Shed Hunting | Shed Dog Training Tips
It’s that time of year again when the snow is starting to melt (at least on warmer days) and the winter seems like it’s closing up shop soon. Before you really make plans for spring food plots or morel mushroom hunting, there’s another deer hunting-related activity that’s probably at the forefront of your mind. Shed hunting!
Some of us have many fond memories as a child of roaming the late winter woods with our fathers. On a pleasant sunny day, we would roam the forest following deer trails, and keeping our eyes peeled for sheds. It was mostly an excuse to get out of the house after a long winter. But there’s nothing quite like stumbling across a shed tucked halfway into the snow; its tines reflecting back the mid-morning sunlight. As a kid, you most likely played retriever for these shed hunts. But if you have a puppy that’s going to serve as future duck master, pheasant chaser, grouse flusher, or just plain old house pet, you can have a shed hunting dog with a little training.
What Type of Dog?
While you could technically train almost any obedient dog to be a shed hunter, some breeds will just learn the ropes a lot faster. Retrievers (e.g., Labradors, goldens, Chesapeake Bay’s, etc.), for instance, have deep instincts that help them perform very well for this task, which probably makes them the best breed. However, pointers, setters, and spaniels also learn very quickly and are very obedient dogs. If your pup is a hunting dog, it’s probably one of these breeds anyway.
Start in the House
It’s best to begin in a comfortable and familiar environment for your easily-distracted puppy. They’re going to want to check everything out, so keep it somewhere kind of boring. Hand them a small shed antler, or a section of antler about four inches long. Give them time to get used to it, and start practicing your basic retrieve commands at this early age. Use a consistent and clear command for shed hunting that’s different from whatever hunting command you’re going to give in the future, so there is no confusion. It’s also important to never let your dog use an antler as a chew toy. If you let this slide now, it will be really difficult and confusing to break them of the habit later.
After your puppy is comfortable retrieving and is used to the feel of the antler, it’s time to change the environment. Bring them outside and start a similar game on the lawn. A professional dog trainer tip is to use an antler silhouette to get the shape ingrained in their memory. Cut out a 1-2 foot section of plywood that resembles an antler shape. Stake this in the yard, and place the shed antler you want your dog to retrieve at the base of the silhouette. Next, bring them over to the silhouette and show them where the antler is. Continue to lure them away and lead them back to the antler until they grasp that the shed should be at the base of the plywood shape.
After they master this step, start placing the shed further away from the plywood, so that they have to actively look/smell for it. At this stage, it’s important to not handle the shed with your hands, or they will simply use your scent to smell their way to it. When placing the shed be sure to remove your human scent entirely, use Scentlok Clothes and Sprays to eliminate your odor. You can even apply wax products that mimic the smell of a real antler, but this step is optional. Continue to place the shed further from the plywood, and in hidden spots that aren’t immediately visible from the base.
Next, it’s time to remove their safety crutch. Place the antler in the same general area, but do not install the plywood silhouette. After you give the command, they should still run to the area where the plywood was, as this was their learned process. From this position, they should be able to find the deer shed fairly easily at first. Again, continue to move the shed further away from the old base position until they have to really search for it in the lawn.
Move into Heavier Cover
Once your dog is comfortable finding antlers in the short grass of your lawn, it’s time to move the exercise into a more realistic setting. Hopefully you’ve got an area close to home with longer grass, light tree cover, or some open shrubs. Basically, you’ll repeat the process using the silhouette again, until they can comfortably find sheds without its use. Over time, hide them in leaf piles, cover them with branches, or bury with a little dirt/snow. They should be able to recognize the tines sticking up and smell their way to the source. This is when it’s really important to start using a natural deer scent on the antler. Sight and smell are the only tools they have available, so help your dog use them well.
Once your dog gets the concept and can consistently find antlers where you place them, it’s time for the real deal. Find high-percentage spots in the late winter/early spring to let your dog show you what it can do. These areas include food sources, bedding areas, and trails leading between the two. If a funnel location brings a deer through some thick brush or a fence line, this is a great spot for a buck to lose his antlers. Focus on these areas, and give your dog time to thoroughly search. It’s important that you use your chosen command so they know they should be looking for antlers instead of just going for a walk in the woods. When they do find and retrieve a shed antler, be firm in having them drop it and don’t let them play with it. Take time to thoroughly praise them, both verbally and physically. Let them know that you’re happy with their find!
You’ll notice there’s a theme here: repetition. You need to consistently practice these drills for them to really absorb it. If at any point they seem confused about what to do, or can’t find the shed, step back and make it a little easier. Positive reinforcement and repetition will transform your little pup into a great shed hunting dog in no time. Shed season starts now, load up the Bad Boy Buggy and your best friend(s) and enjoy time out in the deer woods.
Feature Photo Credit: Erik Barber, Erik and his dog Cooper, shed season 2016