- Associated Press - Saturday, June 3, 2017

RAWLINS, Wyo. (AP) - When you hear a rattlesnake’s signature buzzing sound, your skin crawls.

An immediate tension sets in, your heart begins to pick up speed and a chill rolls down your spine. There’s a tightening in the depths of your gut and you feel uneasy, your senses briefly heightened as adrenaline pumps through your veins.

From birth, human beings have a natural aversion of snakes.

Pet dogs, on the other hand, do not. And where a human knows to recoil from the hiss of a snake, man’s best friend does not. They need training to realize the danger.

That’s where Ashlea Colson comes in.

“We clip their fangs and we muzzle them,” Colson explained as she set up four hissing plastic buckets around a small picnic table in a gazebo on the outskirts of the Carbon County Fairgrounds.

How do you muzzle a snake?

“We use electrical tape and a lot of caution,” Colson said with a laugh. The snakes, for their part, didn’t seem to find much humor in the situation. Their generally dour expressions lent an even more irate quality with thin strips of black tape neatly binding their jaws shut. They still attempted to strike out at handlers as they were moved about, but could do little more but imitate their ordinarily deadly attacks.

“We actually have the snakes out, we take them out and we’ll set the first one on a piece of plywood in the grass so it’s really clear to the dog what we’re doing,” Colson explained as she set up the four waypoints of her training course.

The idea is to test and ultimately condition the dog to respond correctly to the presence of a live rattlesnake, which is to say adversely. To this end Colson uses electronic remote-controlled collars that administer an unpleasant sensation that causes the dog to associate rattle snake sounds with bad times.

“Very few dogs have a natural aversion to snakes,” Colson said. “The rest of them all go nose-first in to sniff them.”

The dogs learn quite quickly. One jolt from the collar and Dean, the first dog to run the day’s course, wanted nothing more to do with snakes. The course goes from an obvious snake on a wooden platform to a snake laid in the grass and more concealed; then it tests a dog’s willingness to avoid a snake by placing it on a leash and having it run around a snake to get to its owner.

Finally, on an apparent victory lap for the dog, they place a final snake down to see if the dog reacts appropriately while also distracted by the sight of other, waiting dogs.

“We want them to be aware that they can be anywhere,” Colson said. “We try to make it good for everybody, people and their dogs. Most dogs it only takes once, some dogs come back for seconds. They think they’re going to get the best of the snake like our beagle did.”

Rattlesnakes are not uncommon in Wyoming and even in the city, Colson can recall times when they’ve been abundant, showing up on sidewalks and in people’s yards.

“We had a lot (of rattlesnakes) last year. In fact, animal control and the city called me and my dad to go pick them up, since we have the tongs and the buckets and we can just pick them up and throw them out,” Colson recalled.

Colson has been learning the art of caring for animals all her life, starting with 4H as a youngster. Now she operates One of a Kind Canine - a boarding and training facility in Rawlins - as a certified professional dog trainer, but her childhood also lent her a love for less furry animal friends.

“My dad’s always been a big fan of reptiles,” she said. “We learned about snakes and frogs and bugs and little lizards, we learned all about that since we were little.”

This is Colson’s fifth year holding her annual rattlesnake aversion course and she said that interest has only grown as time’s gone on. People register slots in the class as early as December, she said.

As for the snakes themselves, who go through so much, there is a happy ending.

“When we’re done we take them way, way out where nobody goes and release them so we have snakes for next time,” Colson said.


Information from: Rawlins (Wyo.) Daily Times, https://www.rawlinstimes.com

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