fratt 12:20
So as of right now, what I’ve done with my dogs is that if we do see a snake in the field, I tell them to leave it and might give a verbal correction if they investigate it in any sort of way. I’ve used both barleys emergency down around a couple different rattlesnakes. And then recently, we ran into a pretty young, little Fer-de-Lance in El Salvador and used both of my dogs’ emergency downs, while we then figured out how to move around it and get out of there. But I don’t really feel confident that not doing any sort of avoidance training is the best route either. So that’s where I’m at right now. And I’m really curious to hear you know, where this started for you. Where did this journey come from?
Ken Ramirez 13:05
Yeah, it’s it’s an interesting you, you pose a lot of very good questions, and I understand where you’re coming from in my journey to training. Snake avoidance was never, it was never meant to be a focus of mine. It was never meant to lead to any type of studies. It was really something that I did with some family and friends that was meant just to be an experimental task that ended up taking hold and become a bigger and bigger thing. I have now taught a positive reinforcement snake avoidance course for a couple of years.
Ken Ramirez 13:42
But it probably is helpful if I go all the way back to when I was 11 years old, when I myself was bitten by a rattlesnake and was hospitalized for more than six weeks. Because of the fact that I was in the desert at my grandfather’s parents Ranch, got bitten, foolishly ran all the way back to the ranch house where I we were 30 some minutes away from the hospital and then I was thrown into the pickup truck and rushed to the hospital. By the time I got there, my leg was swollen my my I was unconscious and I was in pretty bad shape. And the doctor suggests that maybe the only real reason that I survived it was because the snake probably did not inject a large quantity of venom usually when the the thing that they strike out is so large that they don’t think that they’re going to be able to eat it. They just want to scare it away and they don’t necessarily inject a lot of of venom and although the damage to my foot and my leg and everything else was so bad that I that it it certainly seemed like it was a lot.
Ken Ramirez 14:59
But fortunately, I came out of it unscathed other than mentally a little bit as I started working in zoological environments and was asked to work with snakes, I didn’t realize the fear that had developed in me from that experience.
Kayla Fratt 15:20
Gosh, I can imagine,
Ken Ramirez 15:21
Absolutely, yeah. And then, of course, my, my uncle in New Mexico has always had a fairly large number of cattle dogs. And, and for a very long time, he never bothered doing anything about snakes, he just thought the likelihood of coming across a steak was pretty slim. And usually the dogs, when they’re working are hurting cattle. And when there is a herd of cattle moving through an area, most of the time snakes are going to just disappear and get out of the way. And so the likelihood of coming into contact them with them was fairly slim.
Ken Ramirez 16:04
But he did end up having a dog that was killed by a rattlesnake. And he had another dog that was bitten and had some pretty bad experience with it. And so from there, he proceeded to, to go the normal route. He didn’t consult with me, I wasn’t, I’d be the first of all, I, I, when I, early in my life, when I lived on the ranch, I wasn’t a dog trainer. And I didn’t think that I wasn’t assuming I would ever become one. By the time I did become a dog trainer. You know, oftentimes, you separate family from work. And I never tried to impose my thoughts and feelings about hurting dog training on my uncle, he had dogs that did their job well. And I never bothered to really understand what he did or understand why he did it the way he did.
Ken Ramirez 17:02
But when he decided to train his dogs to avoid rattlesnakes, he went the traditional shock collar route. And that was where I really well, theoretically, I was opposed to the idea of putting a shock collar on a dog, what really scared me was seeing the results of the the shock collar training, and he added several ranchers in the area. At that time, there was there was a fairly good number of them, several of them who, who did snake avoidance, training with shock collars, and some who just didn’t do anything. But of the people who were using snake avoidance, there was always in every group, two or three dogs that seemed to be resilient. They learned to avoid snakes, and the horrors or the bad side effects of using the shock collar were not evident.
Ken Ramirez 17:58
But there were also dogs and particularly in my uncle’s case, he had a dog who was who learned to be afraid to go outside who became afraid to go herd cattle who became afraid to do anything. And as I started investigating it, I found out from him that many of his fellow ranchers had had similar issues, they’d had one dog that did well with the snake avoidance training using a shock collar. And they had two dogs that had terrible fallout that didn’t, that didn’t want to go out. And, and and I think that and so it was actually my my uncle who knowing what I did. And knowing that I was a trainer asked me at some point, we were having a conversation, and he wanted to know whether I thought there was a possibility of a way to train snake avoidance using positive reinforcement.
Ken Ramirez 18:56
And again, because I was not trying to do a research project, I was not trying to write a paper, I was just trying to help my uncle. I didn’t really know of any positive reinforcement. Snake avoidance trainers back in the day, there may have been some but I just wasn’t aware of them. I just developed in my own little vacuum my own process for trying something out and ended up working with my uncle and working with a couple of other ranchers in the area.
Ken Ramirez 19:29
And we really did five, I did my first real trial with five different dogs. And the three were males two or females. And people always are interested in the breed mixes and I had a pitbull mix a Labrador retriever, two blue heelers and one rat terrier. So there was quite a variety of breeds there. We were successful with all five of them using the protocol that we that I was using And the protocol that we use, we did not use visual or odor cues, we just simply taught the dogs at the sound of rattle. What we had discovered is that, and I certainly, it certainly happened to me, I heard the rattle. And that’s what caused me actually to jump. And that caused the dog, the snake to bite me.
Ken Ramirez 20:25
But either way, we taught all our dogs at that point, I didn’t know anything about odor training, and I didn’t really understand, I didn’t really want to do visual training, we trained the dogs, we trained the dogs a very, very reliable recall, and paired it with the rattle sound so that rattle would sound sound, the recall, new cue, old cue, the dogs learned very quickly, the sound of rattlesnake caused them to turn away from the rattle sound, and run away, and then back to the truck back to the ranch back to the pickup, depending on where we were working, the animals learn to quickly turn and run away.
Ken Ramirez 21:06
And that was how my that was my entree into snake avoidance training was working with five dogs from three different owners, who were who’d had bad experience with shock collars, and wanted to see if it would work or not, the dogs did great. We maintained it for we continue to work hard on making it reliable over a period of a couple of years. And and then there were a number of times when they would encounter rattlesnakes, and the dogs would come running back to the to the owners very reliably, none of those dogs ever ended up getting bitten by a snake. There were many, many instances of successful, showing that it successfully worked that they recalled off of it.
