Hundreds of times my parti-color Standard Poodles Jyah and Sydney and I have gone out our back door into a small fenced courtyard landscaped with planters and rocks, through a gate into the dogs' play yard, and thence to one of several destinations beyond. One spring day, the parti pair had left the house through their doggy-door several seconds before me. As I came out the porch door, I noticed that both dogs had stopped stock-still staring at something in their path. “What do you see,” I asked. Uncharacteristically, neither dog turned to acknowledge me. Upon stepping forward, I muffled a shriek. Draped over a rock three feet off the path was a very long black snake.

Black rat snakes are a non-poisonous, slender, long-tailed, transitional species - part terrestrial, part arboreal. As such, they have keeled plates on their belly to assist them in climbing. When on the ground, these plates allow them to latch onto the terrain to avoid being picked up by predators: when gripping the ground, their long, thin bodies have an appearance similar to rickrack. These serpents do not kill the rodents, birds, and lizards they feed upon by constriction but pin them to the ground with a loop of the body before swallowing. Rat snakes pose little danger to us: one lived in our basement for several years before we finally found and plugged its entry hole.

This rat snake seemed as alarmed to see us as we were to see it. Head raised above the ground, its satiny black forked tongue flicked in and out, analyzing us. Quelling my unwarranted fear of all snakes, calmly I said, “You are much too close for our comfort. Please be gone when we come back.” I slowly went ahead of the dogs, called them to follow, and we went on to our destination. When we returned an hour later, the snake was gone.

Our next snake encounter happened a few weeks later. Often in the evening, I stroll around the agility yard encouraging the dogs to go over the equipment. We had been in the yard for only a few moments when I noticed Jyah and Sydney standing at the chain-link fence staring into a grassy area on the other side. Instantly, I recognized their body language. Cautiously coming up behind them, I said, “Found another snake, have we?” They had. In the tall grass, headed towards and almost to the agility yard fence was a black rat snake over five-feet-long. Upon seeing the dogs it had frozen in place, head poised several inches above the ground, pronged tongue sensing the air. Neither the dogs nor the snake appeared eager to be in closer proximity: my own legs tingled, skin shrinking at the mere thought of coming into physical contact with a snake. After a few moments stand-off, I said to the snake, “Please go away. I don't want you coming into this yard.” Guessing that the snake would remain immobile until our perceived threat was removed, I called the dogs away. Five minutes later when I stopped by to check, I saw the last of the snake's string-like tail slowly disappearing back into its grassy domain. Although this black rat snake had posed little danger to the dogs and me that would not be true of our next snake encounter.

“Come on, kiddos,” I called to Jyah and Sydney. It was getting dark, and my husband Glenn and I were not carrying a flashlight, nor had we turned on the outside house lights before we left. We live in a rural area and after nightfall in the summer it is not uncommon to happen upon copperhead snakes. A couple of times Glenn had come within inches of stepping on one when walking to the house at night from one of the outlying buildings.

Copperheads are poisonous snakes (pit vipers) that abound in the southeastern part of the United States. They have rather thick bodies patterned in variegated copper and ivory which allows them to visually meld with their surroundings. Because they blend in and are smaller than some snakes, being about two feet in length when fully grown, they often go unnoticed: more dogs and people are bitten by copperheads than by the larger poisonous snakes of the area, such as rattlers and water moccasins.

As we neared the back patio, Jyah tensed. Against the house about five feet from the back door is a large, knee-high, ivy-filled planter box where earlier I had almost stopped to pull a couple of small weeds. Very cautiously Jyah approached the box, paused a few feet away, cocked his head, and stared uneasily at the middle area inside the planter. Since we were in a hurry, the rest of us had moved past Jyah into the house. I turned on the outside lights while Glenn peered out the kitchen window overlooking the planter to see why Jyah had not come in.

Jyah was still standing apprehensively a few feet from the planter box. Glenn turned to me and said, “Jyah is telling us there's something in the planter box.” We went outside and cautiously approached the box. Upon hearing a muffled vibrating sound, Glenn said, “Jyah's found a snake, and I think it's a copperhead.” Ever the optimist, I replied, “Oh, it's probably only a frog,” (a creature, I might add, that Jyah enjoys harassing). “No,” he said, “Jyah wouldn't act like that if he were not concerned. Go get the shotgun.” Living in a house surrounded by woods, we keep buckshot loaded in a shotgun as we have needed it on more than one occasion for poisonous snakes that have come too close for comfort. We once found two copperheads nesting in our basement - but, that is another story.

As a puppy, one of the first things I noticed about Jyah was how sensible he was. He never rushed headlong into trouble as so many puppies do. Even as a baby, he had innate wisdom and always seemed to react to any situation in a levelheaded manner. If Jyah was telling us there was something dangerous in the planter box, there was.

I called Jyah to come with me, and we went into the house . . . whereupon I dashed down the hall to get the shotgun. Hurrying back, I thrust my arm through the door, shoved the gun at Glenn, and then scampered back inside to watch from the safety of the window. In order to dislodge the snake, Glenn picked up a rake and rattled it several times into the greenery. Not eliciting a response, he stepped over to a patio bench and sat down to wait.

After watching at the window for a few minutes, I secretly began to wonder if there really was a snake in the planter box and decided to retire to the den with a book. Awhile later, a shotgun blast punctured the stillness, and I ran to the window to look out. Believing strongly in Jyah's message, Glenn had patiently waited for thirty minutes before the copperhead finally slithered over the edge of the planter and onto the patio.

The next morning we took Jyah and Sydney out to look at the snake. Since I expressed my caution of it in such dread-filled tones, neither of the dogs was inclined to examine it more closely. Even knowing the hazard the snake posed by being so close to the house, I still disliked seeing it dead. Had we come across it in the woods, we would have left it in peace.

For their own safety, I am so grateful Jyah and Sydney have the common sense not to bother snakes. Many dogs in our area are not so smart and upon encountering poisonous snakes often end up with very painful bites to their head or front legs. Jyah and Sydney have many abilities far greater than mine: that my constant companions would use these abilities to locate and warn me about snakes is something I had not expected. I always knew Standard Poodles were perfect companions, but my parti pair are guardian angels as well.

Drawing and text created for
 publication in the
 International Parti Poodle Gazette November 2006 Issue

By Charlene Dunlap