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Snakes and Conservation Dogs in Australia

Updated: Jan 31, 2022

Snakes are one of the biggest risks to our dogs when working in the natural environment. In Australia, there are around 140 species of land snakes, with only 12 of these deemed potentially deadly. At Skylos Ecology we have a healthy respect for these beautiful, native creatures.

During the warmer months, canine and handler safety from potential snake bites remains our highest priority above the collection of data or the complete coverage of a survey area.

Here are some of the ways we try to reduce the risk of snake interactions:

  • Is it safe to be there? – Can the work be rescheduled for cooler temperatures? This is not always possible but is always our first question. Remembering that the best way to manage a risk is to eliminate it.

  • Check the weather - Snakes are readily encountered on days after consecutive hot / sunny weather. We don’t just look at the temperature of the day we are in the field but we check the weather on the preceding days too.

  • Early starts – We start our days at first light, early starts mean early finishes. Although snakes are still around, they are less active in cooler temperatures first thing.

  • Scheduling room - Because we call dog surveying early on warmer days (sometimes as early as 8am), we leave room in our schedules for extra survey days during the spring / summer months, if required. Our job is to collect data, so spreading our days out across more mornings is often the safest option during the hotter months. It means more early starts (sometimes as early as 3:30am!) but less field time across more days feels safer. (Side safety note: handlers get rest days every fourth day due to these very early starts).

  • PPE: All our handlers are required to wear boots, gaiters and long pants when working.

  • Dynamic risk assessments – If we absolutely must be out surveying, we remain vigilant. We don’t push our teammates into vegetation or areas that we can’t see what is ahead of us, and we continue to always keep a very close eye on our dogs and don’t let them roam out too far from us.

  • Communication - If working regularly on a site, we liaise with the Land / Site Managers to check if any resident snakes are on site. If we have any snake sightings, we recorded them on our GPS unit and communicate this with all team members. This GPS point will be added to the survey area for all future surveys.

  • Animal interaction – Conservation detection dogs require ongoing training so as to not interact with any wildlife in the environment. Ultimately, snakes are just another non-target species in our survey area, albeit a potentially highly dangerous one. All our dogs must pass their Safety & Welfare assessment prior to deployment, this includes a safe animal interaction component. Keeping a safe distance from other animals, and remaining under instruction of the handler, is a crucial part of this work.

  • Know your dog – Each of our dogs respond differently to non-target species in the field. It is important that you know your dog’s behaviours so you can adjust your training and handling to keep them safe.

  • Safety instructions – All our conservation detection dogs must have solid emergency stops, recalls and directionals prior to being deployed to conduct surveys. This is another element of the Safety & Welfare assessment. If we do come across a snake during our surveys, we can safely redirect the dog to avoid disturbing the snake.

  • Area coverage – We typically ensure 100% coverage of a survey area on our wind farm projects, completing transects 20-25m apart. However, during snake season we advise our clients that we will only cover what we deem safe. This can vary from day to day, depending on the weather conditions and vegetation. The maps below show canine tracks at the same turbine: one during a hot week in November, with dense vegetation, and the other on a cooler March day when the vegetation was lighter. In March 2021 we managed 100% coverage of the survey area. In November the coverage was not as thorough, with some spots avoided entirely. This was the safest way to manage this particular survey on that day, during a hot few weeks.

  • Trust your instincts and advocate for your dog – If it doesn’t feel right, we simply don’t go there. No Skylos Ecology handler is required to go into an area they don’t feel comfortable in. It is our job to keep our dogs safe, if that means putting a stop to a survey, saying ‘no’ or ‘I don’t feel comfortable’, we completely support our teams to make those decisions.

  • Snake sighting – We stop work in the area immediately.

We try to do all that we can to ensure the safety of our dogs and our handlers during the warmer months, however incidents can happen in the field, and unfortunately no training, procedure or protocol is 100% effective in avoiding a snake bite incident. Accidents can still happen. In the event of a snake bite incident occurring, we ensure:

  • Handler canine first aid training – All of our handlers are trained in canine first aid and have the appropriate skills and support to respond to an incident.

  • First aid kits – Stocked first aid kit with splints and snake bandages are on hand. Here at Skylos Ecology, we always carry them in our personal backpacks whilst surveying, as well as in our vehicles.

  • Where is the closest veterinary clinic? - We have a clear emergency plan on where to take our dogs in the event of a snake bite. Prior to surveying, we also give the identified veterinary clinic a call to ensure they have antivenom on site just in case.

When out working we treat our dogs like any other colleague, we don’t put any unnecessary risks on them, and we always advocate for their safety. Because at the end of the day, what matters most to us at Skylos Ecology, is that all our teams get home safely.

Sonny at the start of the day
Early starts.

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