Ken Ramirez 22:02
And that was the end of my first phase of snake avoidance training. I’ve gotten into several other phases since that time. But that was that was my introduction to it without having had any other outside influences at all other than my own experience as a positive reinforcement trader, interestingly enough, happy to tell you about all of the different phases if you’re interested. But interestingly enough, in the years since and I have now been doing this protocol for well over 10 years, the protocol hasn’t changed much other than I still use recall, as my primary go to behavior. And I have only added of odor and visual cues to the ways that dogs might detect the snakes, and have certainly expanded the types of snakes that I have, that we have worked on training this with. And so those are the things that have changed.
Ken Ramirez 23:04
And I’ve also been able to have the good fortune to watch and listen to other positive reinforcement steak avoidance trainers, there’s a lot of similarities in some places that we perhaps differ. But for the most part, it’s usually what do you want the dog to do? Instead of biting, chasing and barking at the steak? Let’s get that as a reliable, really, really reliable behavior. And then let’s figure out how we’re going to train it and how we’re gonna maintain it.
Kayla Fratt 23:31
Yeah, no, that makes perfect sense. And yeah, I’m excited to go through some of the others and particularly, yeah, bringing in the visual and the olfactory because, you know, any of our listeners who are I know, we’ve got a lot of listeners in Australia and a couple, several in Europe and you know, really across the world, where, you know, they don’t have the benefit of a rattle.
Ken Ramirez 23:50
Well, and, and I don’t know if you’re aware of this, Kayla, but even in the US, we are finding ourselves in situations where rattlesnakes are evolving to be born, patched without rattles. There’s a large number of them now that, that that don’t have rattles at all. And so even when you’re talking about a rattlesnake, you have that the issue of not actually having an audible sound that you can be listening for. So absolutely. If you’re going to really pursue snake avoidance training, you have to do something besides just an audible cue.
Kayla Fratt 24:28
Yeah, the one rattlesnake. Well, one of the two rattlesnakes I’ve run into with my dog Barley, did not rattle that him and he was within a meter or so of it, you know, he was close enough that it was pretty alarming. Maybe two meters but still too close. And it’s kind of a miracle. I was able to see it. We were in kind of a prairie dog town desert area, so I was actually able to see it versus most of my snake experiences. I haven’t been able to see it until we’re very alarmingly close.
Ken Ramirez 24:56
So yes, that’s my experience as well.
Kayla Fratt 24:59
Yeah. So do you have anything that you would like to kind of add or kind of put on the table as far as traditional snake avoidance with shock or E collars and some of the reasons beyond? I mean, I think the unknown of the fallout should be enough for most people to have significant pause. But anything else that we don’t we were hoping to improve upon with with these new methodologies?
Ken Ramirez 25:24
Yeah, I think that’s the the predominant aspect of it. But I do think it’s important to realize that I understand why dog guardian who cares and loves their dog greatly, might still opt to go with an aversive technique, the philosophy that you often hear is, I’d rather shock my dog a couple of times, then have him killed by a rattlesnake. To me, it’s worth the effort.
Ken Ramirez 25:54
But while that that thought process makes sense, even if I didn’t have an ethical issue with using the shock collar, my bigger concern, and at the time, when I was working with my uncle in New Mexico, my bigger concern was the fallout that he had from having used the shock collar technique. And I understand that most proponents of the shock collar would say, Well, that was probably a poorly used shock collar as someone who didn’t understand how to use it.
Ken Ramirez 26:33
But what was alarming to me was seeing the number of trainers that I have found that I have met that I have talked to, that have had fallout from their dogs that that were exposed to the shock collar technique, dogs that shut down dogs that became super fearful dogs that didn’t want to go outside and do their work anymore, that used to love doing their, their their hurting task or whatever, no longer wanting to do it and being fearful of it. It’s, it’s, it’s just was it was too upsetting and concerning to me to see these hardened ranchers telling me there’s their sob stories about how their dogs had shut down and how their dogs had become fearful.
Ken Ramirez 27:23
And now, their dogs just ended up becoming indoor house dogs because their fear of have, you know what the dog attached, the shock to, it was different with different dogs. In some cases, the dog was just afraid of the task of hurting in other cases the dog became fearful of, of, of mosquito bushes, which is what they were all coming at that they were everywhere, and they come into contact with them anywhere. In another case, the dog was just afraid to go outdoors.
Ken Ramirez 27:56
And and it was such a common thread that I had to say, you know, if you’re looking for the most effective way to teach this, I’m not so sure that you can put shock collar treatment on the list. At the very worst, the technique that I would try to approach where you’re using some other behavior, whether it’s a down behavior, recall behaviors, some other behavior that’s in the repertoire that the dog already have, at worst, it fails, and you still get end up getting a dog bitten, but at best if you’re able to actually teach the dog an alternative way to respond to coming into contact with a rattlesnake. And then I think that’s an appropriate thing to do.
Ken Ramirez 28:45
And one of the things that really prompted me to go into this further was a, I got calls from people who were saying we would really liked to establish a protocol. I had a group of people from the Florida and Georgia area that were looking for help with, with cottonmouth. And and they were they were looking for a scent protocol. And of course I had done a lot of work in, in law enforcement with scent detection. But most of the thing that I spend most of my time in law enforcement doing and most of the thing that I have found to be the most important aspect of snake avoidance training. It’s not the recall, anybody can train a good, reliable recall.
Ken Ramirez 29:34
What was important was the preparation and generalization for working in the real world and how you get a dog not to want to chase a rattlesnake or go after a rattlesnake or bark at a rattlesnake or want to engage with the rattlesnake. I realized that the same approach that I use in law enforcement and in gun dogs work where they’re the number one thing that trainers who were trying to move to positive reinforcement, but they felt they couldn’t, was for what they often in those areas referred to as impulse control, that when a dog sees a bunny, when a dog sees a squirrel shooting across the trail, a deer running through the forest, they are so prey driven dog, there’s such prey driven dogs, that that internal desire to chase something like a bunny, a squirrel or a rabbit is so strong, their thought process was, there’s no way you’re going to use positive reinforcement to overcome that, because that is their most powerful reinforcer.
