I’m Worried a Rattlesnake Might Bite My Dog on a Hike
How to balance freedom and adventure with safety and security
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Welcome to Tough Love. We’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I live in southern California and my husband and I have a medium-sized dog. My husband is outdoorsy and loves to take the dog hiking, and obviously the dog likes that as well. Unfortunately, we live in an area with rattlesnakes. My husband knows better than to walk up to a snake on the ground, but the dog doesn’t know, so I often worry while they’re out. I’ve expressed my discomfort several times but he says he’s careful. He also pointed out that there are mountain lions around us and he is safer with a dog. I just can’t get the image out of my head of our girl seeing a rattlesnake and chasing it or pouncing on it before my husband can stop her. He loves her, but I don’t know if he’s as careful as I would be. How can I make sure that she’s safe?
You’re facing one of the great challenges of being responsible for someone (human, canine, or otherwise): finding a balance between giving them freedom and adventure on the one hand, safety and security on the other. Your dog loves hiking; hiking could expose her to venomous snakes. It’s something I think about as a dogsledder, too: if I go into the wilderness with my dogs, who are trusting me to take care of them, how much risk is appropriate for me to assume on their behalf? How do I keep them as safe as possible while also giving them the kind of active, adventurous life that they love?
The answer, of course, is that every situation is unique; there’s no universal right or wrong. How often does your husband see rattlesnakes? Are his favorite trails frequented by other people, who might give warning if he’s coming up on one? Under what circumstances is your dog on or off her leash? How responsive is she to voice commands—in other words, if she runs toward a snake and your husband tells her to stop, will she stop? All of these factors might affect the way you choose to handle this particular risk.
Dramatic dangers—like snake bites—can feel scarier than common dangers, even if they’re far less likely to occur. For instance, many more pets are killed by cars than snakes every year, and I’m guessing you have cars in your area, but it doesn’t sound like you consider the chance of car accidents when deciding whether your dog goes out or not (nor, in my opinion, should you). And of course, keeping your dog securely at home isn’t benign, either; dogs can get destructive or depressed when they’re bored, or even develop health problems that could have been mitigated by exercise.
Which is all to say that I think your dog should absolutely continue hiking—but it’s not unreasonable to take precautions. Your best source for advice will be your veterinarian. She’ll know how frequently (or infrequently) dogs are bitten by snakes in your area, and, if they are, the circumstances in which it’s most likely to occur (on particular trails? certain times of year?). She might even recommend that your dog get a rattlesnake vaccine, which could help her handle a snake bite if she were to get one. And she’ll probably reassure you that most dogs can survive a rattlesnake bite with prompt treatment.
The subtext of your letter isn’t just about snake bites; it’s about your fear, your love for your dog, and maybe even a little discomfort with your husband’s judgment. He’s outdoorsy; the fact that you specified that makes me think you may not consider yourself the same. So in this case, some of your discomfort may come from him going out into a world that feels, to you, foreign and unpredictable—and bringing the dog along with him. Of course that’s scary! It can be hard to imagine the calm, spectacular beauty of an evening trail if you haven’t enjoyed one, but the risk of being attacked by some wild creature—well, that’s visceral indeed. It’s probably some part of our caveman brain. Ya gotta watch out for the unknown.
I’d recommend that you go hiking with your husband and dog, if you can. You don’t have to go far, or often. Even once would help, if you haven’t gone before. But ask him to take you for a short walk on his favorite trail. Notice the view, the fresh air. More than that, notice how happy your dog is: the way she leaps out of the car at the trailhead; the way she sniffs the path, the breeze. The hike will almost certainly be uneventful. And in the future, when you’re thinking of your husband and dog out in nature, you’ll have a new mental image—something far more pleasant than an imaginary snake attack. Close your eyes, and picture your happy dog, and your happy husband beside her—just like you’ve seen firsthand.