This is a dicey time of year to be a dog, what with all the rattlesnakes rooting around the region.
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Now one safety measure that many dog owners take comfort in is being called into question by a county clampdown.
San Diego County officials are moving this spring to enforce a ban on the possession of venomous reptiles, a step that is spurring the cancellation or relocation of classes that aim to teach dogs how to avoid snakes in the wild.
The ruckus over the courses marks a dust-up between animal protection advocates and those who frame the issue as one of safety and common sense.
Dog owners and others say the popular courses help keep them and their pets safe, especially when hiking this time of year in the rattlesnake-rich suburban fringes and backcountry.
Weve been doing the classes for 10 years or so, said Ruth Weiss of Julian, who owns five hunting dogs. I know it has saved us and it has saved our dogs.
Dan DeSousa, deputy director of the countys animal services department, said, however, that the use of rattlesnakes in the classes violates the regions longtime ban on the ownership or possession of the deadly serpents.
He said his department recently called or emailed several dog-training outfits to remind them of the prohibition after officials received several complaints from the public that raised concerns about the treatment of the animals.
The snakes are typically defanged or muzzled, while the dogs wear electronic collars that deliver a slight shock when they get near a rattler. The goal is to teach the dogs to skirt around the snakes and avoid a potentially fatal bite.
Some kennels and related businesses have offered such classes for years and their owners expressed outrage that the complaints are surfacing now, when they say many dog owners are clamoring to enroll in spring courses.
Fred Presson, with High on Kennels in Santa Ysabel, said he recently had to cancel seven training clinics, resulting in a 15 to 20 percent drop in business. He said his kennel helped stage one in Escondido, which he said doesnt ban the possession of rattlers.
He believes the complaints were lodged by tree-huggers and others who dont understand how critical the classes are. What we are doing here is right, he said. We dont need these ignoramuses getting in the way of saving a dogs life.
Erick Briggs, owner of Natural Solutions Wildlife Enterprises, said he recently had to relocate his San Diego-area classes onto state and federal lands in the region to avoid violating the county ban.
His believes his San Bernardino-based company treats both the snakes and dogs in a more humane fashion than many other training outfits. He said, for example, that the amount of shock given to each dog is kept to a minimum.
But Dr. Petra Mertens, director of animal behavior and training with the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA, said she and other experts oppose any training that involves punitive measures, like the use of an electronic collar.
She said such techniques are easily misapplied and can traumatize the animals.
The offices of county supervisors Bill Horn and Dianne Jacob, who represent the backcountry, have been swamped with phone calls, letters and emails from those who oppose or favor the classes, with most falling in the latter camp.
Presson and others believe the county should develop some type of special permit that would allow businesses like his to operate without violating the rattlesnake ban. The ban does not apply to zoos or scientific and educational institutions.
Failure to comply is considered a misdemeanor and can result in a fine or even jail time.
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