Ken Ramirez 30:45
So anything you’re carrying on your person, whether it’s a toy, or retreat is not going to be as valuable as chasing that bunny. So that was the dilemma that I was first presented with, almost two decades ago when I started working with law enforcement. But I started working with guide dog organizations who said, we are committed to positive reinforcement. But this is the one place that we can’t solve it, we have to use a punisher. And it’s very much was very similar to the snake avoidance issue when it was like, I don’t want to use punishers. But if it’s the way I’m going to keep my dogs safe, then I’m going to use one. And that’s the way the guide dog trainer felt, if if that’s what I need to do to keep the dog from pulling their handler into the middle of the street to go chase something, I have to do it.
Ken Ramirez 31:40
And so we really worked hard, and over the years developed a really good protocol for generalization training, that has been the key to successfully training steak avoidance. Because inevitably, where everybody takes the shortcut is they go, Yeah, my dogs pretty well generalized, but they don’t spend the time to really do it well, so that the dog has learned to expect the unexpected, has learned that all good things come from their trainer has learned that, that, that if they’re going to get to chase, the bunny, the squirrel, the rabbit, the deer, whatever, my trainer is going to tell me when it’s okay to do that, I have to focus on my task at hand and stay on task. And we have been very, very successful at doing that in the working dog world.
Ken Ramirez 32:34
And so, as I started putting together more recent snake avoidance courses, I’ve merged those two together the idea of the snake being a cue to recall, and how to make sure that that real, that recall is reliable that the dog moves away from the steak and comes to you because the the that’s where the reinforcement is heaviest. And that’s been very successful for us.
Kayla Fratt 33:05
Yeah, no, that makes sense. And I think, you know, to echo everything you’re saying, I think, you know, obviously, I have not yet pulled the trigger on doing a snake avoidance product training endeavor yet. And part of that is because, you know, I think one of the things we haven’t talked about yet is doing this with our working dogs. I mean, if I think about the hours, years of work that I’ve put into my dogs, and the idea of undoing that, by making them scared to work in, you know, a snake aversion class gone wrong, would be devastating.
Ken Ramirez 33:41
Absolutely. But it’s important. It’s important to realize, though, that this kind of snake avoidance isn’t really making them fearful of snakes. It’s actually it’s just a cue that that snake –
Kayla Fratt 33:54
Right, no, I’m talking about the traditional shock collar, you know, that’s why I haven’t done it. But it has always been, you know, when I talk to people about shock collars, and working dogs, you know, that is always one of those lines that I feel fuzziest on with the snake avoidance in particular is just like, Sure, I’m not convinced yet. I wouldn’t do it with my dogs. But it’s not. It’s one of those areas where I am so much less convinced about not doing it as well. You know, again, I’m not doing I haven’t done it.
Kayla Fratt 34:24
So, you know, we’ve touched a little bit on what this process looks like. Maybe we’ve got a bunch of questions from guests, or from our patrons. So why don’t we kind of start out with what the process actually looks like to some degree, you know, obviously knowing both. We’re not going to cover everything here. Nobody’s going to walk away from this knowing how to do this exactly.
Ken Ramirez 34:48
Right. The process is actually amazingly straightforward. The appearance of the rattlesnake whether it’s the odor, or the visual appearance, or the sound of the rattle, if it’s alright I will state that odor of the snake becomes the cue for the animal to recall at top speed, change directions and run away from the snake to whatever predetermined place that you have taught them. In addition, we’ve usually trained some kind of an alert behavior, just so generally speaking, when my dog comes running back at me at top speed, I already know that he must have encountered a snake because he won’t come back at top speed unless I sound a recall. And since I didn’t sound one, but nonetheless, to avoid confusion, and due to a lot of my experiences in set detection work in law enforcement, where the the alert behavior was really important, we went ahead and trained it.
Ken Ramirez 35:48
And for me, what I suggest you use as an alert behavior be something that is very easy for the dog to do, that he would never normally do in a forest or desert or hiking situation. So what I taught my dog to do, is to target push kind of hard on my knee. Now, that’s not the best thing for everybody to do if people have bad knees, etc. But it’s a choice you make the dog comes running back, he pushes on my knee, I reinforce it heavily like I would for any recall, I leash him up, and we walk away and go get away from the situation. That’s the protocol.
Ken Ramirez 36:28
And what’s amazing about it is if someone comes into a training seminar that I’m doing, and they already have a really good alert behavior and a good recall behavior, the teaching of it is relatively simple, you can, you can come into a weekend seminar and come out of it having your dog responding well to odor, the bigger challenge for most people is the generalization to real world scenarios and all the various distractions that can pull a dog off his task. And it just so happens that a rattlesnake coiled up ready to strike or slithering away is the kind of distraction that can be very appealing to some dogs to want to go after. And so that is actually the stumbling block that most people have is understanding how to use positive reinforcement to train animals to stay on task and not be afraid.
Ken Ramirez 37:29
And that’s a bigger part of the protocol than the actual training of the recall and alert. But that’s what everybody sees. When you watch videos, the fight we want to share with you videos of the recall that we use, it’s quite amazing, the dog gets the odor and then turns on a dime and runs at top speed back to wherever he was trained to run back to. And that’s what people take away is it’s the recall behavior just put on a new que. But it’s the desensitization to the real world environment, that is the stumbling block that we have to work hard to stop.
Kayla Fratt 38:09
That makes perfect sense. So in that early stage, then would it be you’ve got some sort of snake or snake odor or something. And as soon as you see a change of behavior from the dog, or you just giving a recall cue and then hoping for a cue transfer?
Ken Ramirez 38:24
What I do is I started off the same way I learned in law enforcement where you have very focused odor. And so we use shredded snake skins and we get the shed skins from the species of snake that we’re trying to train. And we concentrate that that odor into a jar of a can some some some device. And then at the early stages, when we first start training it is we have first we just let the dog sniff of the of the odor, use the recall and get make that really, really strong.
