Utah is rattlesnake country. This is how you protect yourself – and your dog – on the trails.

Rattlesnakes have emerged from their winter quarters to spend the summer hunting, sunbathing, and searching for water. Your favorite places for all of this? your favorite hiking trail.

The venomous snakes are found throughout Utah, but most human-rattlesnake interactions in the state occur along the Wasatch Front, according to Drew Dittmer, a native species coordinator at the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

Rattlesnakes, in particular, like to seek shelter on ledges, so they’re often found on warmer, south-facing migration routes, he said.

They can live at most altitudes – Dittmer knows of a rattlesnake found near the top of Mount Timpanogos. They have also been known to sneak into residential areas in search of water or rodents when drought conditions worsen.

The good news? Rattlesnakes only bite when they feel threatened, Dittmer said. But even walking through the brush can trigger them.

“From a snake’s point of view, it’s very vulnerable,” Dittmer said. “It has no arms and legs.”

What to do if you encounter a rattlesnake

Understanding whether the snake you encountered is a rattlesnake is not the easiest of calculations.

The most common snake in Utah is the nonvenomous gopher, and they are often confused with rattlesnakes. The two have similar tan and tan colorings, and gopher snakes often hiss or vibrate their tails when threatened, according to the Wildlife Department.

A rattlesnake naturally has a rattle. Its tail is also broad and blunt compared to the thinner, more pointed gopher snake. Their heads are different too. A rattlesnake is broader and triangular in shape, with vertical pupils, compared to the longer nose and rounded pupils found on a gopher or other non-venomous snake.

Regardless, wildlife officials say you shouldn’t get close enough to try to identify a snake. So if You can’t tell these subtle differences, stand back and assume it’s a rattlesnake.

Then you can watch it from afar if you feel comfortable, said Dittmer. Or just walk away.

If you can’t see it — but can hear it, “stop and take a deep breath and try to figure out where you’re hearing the rattle from,” Dittmer said.

If you have any idea where it is, go in the opposite direction, Dittmer said. Don’t try to scare it away – there’s no guarantee it won’t try to flee to you. And don’t kill it unless threatened – you could be charged with a Class B misdemeanor.

Rattlesnake Precautions at Home

Venomous snakes bite between 7,000 and 8,000 people annually in the United States. About five of those people will die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Rattlesnakes in particular live throughout the country, but the most common subspecies in Utah is the Great Basin rattlesnake. Others, including the Sidewinder and Mojave rattlesnakes, live in areas along state lines.

The reptiles are most active at dusk and dawn, seeking shelter from the midday sun in their rocky burrows, according to the Wildlife Department.

If you have a garden at home, remove places that could provide snakes with shelter, like piles of wood, rocks or trash, the wildlife department advised. And do your best to keep access to outdoor food such as from bird feeders or chicken coops, as this can attract rodents – and the snakes that eat them.

For your dog’s safety

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mike Parmley gave birth to a dog named Ruby on Tuesday, April 17.

The more your dog spends off the track, the greater the risk of snakebite, said Wynlee Decker, a veterinarian at North Ogden Animal Hospital.

An owner cannot see the snake that bit his dog or understand what happened. All you see is a dog jumping and yelping, she said.

If you think your dog has been bitten, get your pet to safety and look for bite marks, Decker said. A rattlesnake bite will begin to swell and become very painful, and this pain and swelling will increase over time.

The most severe bites affect a dog’s head, where the swelling can affect eyes and airways, she said.

Owners should take their dogs to a veterinarian if they suspect a rattlesnake bite.

“I don’t remember the last patient we had dying. The vast majority make it,” she said, adding, “Are they pretty unlucky? Absolutely.”

The Wildlife Department advised that keeping your dog on a leash reduces the chance of being bitten. Another option is to give your pet a rattlesnake vaccine, although there’s debate about the effectiveness of the vaccine, Decker said. You can also try teaching your dogs to avoid rattlesnakes.

Teaching dogs to spot rattlesnakes

Mike Parmley began teaching dogs about rattlesnake avoidance at his canine daycare and recreation center in Salt Lake City about five years ago, under the tutelage of longtime rattlesnake-aversion dog trainer Web Parton.

Parmley subjects dogs to detoxified rattlesnakes and uses a low-level electronic collar to shock them, creating a negative association.

“They encounter the snake – they smell it, they hear it, they look at it. I’ll use an impulse,” said Parmley, “we run.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hannah Wright takes her dog Mijo out up close to get a close look at a rattlesnake during rattlesnake aversion training for dogs at Barley’s Canine Recreation Center on Tuesday, May 17, 2022.

With enough of this reinforcement, a dog will learn to avoid a snake with a single breath. Some will take a detour around the reptile. Others may stop in place or bark to warn their owners. Some will do nothing but stay away.

Recently, Parmley said he’s seen an increase in the number of people signing up for his classes. He attributes the increase to the influx of people into the state as well as a rise in dog ownership during the coronavirus pandemic.

He’s had clients come to him with their new dog after a previous pet died from a bite, Parmley said. He sees many hounds, many ranch dogs. Sometimes people find it after spotting a snake on a trail or having a close encounter, and then look for ways to protect their dogs.

As the old saying goes, for every snake you see, there are ten you haven’t seen. When Parmley announced classes for May and June, they filled up within hours. Utah is rattlesnake country. This is how you protect yourself – and your dog – on the trails.

Joel McCord

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