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Shed heads: training dogs to hunt deer antlers

I’ve said many times and in many ways that we all put too much importance in antlers, that among all the wonders of bowhunting, the least significant thing is a pound or two of pointy bone.

I mean, sure the trophies we take by bow have a special meaning. But there are people who go crazy over any old antlers, even those lacking the provenance of a hunting memory.

Then the next thing I know it’s a warm day in late winter, I’m shunning all the way more important tasks I should be doing, wandering the woods in search of some buck’s cast-off trash, and getting all hyper-ventilatey when I find a good one.

I don’t have this antler thing as bad as some guys do, but I do seem to be getting worse. A few years ago I built a new house, the entire structure designed around a couple sets of large elk racks. I’ve started scheduling precious vacation hours to roam the woods to look for horns. When it warms up this spring, I’ll be taking a test drive in a new vehicle I came across at January’s ATA Bow Show. It’s an ultralight aircraft they tell me can fly, quite slowly, 20 feet off the ground, and thus the ultimate shed hunting tool. Heck, it’s only $15 grand.

In the meantime I’ve taken another tack in the antler-acquisition arena. I am training Maggie May, my pretty little Llewellyn setter, to assist in the endeavor.

I know you can train dogs to find and fetch sheds because I’ve done it before. My old buddy Zeke became a pretty fair shed fetcher, though it required quite a bit of convincing to get him interested in such inanimate objects. All my dogs are bird-hunting fiends, interested in little else, and when we hit the field they want feathers, not bone.

But it can work and lately there’s been an upsurge in interest to teach dogs to hunt sheds. In the forefront is Tom Dokken, a well-respected dog trainer and owner of Dokken’s Dog Supply in Northfield, Minnesota. Dokken has developed a training program for teaching dogs to hunt sheds and has introduced a line of products for the purpose. He says pretty much anyone can teach their dogs the technique, and ran down the basics.

“You’ll want a dog with good retrieving instincts that will naturally want to pick something up and bring it back to you,” Dokken said. “Get a shed antler and start out with some fun tosses around the house. Make fetching a game. Work in some voice commands—words that don’t sound like other commands the dog may know. I just say, ‘Find the bone.’”

Dokken emphasized the need to keep the training fun, positive, and successful.

“Giving the dog treats when it brings a shed to you will speed up the process,” he said. “I don’t usually use treats in training hunting dogs, but here you can use an incentive. Sheds are hard--they aren’t warm and fuzzy and smell good like a bird. A treat will make it worth picking up.”

Training can progress to hiding the antler around the house, then taking it into the back yard, increasing the number of sheds to pick up.

“Up to now the dog will be finding the sheds mainly because of the scent from your hands,” Dokken said. “Eventually you need to eliminate that scent—using rubber gloves and boots when you put out the sheds.”

Work in some basic obedience training if the dog hasn’t had it. Progress logically and slowly from basic training to simulation of real shed-hunting conditions. Keep it fairly easy for the dog, making sure it has plenty of success, which will encourage it and help it learn faster. “And remember, when you’re out there hunting sheds and you spot one, don’t pick it up! Call the dog over to get it!” Dokken said.

Dokken is launching a line of products to assist in the process. He has Rack Wax, a scent that simulates the faint odor of the antler base; Rack Wash, to eliminate unnatural odors on training sheds; large shed silhouettes to train for visual location, actual shed antlers and others. He also has a training manual that covers the details of training your own shed retriever. You can find it all on his website, sheddogtrainer.com.

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