Ken Ramirez 39:03
Once we see that that odor is strong, we then will put 10 identical jars out for the dog and the dog will just sniffing around and when he gets to the one with the stakeout or either he will all because he’s already learned the supposed to recall off it will recall off of it or if he hasn’t yet learned it we will as we see his nose flare as he’s taking in that particular odor of that particular can we sound the recall cue and make that connection really, really strong. So that by the time we actually start moving into the field, the dog already knows this odor means recall, it isn’t connected to a snake necessarily. It’s just the odor of the snake. But at that point he hasn’t seen or or or necessarily heard the steak. He’s just learning that that odor is the thing that he’s responding to. And he’s going to respond quickly and run back very, very fast. But it’s the typical way that odor is often introduced. Even in those rare cases, sometimes depending on who you’re working with, it’s done in a very similar way. Make you know that’s x is odor I should respond to.
Kayla Fratt 40:11
Yeah, yeah, that sounds very similar to how we introduce our odors.
Ken Ramirez 40:17
But it isn’t ever connected with, “play with this odor.” Or, or it’s never, it’s never designed in a way that causes the dogs to want to alert. They’re not, except for one case where I did work on alert, they’re not really alerting on the odor, they are learning to flee from the odor. But it’s a joyful flee, they’re not afraid of it. They’re just like, best reinforcers ever come on this recall. And so they but it takes them away from the snake, often before they even see it. And what we have tended to see as dogs gain experience with odor, they are able to pick up that odor earlier and earlier so that they start alerting on the odor before we’ve often had to go back. And you know, when we’ve seen it, we’ve reinforced it. And then we’ve got Okay, let’s go see if he was really fine. If it really wasn’t stay good. And we found that you know, when you’ve trained it? Well, it always, it always is. There’s always.
Kayla Fratt 41:24
Yeah, so you’re actually basically trying to get them to perform a fringe alert, which is something you know, like what you would want from an explosives, dogs, they’re not necessarily sourcing all the way into that odor.
Ken Ramirez 41:36
So worst thing, the worst thing you ever, you know so many, you know, I’ve worked with avalanche dogs in Colorado, where when they find the odor of the person they’re searching for, they start pouring at the snow. Well with an explosive detection dog, you don’t want them pawing at the package, or the suitcase or the thing, it’s really a stay far away and alert. And in this case, it’s just a recall behavior. And they completely leave the area altogether.
Kayla Fratt 42:02
Yeah, yeah, no, that makes a lot of sense. To me, I think kind of putting it in those terms, helped me click into something. So now we’ve got a bunch of questions from some of our listeners. So Robin asked, and there’s a bunch of different question marks in this. But I think they’re all circling around the same concept. So I’m going to read them all together. Where do you get the snake scent or body to teach the dogs to avoid? And then she says, I know this would be different with different snakes. But how do you go about getting started? is the ideal situation of having a live but contained snake to practice with or is it equally as effective to do it with just the scent of the snake or a dead snake? So how do we how do we actually get this?
Ken Ramirez 42:39
Excellent question. First of all, I always worried about the fact that that do I need to be able to maintain snakes so that I have snakes to train on and many people do use living snakes they have them kept in a terrarium of some kind and they take them to snake avoidance class. I have never ever used living snake. What I have often used is the many many contacts that that I can have through either herpetological societies, herpetological clubs, zoological organizations. And what’s great is you don’t need a dead snake. Snakes have this wonderful. You know this thing that they do where they shed their skin on a pretty regular basis depending on how much they’re eating. And those snake skins are really really valuable in teaching odor.
Ken Ramirez 43:36
The most important thing when you’re sourcing snake skins, is if you go on at sea, for example, a lot of people have snake skins for sale. But those snake skins are designed for arts and crafts for making belts and decorating things. And most of those snake skins have been preserved with some kind of chemical preserve and that retards fire and all sorts of other things but that don’t help you with snake avoidance training. You want to be able to get ahold of people who have access to snake skin sheds that either can send them to you before they have been preserved or that will that have got taken them straight out of the straight out of a an enclosure or in some cases I know that in my while although my first case of this was using was just using rattle sounds but we constantly would find shed snake skins in various areas around the around the ranch. And so it’s using that now.
Ken Ramirez 44:47
There was a period of time early on in the training. We’re not only did I acquire snake skins but I also acquired a variety of your rates, which are fickle when and and urine, it it combines into this kind of globules stuff. And I got that as well. But it turned out that odor was so potent that it it was it was much more potent than what you would discover in the in the wild. And I found that I had to dilute it down. And then over the years as we’ve perfected the protocol, we’ve learned that that the snakes shed skin is all that is really necessary to train it.
Ken Ramirez 45:28
So the the biggest thing that I have with a lot of my students since I have students from all over the world is I encourage them to reach out to herpetological societies and and reptile hobbyists abound in this in this all over the world. They just everywhere. You just need to find a way into one of those Facebook groups or chat groups or whatever, and let them know what you’re doing. Most of them will love the fact that you’re actually interested in serving the steak you’re not we’re looking to kill snakes, you’re looking to teach dogs to avoid them so that nobody wants to kill them. And so they’re usually very supportive of that effort. And so it’s it’s really, surprisingly easy to get samples when you start making connections with some of those types of herpetological societies herpetological museums, zoos, etc. You’ll find places that are able to help you out with venomous snakes sheds.
Kayla Fratt 46:35
Yeah, that that makes sense to me, I would be pretty thrilled to get to share something like that if I if I had snakes as a hobby. So next up, Meg asks, and I think we’ve been touching on this, but how do we avoid positive snake associations through this training, and again, I know that that was one of my biggest concerns.
Ken Ramirez 46:59
And it’s an understandable concern. I’ve never run into that problem. But it’s I’ve not run into it, because I’ve taken this double dipped to parallel approach. On the one hand, the odor of the snake is the cue to come running back. And so it’s just an odor that teaches the dog, I get really well reinforced, and I don’t get reinforced for rooting it out, or, or investigating it further. As soon as I detected I run away from it at top speed. And I get reinforced.
