DEAR OLD TRAINER: We have a 2-year old Bernese Mountain Dog named Henry. We just moved to San Pedro and there are some beautiful parks near us where dogs can go off-leash, but there are signs warning to beware of rattlesnakes. What can I do to keep Henry safe? Can dogs smell snakes and do they automatically know they are dangerous and try to avoid them?
Lani, San Pedro, Calif.
A: No, most breeds cannot smell reptiles. Only the breeds with the most developed sense of smell—retrievers, Blood hounds, Bassets, Beagles — are able to detect snakes merely by smell.
More than once my entire pack has walked right past a snake with no idea it was there except for Dixie, my Golden/Heeler mix, who freezes and looks right at it. Fortunately, they have been the non-poisonous variety.
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Sound is a different matter. Dogs seem to innately know the sound of a rattlesnake is something to fear. The one time I came across one my dogs backed away the instant they heard the rattle.
The hearing of dogs is so acute they can hear a snake moving through the grass. Their predator’s instinct tells them that means food. They turn toward the sound, use their ears to triangulate the precise position, then jump at it.
If you see Henry stop and look at some point in the grass with his ears and body erect, stop him at once by giving the “hold” command, put his leash on, and back away. No good ever comes from allowing a dog to pursue something he hears moving in the tall grass.
You can eliminate the problem by keeping Henry on a leash, but if you want him to be able to run free, be alert. Keep Henry close by, and only use the pathways in areas where you see other people moving about. Henry will sense your caution and emulate your behavior so you should be okay.
I had the good fortune to explore the parks of San Pedro and my pack loved them. Saw the warning signs, but never saw or heard a single rattlesnake.
DEAR OLD TRAINER: I have Lucy and Billie, two little females about 3 years old that are King Charles and Jack Russel mixes, and Jenny a 10-year-old German Shepherd. Jenny has always eaten grass, but now Lucy and Billie are doing it too. They always do it at the same spot on the trail. They can’t wait to get there and when they do they eat like pigs. Why are they doing that and should I stop them?
Audra, Palo Alto, Calif.
A: As long as Lucy and Billie don’t eat grass treated with toxic lawn chemicals or herbicides there is no danger. Lots of dog love to eat grass, so unless you see negative reactions enjoy your walks and don’t worry. They are just being dogs.
No one knows why dogs eat grass. Some believe they do it for medicinal reasons, that it provides health benefits or nutrition missing in their food. That may play a part, but I think they just enjoy doing it.
Dogs eat anything that interests them and throw up what doesn’t work. Some dogs use grass to help them throw up when they want to. A very efficient adaptation for an animal that is both predator and scavenger.
A trainer for more than 30 years, Jack Haskins has rescued, trained and placed more than 2,500 dogs. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.