By: Jason Herbert
“Good boy, Benson; good boy!” As my golden retriever was racing towards me with a fresh shed antler in his mouth, I was beaming with pride. My younger chocolate lab Molly was close on his tail trying to steal the shiny prize. When they both raced by me, I had a slight change of heart. “Wait! Give! Come! Where are you going? Get back here!…” I tried every command, but none of them worked. Regardless, I was still really proud that my dogs had finally learned shed hunting is fun. Now I just have to train them how to stop trying to play keep-away once they get one.
Shed antler hunting is an absolutely addictive sport. There’s something primal about knowing you’re the first human ever to lay your hands on that antler. Hunting with dogs also comes very natural for man. So, combine the two and teach your dog how to hunt for antlers.
I am by no means an expert; but, I’ve had so much fun working with my dog’s the last couple years and have learned a lot. Last year we found seven shed antlers and made amazing memories together. Here’s how I got my dogs started on the sport.
When I got my chocolate Labrador puppy, Molly, the first thing I gave her to chew on was an old antler. Anybody that’s ever had a puppy knows you’re not going to prevent them from chewing. Instead, why not give them a sacrificial antler to chew on. A deer antler is good for a puppy, and it’ll help satisfy the urge to chew on shoes, remote controls and the wood trim around your door. Right out of the gates, Molly knew that antlers were fun.
The next step was to start working with her on fetch. While in the house, I would get balled up socks and begin to play with them with her. I let Molly chew on the sock balls, and we would play a little bit of tug-of-war. Then I would throw them a few feet away. Eventually, she would grab it and bring it back because she wanted to play more. I would praise her and continue to make this a fun game fetching these balled-up socks where I would throw them further and further each time.
Next, we transitioned to a tennis ball for our fetching toy, and eventually, we took that outside. Here is where my older dog, Benson, our golden retriever, comes in. (On a side note, we will never again be a one-dog family. I truly believe that it’s really important to have an older, well-trained dog around to show the puppy how things at the house are supposed to work). True to his retriever breed, Bensen is a master at fetching. In fact, playing fetch is all he wants to do. Ask anyone who has come to my house — it gets annoying sometimes. When we are playing outside, we use the Chuck-It tennis ball thrower and let it rip. No matter what, the dogs will find it.
Now the training became new for all of us. Neither dog had ever hunted antlers, and I had only found them on my own. I learned a lot from Jeremy Moore, the owner of Dog Bone canine training products. His videos and live Facebook feeds were incredibly helpful. I started to coat the tennis ball with antlers scent. By introducing the antler scent to the tennis ball, we were not only retrieving visual objects but also starting to depend on the dogs’ master sense of smell. I like to throw the antler scented tennis ball upwind into really thick brush and grass so that I know my dogs have to smell for it not just look for it.
Once the dogs have caught on to fetching with their nose, I transition into putting the antler scent on actual antlers. There is also an antler-scented wax that goes on real antlers well. Fresh shed antlers have a unique odor, but since they can’t always be fresh, I like to touch them up with the antler scent. Then I start throwing the scent-enhanced antler for the dogs to help them realize that now we’re hunting for bone. Then I once again start throwing it upwind in brush and grass for them to smell it. After that, I’ll hide the shed in the yard or the field somewhere and let the dogs find it that way. Now, we’re ready to start shed hunting.
With our training antler in tow and a bottle of antler scent just in case the action is slow, the dogs and I will head out to a property and get downwind of where I think the antlers might be. I usually start to hunt sheds around the beginning of March. Good places to find antlers are any late-winter food source, trails leading to bedding areas, in between bedding areas and food sources, bedding areas, waterholes, fence jumps and really wherever there are lots of deer, you should find antlers. Last year I found for antlers around a giant mud hole. When I sat and did the math, I remember that here in Michigan we had a warm spell in January and the ice thawed. I think the bucks were in there drinking while they were also shedding antlers. Once the dogs start working, I’ll let their natural instinct take over. Basic dog obedience should have you and your dog knowing each other’s comfort level about how far away they can get. I try to make it a point to not let my dogs get out of sight. If the action is slow, I’ll plant our dummy antler somewhere and really build the dogs spirits up when they find it. Make finding any antler, be it the training one or a new shed, a real celebration — remember this is supposed to be fun.
It got to the point last year where the dogs had developed quite a sense of competition between the two of them, and they did not want to share credit with the other for any antlers they found. So they would grab the bone and come racing back to me as quickly as possible, which made me even happier. At one point, Benson even had a better idea. He grabbed an antler and tore off back to the truck determined not to let Molly share any of his success. That made me a little nervous thinking that I’d probably never see that antler again before I even got my hands on it. But lo and behold, old Benson was laying by the truck with antler right next to him when Molly and I finally caught up. If you have a dog like Benson with the natural drive to hunt and fetch, then taking them out hunting alone would be fine. If you’re trying to train a puppy like I am with Molly, I think you should take them with a more experienced shed dog who knows what they’re doing to try to imprint and model to them the sport. If you have two dogs that are both generally pretty lazy, I would bring them both and try to instill the sense of competition in them to see if that will get them excited about shed hunting.
This has really just been a scratch on the surface of how to train dogs to find deer antlers. As I said, I’m no professional dog trainer, but this is what’s worked for me. As with any skill taught to a dog, plan on reinforcing it often. I can’t believe how much I need to strengthen simple commands like “come” and “sit,” and I certainly plan on reinforcing technical skills like shed hunting. In closing, teach your dogs that antlers are good and fetching is fun. Combine the two of them, and you’ve got yourself in addicted shed hunting partner.