Ken Ramirez 47:30
And so it’s the recall behavior that has the high value connection to it, or the odor of the snake. In parallel to that we do this generalization training. And this generalization training, it looks silly at first, but you actually have somebody that the dog knows it’s often best if it’s a family member, a friend, somebody your dog sees all the time, that is providing distractions to the dog. Whether it be because they’re wearing a costume, they’re riding bikes, they’re they’re carrying tambourines and other musical instruments, they have power tools, they’re doing all sorts of things designed to distract the dog. But my approach to this is always, always, always and I emphasize and underline always use distractions that you have total control over before going out into the forest where you cannot control the rabbit or the squirrel or the deer you’re working with. An assistant who will stop doing the distraction will get out of costume will do whatever is necessary to make the dog comfortable till eventually the dog learns, I don’t need to pay attention to anything going on around me.
Ken Ramirez 48:51
And thus, by the time they actually come in contact with snakes or anything else, they’ve learned to ignore all of that stuff and pay attention to their trainer and react to their trainers. So it’s those two things going in parallel, that keep the snake from ever being something that is like woohoo, it’s a snake. I can’t wait to play with it. That’s not the approach. You’re not creating fear of the snake. But you’re also not creating a love for the snake either. You’re you are you’re pairing it with a different behavior that already has a strong reinforcement history.
Kayla Fratt 49:26
Yeah, I think that I think that makes sense. And I see how it would work at least. So that’s probably the most important thing. So now JeriAnna asks, and this is this is an interesting one. So this one might be the closest to left field that we get. JeriAnna, for a little bit of background, is planning on training dogs to help clear plots for tortoises prior to construction. She’s got an endangered species of tortoise that they’re hoping to help work with. And what she is most concerned about is that the snakes sometimes share the tortoise burrows that the dog is inspecting and is wondering if there’s any kind of special considerations or concerns when the target odor may kind of covary with this snake.
Ken Ramirez 50:15
There’s a couple of thoughts that I have to that I’ll give you my short answer. And it is one of those situations where I would suggest that if this is something that is She’s seriously interested in is I would encourage her to work with a positive reinforcement stake avoidance trainer who can troubleshoot the challenges of that with them. And I’ve got many examples that I can share with you that that that that have come up in my own career.
Ken Ramirez 50:43
First of all, you definitely want your dog to learn the to identify the species of snake that you are concerned about. And whether that be commingled with turtle odor or not commingled with total turtle over you need the dog to recognize. It’s it doesn’t matter what it’s commingled with. If this is the scent that I’m smelling, then this is there, snakes aren’t here. Now the challenge is, and this is where I doubt we have the time to troubleshoot the answer to this question right now is if the dog has been trained to alert and potentially stick his nose into a burrow where turtles are located, but you have a fear of the dog sticking his nose and then getting bitten by a rattlesnake.
Ken Ramirez 51:39
My question for her would be what would you like the dog to do? In other words, in a normal situation, your dog is searching for turtles and sticks his nose into this burrow saying there are turtles here and you find the turtles you do whatever you need to do about marking and whatever. But what do you want the dog to do if he smells the turtle, but also smells rattlesnake odor? Do you want the dog to do something else, I would suggest by it with my very little understanding exactly of what she’s trying to do, I would suggest you train an alert behavior that says I don’t stick my nose into this burrow.
Ken Ramirez 52:20
But I do this other thing instead, that lets the handler know, okay, there’s a turtle here. But there’s also a snake here. And we need to be careful and approach it with caution. And examples of the kind of variations to the protocol that I’ve had to come up with. I’ll give you two examples. And this sounds like one of those that would fall into one of these categories. I was working on a project in Nevada, where many, many dog owners were concerned that they live on wide open property and their dogs have access to that property, and that they might come into contact with rattlesnakes when they aren’t with them. In other words, there is not a person to recall to because the dog is just wandering the property on its own comes across a rattlesnake. What does it do? I’m not there to reinforce it, do I? So how do we a wreath get the dog back away from the steak? How do we reinforce the dog even though we’re not present? And how do we keep the dog from going back out and re engaging with the snake after it’s been reinforced.
Ken Ramirez 53:30
So that’s where the in 2018 and 2019 I worked with this group of southwestern Nevada dog association to come up with a protocol that included the dogs recalling to a predetermined kennel that would go into the kennel press push a target that triggered a treats to be delivered, but also closed and locked the gate to the kennel so that the dogs got reinforced, but didn’t have access to get back out again. But we had to figure out how to design a self locking kennel with a way to deliver treats even though we weren’t there. But it was very successful. And they were very happy with that.
Ken Ramirez 54:12
I am currently working with a group of livestock guarding dogs where the livestock guarding dog might come into contact with the rattlesnake. The dogs job is to protect the herd. They don’t want the dog to come running back to the house. They need the dog to stay in the pasture to guard the livestock. And so we’re thinking a little bit about how we might train the presence of a snake to teach the livestock guarding dog to herd the livestock away from the presence of that snake and then sound an alarm or something along those lines.
Ken Ramirez 54:52
But it’s that kind of thought process that you have to put into these unique situations. In other words, the protocol was designed originally for dogs that are working with ranchers that are hurting hurting cattle or hurting sheep, or the average dog owner who’s going for a hike in the forest, a hike in the desert, a hike somewhere with their dog, so the dog comes back to them. These other two situations were ones in which the person is not with the dog. And they needed them to react in a different way.
Ken Ramirez 55:25
And it sounds to me like this particular project, you need yet another example there might be a handler present. But you need a way for the handler to know that the reason the dogs not doing whatever he’s supposed to do in other situations is because there is a rattlesnake odor commingled with it. And the way I would work with this situation is sit down with a group of trainers who are involved in training this particular animal and saying, What is it you’d like the dog to do instead? What what is the right reaction that you’d like to see from the dog? What would help you continue with your project, but protect the dog from getting bitten? And it would probably mean a different reaction, a different behavior that the dog does if he detects snake odor? And that’s my easiest way to answer it without actually coming up with an answer, because it requires asking a lot more questions of that person to really understand what they need from the dog to come up with the right solution.
Kayla Fratt 56:27
Yeah, definitely. But I think that’s a good place to start. And yeah, you know, depending on the conservation status of the snakes in the area, it might be fine. If the dog just kind of treats both of treats that snake as a, okay, we now we know there’s a snake there, which still means we need to do something different with the construction area. You know, there might be something even a little bit simpler, but I don’t quite know enough about JeriAnna’s projects to say sure, either.
