How To: Shed Hunting Dog Training
If you’ve hunted for shed antlers in the past, you know how difficult it can be. Often times it requires the right conditions, a good number of friends or family members, and a considerable amount of leg work to find any at all. Luckily for us, man’s best friend is also a shed hunter’s best asset! All it takes is a little shed hunting dog training to equip almost any dog with the right mindset to hunt down more shed antlers than you could ever stumble upon on your own…
Best Antler Dog?
One of the most commonly asked questions when it comes to shed hunting with a dog is, “which breed makes the best antler dog?” While there is no perfect answer, the question you should be asking is much broader… Being that the shed hunting season for most of us only lasts 2-3 months at a max, consider the following questions before making any decisions about what shed hunting dog breed is right for you.
- What do you want out of your dog during those 9-10 months you aren’t shed hunting?
- Will they be a pet first and foremost? (Inside/Outside)
- Will you use them as a retriever during the waterfowl or upland game bird seasons?
- Will you use them to track and recover wounded deer or other big game?
In addition to all of these considerations, price, temperament, and space requirement should all be taken into account when narrowing down your antler dog breed options.
The simple fact is that if they have a good nose and a desire to please, they will make a great shed hunting dog. Fortunately for us, this describes most dogs! So, if you already have a dog you are considering training to find shed antlers and they possess these qualities, you’re in luck! If you are considering buying a new dog that is versatile and will make a great shed hunting partner, here are some great breeds to consider…
How to Train a Dog to Find Sheds
Training a dog to find shed antlers is not hard! The secret is baby steps… Don’t just hide a shed antler in the woods one day expect your untrained dog to seek it out and deliver it you when you give a command. It takes time! Start with small successes in a controlled environment and gradually transition into bigger successes in environments where you have less control. Be patient and work at your shed dog’s pace. Before long they’ll know exactly what is expected and your shed hunting dog training exercises will have been a success!
Start your shed dog training indoors. The idea here is to eliminate distractions and get your dog to focus on the task at hand. As your dog progresses and becomes more focused with age and practice, you can start to work them into environments with more distractions. The field being the end goal…
The first thing to work on is retrieving. For shed hunting dog breeds, the instinct is already there, but it’s up to you to bring it out of them by making it fun for them! For those breeds that aren’t naturally as inclined to retrieve, it’s ok to entice them with a small piece of food. It’s important to make every training session a positive experience for your dog. This, over time, will help them realize that this whole shed hunting thing is actually pretty fun!
On this same note, we don’t want to have the dog retrieve anything that may be harmful to them or cause them to have a bad experience. This is a common mistake as most people just starting out with their shed dog hunting training will send their dog out after a real antler and risk the high probability of that dog having a bad experience with the sharp points on that antler. Remember, a dog is soft and sensitive and making them retrieve something hard and pointy comes with a risk. To avoid this risk altogether, start with a balled up sock or a tennis ball and introduce the antler shape over time.
Introducing Shed Antler Shape
Once your dog has the retrieving part down pat, it’s time to introduce the shape and smell of an antler. Wait!! That doesn’t mean we just chuck an antler out there and send them after it. We still need to be careful to make sure every experience that dog has with an antler is a positive one. For that reason, this is where we introduce an antler dummy. The antler dummy will help the dog start to associate the shape of an antler with a reward. There are several products online for this purpose and are an essential tool for transitioning your dog into retrieving hard antlers.
Introducing Shed Antler Scent
Once your dog is retrieving the antler dummy for you, it’s time to introduce scent. Antler scent can be found online and is an essential tool to get your dog to associate not only the shape, but the smell of an antler, with a reward. When your dog is retrieving scented antler dummies on a consistent basis, it’s time to introduce the blind retrieve.
Blind Antler Retrieves
Now that your dog has a basic understanding of what an antler is based on the shape and smell, it’s time to make things interesting… This whole time, they’ve watched you either throw the object out in front of them or walk out and set it down where they can still see it. Starting back in a controlled environment like the house, have your dog sit… Either toss or walk out and set the antler dummy where it is just out of sight for them and give them the command. This is no different from the retrieving they’ve been doing except now they don’t know exactly where the antler dummy is. Over time, make the hiding places more difficult and move outdoors once they understand what is expected of them. Your dog is practically shed hunting at this point!! The key to improvement from this point forward is setting them up for success. Don’t give your dog a task they can’t possibly succeed at. The more success they have, the more fun it is for them and the more shed antlers you’ll find!
Once we’ve gotten to this point, it’s time to start using a real antler. Start to work the real antler into your training regimen until the dog understands that the antler and the antler dummy are one in the same. Eventually, we’ll work the shed dummy out of the equation completely and real shed antlers will be the only thing on his mind
The Real Deal (Shed Hunting with your Dog in the Field)
There is little to no difference between the final stages of shed hunting dog training and actually shed hunting with a dog. The only difference is that there may or may not be an actual shed antler nearby for the dog to find. For this reason, it’s a good idea to start in high probability areas… These include winter food sources, S/SE facing slopes, and thermal cover where bucks are likely to shed their antlers. On the same note, there’s no use hunting when there’s nothing to hunt. While your dog is still building confidence in their shed hunting abilities, hold off from shed hunting until you’re certain there are sheds on the ground to be found. By shed hunting high probability areas when the time is right, your dog’s chances of success are much greater and they’re likely to stay interested in the hunt!
Something else to keep in mind is that your dog will use his nose #1 and his eyes #2 ALWAYS! Work the downwind side of whatever terrain feature your shed hunting and he’ll likely pick up the scent long before he ever finds the antler.
Shed Dog Training Takeaways
There was a lot of information covered in this piece but there are a few important things to keep in mind that will make or break your shed dog training success…
- Set your dog up for success. They learn by succeeding, not by failing!
- Don’t let your dog chew on antlers… Ever! Give the shed value by only using it during training and praising him excessively when he retrieves it for you.
- You can’t teach a disobedient dog to shed hunt… Make basic obedience a priority over shed hunting dog
- Be patient. This doesn’t happen overnight…
Good luck, and happy shed hunting!!
Photos from Jared Prusia and his Brittany, Buckley