As I walk through the woods, I am looking for the glistening of a tine, or if I am lucky, maybe I will spot the entire rack of my next trophy. After searching every known deer hangout I finally see what I am looking for. In the wide open, near a fence crossing, is an antler. However, this time it is not connected to a deer. Instead, it lies on the ground, jarred loose from the buck’s head — probably after jumping the buck jumped fence and landed.
Shed hunting is becoming more popular every year — especially the sport of hunting sheds with dogs. Because sheds can be harder to find than most hunters think, training dogs to find sheds is growing in popularity.
Hunting antler sheds with a dog is very similar to hunting pheasant or quail with a close-working bird dog. The dog quarters 25 to 75 yards in front of the hunter, downwind. When the dog hits the scent of the antler, it will go to it and retrieve it back to its handler. As easy as that sounds, it does require a good dog as well as a good trainer who is willing to put in the time with the dog.
Choosing A Dog
Before purchasing a dog, it is very important to research breeders and their bloodlines. Care must always be taken to get a pup from a reputable dealer. It is not unusual to find dogs with hip dysplasi or mental problems. It is always wise to get a clean bill of health, along with a guarantee of healthy hips and elbows before purchasing any dog.
There are some advantages to purchasing a puppy instead of an adult dog. The first reason for purchasing a puppy is the very important bonding period of a dog’s life. Those first few months set the pattern for the lifetime of the dog. A pup needs to be nurtured and his confidence built to help him be able to go out and hunt on his own. When a dog hunts for antlers, he must be able to go about his work totally independent of human support. Of course, you will take him to the woods or the field, etc., but ultimately he will have to go into areas that his senses tell him to hunt. If you have a properly trained dog, his nose will find antlers even in a harvested cornfield. In corn stubble, it is almost impossible for the human eye to see an antler.
Then you have to decide to get a male or a female. As both have pros and cons, most people have a personal preference. On a reasonable level, you can make a case for selecting either. Males normally develop a little slower and can be a bit headstrong, but they can be less trouble in the field. Females, on the other hand, while quick to pick up the training, can be soft and cannot be forced into training too strongly. Females also have a way of coming into heat about the same time you want to go on a hunt with your friend who just happens to have a male dog.
There is no certain breed of dog needed for this, but Labrador retrievers are the preferred choice by many that use dogs to hunt sheds.
Training Your Dog
It all begins with a simple game of fetch using an antler. This will help the dog distinguish between an antler and his favorite toy when he gets to the woods or field. When using an antler for fetch, be sure to grind down the tips of the antlers so the dog does not injure itself with the new, awkward toy. It will not take many times of doing this before your dog is able to find his own antler in the woods. Any dog that is capable of retrieving a bone at home during a game of fetch will likely be able to come back with a shed when in the woods. It is also a good idea to train your dog on basic commands, such as sit, stay and come. This will help make sure your dog is obedient and will obey your commands when you’re out in the woods.
It is good to have a lot of treats on hand that you can reward your dog with. Of course, you are going to need a lot of antlers. You can either go out and try to find some sheds in the woods or you can buy them online. You cannot get by with using imitation antlers. Only authentic antlers will work. Remember, it’s the scent of the antler that dogs learn to find. Try to get ones that are fresh and not completely sun bleached or dried out. Old antlers are likely to have lost a significant portion of their scent, making it difficult for your dog to locate them by smell.
You’ll want to give deer antlers to your dog as early as possible to get him used to the look, feel and scent the antlers give off. Let your dog play with antlers and use them as chew toys. While this allows him to get used to the antlers, they also contain calcium dogs need. This is one of the best ways to get your dog used to finding sheds in the wild.
Begin by tossing deer antler sheds in the yard and giving the command “find the shed.” When your dog obeys your command and retrieves the antler, give him a treat followed by lots of petting and praise. A dog wants nothing more than to please his handler, and knowing that he did will make him want to continue to do so.
Your dog might not immediately go after the antler, and that is OK. Try putting the antler right under his nose to help him become acquainted with the smell. Dogs enjoy playing a game of fetch and retrieving items for their owner. It will not take long for the dog to retrieve an antler that you have tossed in the yard. Make sure to give your dog a treat when he returns the shed. If he doesn’t find a shed, don’t punish or yell at him.
After your dog has gotten used to the scent of a deer antler, it is time to see what he will do in a more advanced training session. Head to the woods and hide a couple of antlers in an area that is not too easy for your dog to find them, but don’t make it impossible. Remember that this will be his first time trying to find sheds, so go easy on your canine friend. Place them underneath some leaves about 30 to 40 yards apart and give your dog the “find the shed” command that you’ve trained him with. Always keep your dog in sight, and if they run too far away, call them back. It’s dangerous for dogs to chase after animals in the woods.
If he doesn’t immediately go after the antler, which he probably won’t on his first try, just walk over to the area where the antler is and see if the dog can sense it. When he’s found it, give him a treat and lots of praise. Keeping up with this practice regimen on a daily basis, 20 to 30 minutes per day, will have your dog finding sheds sooner than you thought possible.
After enough training has passed and you feel confident in your dog’s ability to find antlers, it’s time to put him to the test. Begin by walking down deer trails and keeping an eye on your surroundings. With any luck, the dog will pick up the scent of a shed and go to retrieve it. Know where your dog is at all times, and call him back if he begins to get distracted or begins to run off. As you did in your practice sessions, reward and praise the dog once he returns with a shed. If you spot an antler that your dog does not, give the “find the shed” command and allow him to go after it. Be patient with the dog and allow him to find the shed. Continue to reward him when he finds a shed, and before you know it, your dog will be finding sheds without any problem.