Ken Ramirez 56:53
Okay. Because I understand that those kinds of projects have a lot of different goals that the correct answer needs to get more information from them to develop the right protocol.
Kayla Fratt 57:06
Yeah, definitely. It might be some sort of three prong thing or it might be more might be fewer, I’m not quite sure. So yeah, we’ll see what she says. She’s, she’s doing weekly calls with me. So we’ll, we’ll get more information at some point. So now Chris asks, if we have any information on when most dogs get snake bitten? Are they at more risk when they’re kenneled? And bored? Than while they’re working? Yeah, yeah. Do we know kind of when dogs are at the highest risk? And I’m sure that varies a little bit from job to job.
Ken Ramirez 57:41
Yeah, it varies greatly, depending upon the situation. I have not seen situations where dogs get snake bitten because they’re being killed. Other than that, it may be in a situation where their kennels are located in some kind of a place that’s very populated by rattlesnakes or some kind of snake. Most of the time, the dogs get bitten, when they’re out in the field and, and just stumble across them and just step near them on them. You know, they’re not really paying attention. They don’t even they’re often not even aware that there’s a dog, that that there’s a steak there.
Ken Ramirez 58:25
What’s interesting, when you look at natural dog behavior, there’s something about the coiled, hissing and something about a snake that does not cause most dogs to jump right in and grab them. They’ll bark at them. They’ll growl at them, they see them as a threat. They don’t see them as something they want to chase, you don’t see them. But I think you want that when a steak quits coiling and start slithering away, you will see dogs then no longer consider them a thread and chase after them.
Ken Ramirez 58:56
But more often than not, the instances that I have seen of dogs that have been bitten by snakes happens when they’re out in the field doing something and they didn’t even I think you mentioned it yourself your own experiences are that they are just, they just happen to walk by step through run through and don’t even notice the snake is there. And that’s one of the reasons why we work so hard to teach them to be very aware of odor of snakes, and to avoid that odor of snakes not because of fear but because it gets them reinforced in some other way. So that’s how you don’t find that sleeping dogs get bitten by snakes very often. You don’t find that that it’s usually when they’re out in the field doing something
Kayla Fratt 59:48
That makes sense. Yeah, and I know like the outdoor kennels, working dogs that I know of in Africa for for instance, usually those kennels are snake proofed in a way as well when you are in these situations where you Yeah, puff adders, spitting cobras, Mambas, those sorts of things might be coming through camp, they usually are constructing things to avoid that.
Ken Ramirez 1:00:08
You name the three snakes of my most recent projects. I’m involved in a project in Zambia, I have the elephant conservation project that I’ve been involved with. But while I’ve been there, I’ve been asked to help with a conservation project that is designed to protect these various species of snakes, but to protect villagers from being being bitten by these steaks. And the three species that we’re working with are black mambas, puff adders and spitting Cobras. You just mentioned all three of them right there in one breath.
Kayla Fratt 1:00:43
Yeah, those are the ones that I’m familiar with, from Kenya. So
Ken Ramirez 1:00:48
Similar, similar problem in Zambia,
Kayla Fratt 1:00:50
They’re scary. They’re scary guys.
Ken Ramirez 1:00:52
They are they’re very, very venomous. Very, very scary. Yeah. And what the what the Zambian government is trying to do is to not get people to kill them, but to avoid them. And so in, in those, these situations, we’re trying to get them to alert and move their, their people away from the steak and, and becoming much more, they’re becoming very good at it. We have a lot of dogs that are being trained on this right now. Because I’m going to Africa every year, and I’ve going out for my six year now. So we’re, we’re, it’s just one of those things. It’s been added to my project list while I’m there, because I’ve got the time. And it’s just been a fascinating project. And so far, we’ve been really successful at getting them to respond to all three species.
Kayla Fratt 1:01:45
Yeah, that’s really encouraging the one path that I ran into while we were in Kenya, they, they did, you know, they went and alerted the villagers. And my understanding was that that snake was going to be dispatched, um, you know, it’s that people are so rightfully fearful of them that the snakes are pretty intensely persecuted. And I get it. I mean, I would too, if I had kids that were at risk or had lost a nephew or something, I get it, but it’s, you know, not ideal from a conservation standpoint, either.
Ken Ramirez 1:02:12
No, no, but yes, but my own reaction to seeing a rattlesnake up close is like, get it out of here. You know, it’s just my visceral reaction because I’ve been was so severely injured by one.
Kayla Fratt 1:02:25
Yeah, yeah, I, my most recent, I’ve my only fer-de-lance that we ran into in the tropics was actually a night that we had just drank a bottle of wine in our waking our way back to the car from a, from a fire, a bonfire, and we were all barefoot, we’re all you know, had a bottle of wine on us and almost tripped over the little guy. And, you know, there’s nothing that sobers you up quite like having to look down at all of the dogs. And you know, we got the cat in our arms, and it was totally fine. And thank goodness, we had a spotlight with us.
Ken Ramirez 1:02:56
That’s great. I mean, do you know the biggest myth that people can have is like, Oh, it’s just a little steak, it’s not going to be problematic. And it’s just not true, little snakes can be, can inject a lot of that.
Kayla Fratt 1:03:10
Well, and it’s not like you need a shot glass of it. You know, this stuff is pretty potent. It’s not like you need a lot. Yeah, yeah. And again, I, we were talking about this before we hit record, but for anyone who’s listening, I am going to be trying to get veterinarians, from a variety of continents to come on and talk about kind of more specific treatment and care of these different groups of snakes. You know, this avoidance stuff should apply for all species, but for actual treatment, and kind of more snake behavior stuff. I am working on trying to get people from every continent, so hang tight, everyone at home. So the last question, well, last question from our guests. And I wrote down two bonus questions for myself, as we talked.
Ken Ramirez 1:03:51
Can I just make a quick comment about what you were just saying. I would also encourage people who are working in areas of snakes to have a tech consult with with physicians to understand what you should do, should you get get bitten? I know that because my grandfather was not really a well versed at how to handle it, some of the things that he did to my wound into treating me to get me to the hospital, were not the right solutions, and probably made the problem worse. And so I would certainly encourage people, absolutely, we’re caring about our dogs, but you can’t take care of your dog if you’re not take caring, taking care of yourself. And you should really understand treatment and protocol for what you should do if you get bitten.
