Labrador Retreater

Jackson Hound has his nose to the ground, sniffing the desert floor. He's a 70-pound, blond Labrador retriever used to running in the desert, but nonetheless oblivious to trouble on the trail ahead.

Just two feet away, a three-foot-long diamondback rattlesnake watches; its head raised, its neck cocked to strike. And though its rattle rasps as loud as a summer night full of locusts, the dog sniffs on blindly, never even bothering to see where the noise is coming from.

They meet nose to nose. The snake strikes so fast that it looks like a memory.

The dog yelps and rebounds ten feet backward.
It's not the pain of the bite that launches him, however, but rather the jolt from the shock collar he's wearing, part of the "snake-proofing" class offered by Phoenix kennel owners and dog trainers Tammy and Bill Gibbons. The fee is $35.

The snake in question has no fangs. The Gibbonses keep four rattlers, and on the day of training they'll use scissors to clip the fangs off the snakes they're using.

"The fangs grow back in anywhere from two days to two weeks," Tammy Gibbons says. The fangs are hollow like syringes, and without them, the snakes have no way of delivering their venom into their victims. They end up shooting out most of the venom anyway while they're getting clipped. There's a thin line of blood on Jackson's nose where the snake's tiny, front gripping teeth caught him. But otherwise there's no damage done.

The training always takes place out in the desert--today just off Beardsley, west of Seventh Street, in Phoenix. Dog owners drive up one at a time; the dogs bound and strain at their leads, ready for a day in the desert. Many of them are hunting dogs; birders with ears and eyes cocked toward the sky, assuming they're going to work.

Tammy straps the shock collar onto the dog's neck, just below its ear, and ties a long rope onto the collar's metal ring.

Bill Gibbons waits with the collar's electric controls on the far side of some high creosote bushes. When Jackson's turn comes, the snake has slithered off into the undergrowth, and Bill takes a long pole rigged to catch and hold snakes at more than arm's length and wrestles the snake back out into the clearing. Bill's a tall and weather-beaten Westerner, and when asked if he's sure he's got the right snake, he answers, "I'm not sure of anything."

Jackson circles the clearing, snuffling up the dog scents left by the other canine trainees. As might be expected, when the shock hits the dogs, they're likely to let go of all sorts of bodily functions.

Bill cautions the dog owner not to lead the dog to the snake, but to let him discover it himself. On the first pass, Jackson walks right over it, apparently without noticing.

But on the second pass, the snake finds Jackson. The shock, which is more startling than painful, is intended to make the encounter so unpleasant that the next time the dog hears, sees or, more likely, smells a snake, it will cut a wide berth to avoid it.

The Gibbonses have been snake-breaking dogs for 15 or 20 years--Tammy really doesn't remember exactly how long. But she estimates she trains about 120 dogs a year, and she claims the one-time class leaves enough of a bad smell to snake-proof the dog forever. Earlier in the day, she claims, a pair of 12-year-old setters that she had snake-trained ten years ago came with their owner for a refresher course.

"They walked by and took one look at the snake, and as soon as they knew it was there, they left the area," says Tammy.

Other snake-proofers are skeptical of the one-time approach. Lois Rustin, a Scottsdale-based caterer who also trains search-and-rescue dogs, claims that once is not enough. And she also feels that the snakes should be left in a cage during the training so that the scent will build up. Dogs, after all, rely more on their sense of smell than their sight.

"They'll smell it long before they see it," she says. "And by the time they see it, it's within striking distance."

Tammy Gibbons, on the other hand, wants to make sure the dogs know what's rattling them.

"We did that, too, when we started out," she says, "but we found out the dogs were a little more leary of the cage than they were of the snake, so we abandoned that."

Instead, she and Bill use the riskier, loose-snake method.
They keep their snakes as pets in between classes. "I had one named Ralph for about two years," she says, "but I lost him. He got away down a hole."

On the day of training, the Gibbonses pin the snakes down, open their mouths and clip the fangs.

"One of them got a fang into the callus of Bill's hand once," Tammy says. "There was a little numbness, but that was about it."

Tammy doesn't advertise openly, for fear of backlash from animal-rights activists worried about the well-being of the snakes or the dogs. Instead, like most snake-breakers, she gets much of her business through dog and hunting clubs, and through referrals from veterinarians.

"We recommend it because we see a lot of snake bites and the problems they cause," says Scottsdale veterinarian Sylvia Gutierrez.

If a dog gets bitten, it's often in the nose, and the bite is far more painful than the shock from the collar. Then their faces swell until even a German shepherd looks like a Shar-Pei.

"It's pretty impressive how they can swell," Gutierrez continues. The dog's airways close and they can go into shock, and unless they get medical attention within an hour or two, they can die.

Treatment is expensive. Vials of antivenin cost upwards of $250, not to mention the cost of overnight hospitalization and steroids and intravenous fluids.

Jackson has learned something--though it's hard to tell exactly what lesson got through his doggy skull. At the moment, he's suspiciously eyeing a gnarled gray stick on the ground.

Bill Gibbons has caught the snake by the noose on the end of his pole and is holding it up toward Jackson's face. The dog backs up and yelps and pulls against the leash, as if he has gotten the message to stay away.

In a moment, the pain is forgotten, and Jackson slips back into the shameless wiggling of obsequious dogs.

But on the way back to his master's truck, he spots another long and snakelike stick on the ground and, with ears cocked, he makes a stiff-legged circle around it.

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Michael Kiefer