Puppy dog tails and rattles

Patrick Callaghan trains dogs to avoid rattlesnakes through a three-step process plus the use of an electric shock collar. Stephen Dorman / TMT

A rattlesnake avoidance clinic for dogs takes place in Calabasas.

By Stephen Dorman

Special to The Malibu Times

Like any good magician, Patrick Callaghan is very tight-lipped when it comes to disclosing the tricks of his trade.

Callaghan, 63, hosted his self-titled “Rattlesnake Avoidance Training” clinic for dogs at the Mountain Restoration Trust in Calabasas this past weekend. The two-day event was sold out with some customers making reservations three months in advance, according to event organizers.

All told, 169 dog owners paid the $65 per-dog fee to have Callaghan take their pets through a three-phase training process, with the ultimate goal being to teach the dogs to avoid dangerous rattlesnakes that often pose threats to many Southland pets during the summer months.

“We live right by the wilderness and there is a lot of wildlife,” said Stan Kocontes of Newbury Park. “[Our dog Elvis] found a rattlesnake the other day and went right up to it. I just don’t want to take any chances.”

With more than 20 years of pet training experience-he also teaches horses, llamas and cats rattlesnake avoidance-Callaghan said he can successfully read the nuances of each pet to properly train the animal, although he would not give specifics on how he does this. He said he constantly uses verbal communication to interact with the dogs during the training session, which on average lasted less than five minutes for each dog.

During phase one, the trainer introduced the dog to the snake by sight and scent recognition. Some dogs, especially the smaller ones, approached the snake with Napoleon-like confidence, while bigger canines were quick to retreat.

In the second phase of training, the dog is introduced to the sound of the rattlesnake’s hissing tail and must recognize Callaghan’s verbal cues in order to advance to the third and final stage. At the final stage, the owner must call for the dog once the pet has been introduced to the snake. Ideally, the dog will avoid the serpent and sprint toward their owner.

Callaghan doesn’t guarantee the training sessions will work, but refers to his teachings as a form of “life insurance” for pets.

One of his main teaching tools is a remote training collar that sends electric shocks to the nerve endings around the dog’s neck. When the dog gets too close to the snake in the first phase of training, the pet receives a shock. It’s worth noting the snakes used in the clinic had all been defanged and were incapable of delivering a lethal bite.

“I never used anymore stimulus than what it takes to get the job done,” Callaghan said. “Animals are animals. I don’t care if I’m working with a horse, a camel, a mule, a cat, a dog, a person. It doesn’t matter. It has everything to do with how deep, how shallow the nerve endings are.”

Some dog owners, however, said they were wary about the shock techniques and questioned if the dog would respond the same way if they saw a snake and weren’t wearing the training collar.

“Each person has to decide for themselves whether or not this is a good idea,” said Los Angeles resident Breanne Munro. “They need to be aware that this is negative reinforcement, and that means that if the dogs aren’t shocked or hurt there is no benefit to this course. The only reason this works is because [the dogs] need to be afraid of snakes.”

Malibu resident Susan Feder said the long-term benefits of the training session for her 3-year-old dog, Smokey, outweighed any short-term suffering the dog may be subjected to. “I hope she’ll stay away from the snakes and protect herself,” Feder said just before Smokey went into training. “It’ll be good because we live where there are lots of snakes. She will be fine. I’m the one that is feeling traumatized.”