Kayla Fratt 1:04:40
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there’s only one of us that can drive us to the to the vet or the ER and that it’s not the dog. So yeah, so Then Emma asked, when doing snake avoidance training do dogs tend to generalize to avoid all snakes? Or do you need to intentionally train snake avoidance with a variety of species to get that generalist?
Ken Ramirez 1:04:59
Hmm, yeah, we what I have found is, if you’re if you’re working on odor of snake, all snakes don’t have the same odor. And if you’re if you’re working on one particular species of rattlesnake, that’s what the dog will alert to. And it won’t, you won’t, won’t alert it to anything else unless you do the generalization process. And in Africa, where I’m working right now, we have the dogs being alerting on the three different species of snakes. And there will come a point where if you teach dogs to alert to enough different species that they will begin to generalize, and suddenly, it’s any kind of steak will will will cause that. But usually, most people are satisfied with the dog that just alerts to the one two or three species that they may have in their particular region.
Kayla Fratt 1:05:51
Yeah, that makes sense. And I’m already thinking that this has got me feeling a lot more confident about giving this a try. Yeah, we’ll probably start with rattlesnakes. But because we do do quite a bit of work in Central America, we’ll try to throw some fer-de-lance’s and Bushmasters in there. And I assume that especially the more variety we give them, the better they will get at making that generalization. And then if we do end up, you know, going to Africa with either of my dogs, which isn’t likely at any point, but then we’ve got a head start at least on Mambas, and Cobras.
Ken Ramirez 1:06:26
And we often will do a lot of if we’re interested in generalization training, we will often expose them to a lot of visual, fake visual snakes that look very different in color and size and stuff like that. And you can actually, although odors, what we mainly focus on now, we also will train a lot of visual and and types of, you know, I want my dogs to be really responsive to something slithering away and not wanting to chase that. And so I’m very cautious about making sure they’re exposed to that.
Kayla Fratt 1:07:01
No, that makes perfect sense that I know one of the things that I personally need to do a much better job of is when my dog barley finds snake sheds in the field. I am often with biologists and we all get excited and want to check it out. Which would be a very good way to teach him to locate those for us. So that’s something that I noticed in Guatemala he found to snake shins and that was too too many for me.
Ken Ramirez 1:07:30
That’s a scary thing. Yeah, you’re absolutely right.
Kayla Fratt 1:07:32
Yeah. Yeah. So I think that’s something that particularly when you’re out with biologists, good to good to be cognizant of. And, you know, I started as soon as he did that I again, told them to leave at sent him away, put him in a down and then told the biologists Okay, now we can all go look at the really cool Bella shed, because it’s very neat. And I do also want to go look at it.
Ken Ramirez 1:07:52
No, that’s that’s great. And that’s a great way. You know, having a strong leave it having a strong was something that can get the dog to safety before you investigated is wise.
Kayla Fratt 1:08:01
Yeah, yeah. Because, again, you know, it’s one thing with a boa, I would rather my dog don’t run into a boa. But if it had been a fer-de-lance, or a Bushmaster, you know, that could be very, very bad very, very quickly. And even a boa’s not necessarily something I need my dog running into. So is there anything that we can do about that lack of perception? You know, you talked a little bit about kind of specifically taking them out and distracting them, and then continuing to expose them? You know, I think that’s just that’s my biggest, not hesitation about getting started. But the biggest thing that I’m worried about doing well.
Ken Ramirez 1:08:40
right, it is, it is a difficult process. And I, what’s interesting, I never thought of it as a difficult process. I teach it. And to me, it’s a very straightforward and simple process, I understand how to apply it. But when I work with professionals, I’m surprised at how often they’re eager to take shortcuts, they think I don’t really need to do all of this stuff. And I keep insisting that they do. You really want the dog to be so desensitized to so many different types of distractions that they really learn to not pay attention to them and really stay focused and not wanting to chase after things and things like that.
Ken Ramirez 1:09:20
And so it is the hardest part of the procedure. In fact, when I teach about snake avoidance, and when I teach law enforcement and guide dogs about about how to not get let your dogs get distracted, I say I’m going to say this to you and it’s going to logically make sense. But I’m going to tell you that it’s the one thing that you’re going to want to take a shortcut on. You’re going to think I don’t need to do this with my dog. He’ll be fine and you’ll find that it isn’t true. You need to do all of the steps you need to go through the steps of really You’re teaching that animal to expect the unexpected, to learn to pay attention to you to not be interested in chasing after stuff and, and often I’ve got people who go, well, it’ll never work with my dog because he loves squirrels so much or you will never work with my dog because he loves chasing deer. And I’ll say no, that is when it that’s who it works with it you, but you need to go through these steps.
Ken Ramirez 1:10:26
And I and I always tell them, you’re gonna get tired of me telling you this, but it is using distractions that you can control and really put putting them into your dog’s life all the time, three, four times a day. It doesn’t have to be lengthy sessions that can be a five minute trip to Home Depot, but you’ve got someone there who’s helping you to surprise the dog with something your every time you take a walk, you have someone going with you to help you provide distractions. And it’s really recognizing the seriousness of if you want your dog to truly be bombproof, you want your dog to truly be responsive. And under all conditions, you have to go through this training procedure.
Ken Ramirez 1:11:16
And it you know, in my most recent snake avoidance class, I’m teaching one online right now we are we’re this week is our last week of the course. But in my last course, my last class, I, I must have said this, people would ask a question. And I, it was the 10th time that day in that class that I had said the same thing. And I said, I gotta take a moment to ask you guys a question. I have to believe that when I have to repeat something I’ve said 10 times, it has to be my fault. There must be something I’m not saying that I’m not emphasizing enough to make this stand out to you as being important. And one of the students said to me, You know what it is can is you have the big picture, and we don’t. And so when you don’t have the big picture, you’re so focused on Yeah, but squirrels are my problem, or this is my problem. And you’re not realizing that this protocol that I’m talking about of introducing distractions that you can control is essential to getting your dog to the point where the biggest distraction in the world can go by and the dog goes, Yeah, whatever. I’m focused right now, I’ll get to that later. And you really need to, I have to emphasize that’s such an important part of the training and it’s no matter how experienced people are they overlook it, or they go add, that doesn’t apply to me. It does, it does apply to you.
