If you’re not crazy about your job, imagine having to get up each morning and handle live rattlesnakes.
This is Cody Will’s life. He has used his passion for snakes to create a thriving business that keeps people and their pets safe.
Cody and his wife Kate Will recently came to the Humane Society of Central Arizona with three live rattlesnakes, a shed skin and audio equipment.
The Wills’ business, Rattlesnake Ready, LLC, teaches dogs to be aware of snakes at home and out on the trail — to know how they look, smell and sound.
All of the snakes the couple brought up were muzzled with surgical tape that Cody says does not harm the snakes. He has the unenviable task of applying and removing the masks on days they train — which from spring to fall is pretty much every day.
“It’s not something you can practice,” said Cody. “You have to get it right first time.”
Training the dogs was simple enough. They received a shock when they got too close to a snake, shed skin or rattle.
A single rattlesnake bite injects enough venom into a dog’s bloodstream that it can cause severe pain, swelling, asphyxiation and even death. A bite area is prone to infection and can lead to permanent internal or external scarring. It can take months for the dog to heal, veterinary experts say.
“A few minutes can be the difference between life and death or losing a limb,” said Cody. “Even for very large animals, just a few drops of snake venom can have a devastating systemic effect that may end up being lethal.”
Mojave rattlesnakes are unique in that their venom is both hemotoxic (destroys red blood cells, causes organ degeneration and generalized tissue damage), and neurologic (destroys nerve tissue, can cause paralysis of the respiratory muscles and suffocation).
Imagine a bite while out on the trail, far from a veterinarian. A dog will be lucky to survive the drive from Payson to the closest 24-hour emergency clinic in Mesa, experts say.
Even when the dog gets to the vet in time, it will need at least one vial of antivenin (maybe more) at $600 a vial plus veterinary fees including pain medications, fluids, antibiotics, blood tests and overnight stay.
Cody estimates the average vet bill for a rattlesnake bite is between $1,000 and $3,000 depending upon the time since the bite, the type of snake, size and condition of the dog.
Domestic dogs do not have an innate fear of rattlesnakes, he said. If they encounter one, they will often approach and sniff the snake.
Cody placed the three orange, ventilated and lockable snake buckets in the shade in the Humane Society’s exercise yard. He brought a juvenile Mojave rattlesnake, adult black-tailed rattlesnake and Arizona black rattlesnake — the most common types found in Tonto National Forest and surrounding areas.
“Arizona blacks are the most common in this region,” he said. “Diamondbacks in the Phoenix area.”
The dogs were brought in individually with their handlers.
Kate had a contract prepared for each client and fitted an e-collar to each dog.
Each training included exposing the dog to a juvenile snake, an adult snake, shed skin for smell, and recording of a juvenile and adult rattle.
Rattlesnakes often don’t rattle unless they perceive a threat and may not rattle at all before they strike.
“Despite what some people think,” said Cody, “these snakes are not aggressive, their rattles and strikes are defense mechanisms when they sense themselves in danger.”
Cody placed a juvenile rattlesnake on the ground and invited each dog handler to walk their dog past it. When a dog went in to investigate, he gave it a shock.
“Because no form of positive reinforcement training teaches the dogs the true danger of rattlesnakes both quickly and effectively,” said Cody, “electronic training (shock) collars are used to simulate a rattlesnake bite; causing momentary discomfort. This safe, quick jolt takes the place of the actual rattlesnake bite and communicates to the dog that a rattlesnake equals danger.”
Unlike trainers who specialize primarily in snakes, Cody has extensive training and experience in both snake and dog behavior.
Cody trains a dog to recognize a snake’s rattle by playing a recording, first hidden underneath brush or behind a bush. The moment a dog is near the speaker, he plays the sound and the e-collar jolts.
The last step in training involves placing a live snake near the speaker.
Often a dog makes the connection between a snake and a shock the first time, he said. If the dog still shows curiosity toward the skin, rattle, or live snake, a reminder is given.
The training is quick and effective and does not harm the dog or the snake.
Rattlesnake Ready plans to return to Payson next year.
If you missed the recent training, organized by the Humane Society of Central Arizona and P.A.W.S., they train year-round in the Phoenix area.
For more information, visit www.rattlesnakeready.com.