Kayla Fratt 1:12:44
I can imagine that. And it well, I can see myself asking that question, because I don’t want to believe it because I find that I’m like taking shortcuts. I’m a lazy trainer.
Ken Ramirez 1:12:52
We all take shortcuts. That’s Yes, it is is if you want that reliability. You got you can’t take those shortcuts.
Kayla Fratt 1:13:01
Yeah, yeah. Usually, if I’m asking clarifying questions repeatedly, it’s because I don’t like the answer. It’s like, No, I understand what you’re saying can but I don’t like that. I want you to say something else to be the magic bullet that will solve this. Yeah. I mean, that’s that is always you know, that is always one of the things that is so appealing about advertisements for shock collars stuff is, oh, my gosh, you’re telling me that there’s a button. I can press? Of course people want to do that. So, okay, the last question I have is just maintenance training. Question, Mark. So what are you finding, as far as with this? With this protocol? How much maintenance training? Are we revisiting it every year, every quarter for? You know, what it looked like?
Ken Ramirez 1:13:45
You know, it’s a good question. And it kind of depends upon how often your dog comes into contact with snakes. I find that in my work in New Mexico in Nevada, we come into contact with steaks so often, that the dog is constantly being reminded that this is an important behavior, and it’s constantly being reinforced. And so there is almost zero need for maintenance training because of the fact that it’s that it’s being tested all the time. However, one of the things that we find in law enforcement is when our dogs are reliable. There’s this desire to quit training, and because we hooked up, he knows what he’s doing.
Ken Ramirez 1:14:26
But the thing about real world snake avoidance is you could find yourself in a situation where your dog is racing back to you and alerting to the fact that he found a rattlesnake. And it turns out that he’s just learned because he did it once and got reinforced for it that anytime he feels he wants to reinforce or he’ll just come running back to you. And so the way you avoid that is by doing refresher sessions and and you know, sessions where you know, where, where the odor is. Isn’t your dog learns that they can’t pull the wool over your eyes and pretend. And you need to make sure you never let them do that. And so for that reason, I, I think it’s a question of how often you really need to do this with law enforcement.
Ken Ramirez 1:15:17
We do refreshers weekly, for life, because we want these dogs to be very good at alerting on the drugs or the explosives. In most snake avoidance situations, I will suggest testing and making sure your dog is accurate every six months to a year. But it just depends on how often I mean, if you are always coming into contact with snakes, and you know that those that they really the, the alerts are real. You don’t have to test that often. But it’s always good to get a few searches, I mean, some situations where your dog where there is no odor to be found and making sure that your dog isn’t false alerting. And that’s the best way to keep your confidence level up that your dog really knows what they’re looking for, is by going through that refresher. And again, I you know, in, in, in professional working environments, it’s weekly, but in more practical working environments, it you don’t have to set them up that often I think six months to a year is probably enough.
Kayla Fratt 1:16:23
Yeah, I could see this being the sort of thing that you spend several months focusing on to get the initial training. And then yeah, we would probably do a couple of weeks of brush up work before we go back to the tropics or something like that, you know, I’m moving to Oregon, where we’re going to have a lot fewer snakes, especially Western Oregon, and so I won’t necessarily have to be as worried about it as I was when I was living in Colorado. But also, I lived in Colorado for six years. And I saw four rattlesnakes on the same day on the same hike.
Ken Ramirez 1:16:56
It’s that kind of hit or miss stuff that makes it difficult.
Kayla Fratt 1:16:58
Although it makes you wonder how many times you walk past them and you never notice. Right. So anyway, well, Ken, is there a good place that people can keep an eye out for your course. And for other news from you and Karen Pryor Academy?
Ken Ramirez 1:17:13
Yeah, I there’s two ways one is, is if you follow me on Instagram, which is can underscore Ramirez_KPCT for Karen Pryor, clicker training. Or looking at our website, we announced our I just finishing up this year snake avoidance class. So I’m not offering it again this year. But I’ll be offering it again next year. And if you just keep on the lookout for it. It’s a class surprisingly, it sells out every time it’s a it’s there’s a real demand for it. And there are two ways of taking the course with us, we have the what I call the Excel students, the students that actually are working their dogs in the class, and we’re getting to watch them all the time and everybody learns from them. And then we have what is more like an audit student who just sits and looks and listens in and watches what happened and you take in the information that way. That that is we have a much larger number of those kinds of students that take the course as well. But the as I said, the course is sold out every year. We have 90 students each offer it and I’m always surprised how they’ve it’s not going to sell out this year, everybody who needed it has taken it already. But it’s that’s not true. People still very interested in it. So
Kayla Fratt 1:18:31
Yeah, I mean, that doesn’t surprise me it is something that I mean, fear is a strong motivator for people as well. You know, it’s a it’s an important thing. And there are so many people who live in snake territory and so many people who are not willing to kind of take the risk with the shock collars, right? Yeah. Well, Ken, thank you so much. I know I learned a lot and I’m I’m very excited to get out there and kind of try some of this stuff with with my own dogs.
Ken Ramirez 1:19:02
Good. And don’t be afraid of it. It’s really, I promise, it’s, it’s not going to make your dog love snakes and go rushing. It’s just just the opposite. But it’s it’s been a protocol. It’s been really successful for us. So.
Kayla Fratt 1:19:17
Yeah, that’s really exciting to hear. And yeah, I mean, that was my biggest concern with the positive stuff is okay, I just I really want to make sure that Barley doesn’t become a snake magnet, right? He’s, his level of self preservation is already low. He’s kind of gotten a little famous on within my friend group for trying to kill himself about once a year and this year it was this year it was tickborne stuff. He’s had a brown recluse bite he, you know, he’s swallowed sticks. And we’re just you know, he hasn’t done a snake yet, but it would be very on brand for him.
Kayla Fratt 1:19:52
Anyway, for everyone at home. I hope this inspired you to get outside and be a canine conservationist in whatever way suits your passions and skill set and maybe try Pick out this course and try to get on it for 2024. Or if you’re listening even further in the future maybe for next year. You can find the show notes, join our Patreon join our conservation detection dog course, and all sorts of other great things over at k9conservationists.org. Until next time!