By SportDog Staff
It’s too bad bird seasons only last a few months. It seems like fall arrives and brings the excitement of pheasant and duck hunting, but then before you know it winter has set in and all you can do is dream and wait for the next season. Thankfully there’s another kind of hunting you can do during the off-season as soon as the snow starts to melt, and it’s a great way to keep your dog tuned up and in shape, not to mention keeping him physically fit: shed antler hunting. Let me help you and your dog get off on the right foot with this fun exercise.
The biggest challenge in getting a dog interested in looking for shed antlers, especially for an older dog, is the fact that there’s no way a piece of bone is going to be as exciting as a warm, live pheasant or grouse. But my dog, Easton, was 5 years old before we started shed hunting and he ended up winning a shed-hunting championship, so it can be done!
The first thing I do is get a shed antler, maybe a small side from a little basket-rack for a puppy or a little larger one for an older dog, and coat it with a product like Dokken’s Rack Wax to give it a fresh smell. Then it’s a matter of teaching your dog that looking for the shed is all about having fun. Get your dog fired up with a lot of “Find the bone! Find the bone!” chatter and then toss the shed a short distance where it’s easy for your dog to see it.
If you’re doing this with a puppy, it’s not much different than when you’re throwing fun bumpers. You’ll want to keep a check cord on him so he can’t run off with the antler or lie down and start chewing on it. Teach him that the sooner he brings it back to you, the sooner he’ll get to go chase it again.
However, in the same way you don’t overdo retrieving drills with dummies or birds, you want to keep these sessions short so your dog is always wanting more. After your dog has figured out that this is every bit as much fun as looking for birds, and is enthusiastically chasing down the antler and bringing it back, the next step is to get him just as excited about searching for sheds out in the field.
I start with simply placing an antler in plain sight out in the yard, and then I use that same, excited “Find the bone!” command I used during retrieving drills. So, now your dog is going to learn to get out and search for sheds just like he does for upland birds. From there, simply transition to hiding antlers in gradually increasing cover so your dog has to learn to use his nose.
When it’s time to go out for an antler-hunting practice session or an actual springtime shed hunt, you can obviously use whatever command you want, but be sure to differentiate between shed hunting and bird hunting. For example, I use “Find the bone!” versus “Hunt ‘em up!” One reason for this is that during shed hunting you want to give your dog the freedom to cover as much ground as possible, whereas in bird hunting you need him to always be within gun range, say, 20 yards or so.
I’ll go into more detail about this, as well as how to get the maximum efficiency out of your new shed-hunting partner, in my next article.
In my last article I described the benefits of shed antler hunting in the off-season and how to get your dog started in this fun sport. Now let me go into more detail about how to teach your dog to efficiently hunt for sheds.
A dog has three weapons to use when shed hunting. First and most obvious is his sense of smell. Number two is sight. I think this is something we dog handlers sometimes don’t put enough emphasis on. A dog that’s down closer to ground level than we are and has had lots of experience in finding and retrieving sheds definitely learns to pick out that shape even if he hasn’t had a chance to smell it. And lastly is ground coverage. A dog covers at least three times as much ground as you can in any given amount of time. So, when it comes to shed hunting, the guy with the dog is always going to have the advantage.
Once you’ve gotten past the training stage and it’s time to get into some serious shed hunting, you really want to think about ways to help your dog maximize his three weapons. One basic rule is to work into the wind as much as possible. Unlike a running pheasant or grouse that’s laying down a trail to follow when it moves, an antler is going to stay in one spot, the place where it fell off the buck’s head. Unless an antler is lying in plain sight, it’s really easy for a dog to miss it if he doesn’t have the wind helping him. Therefore, try to plot your search course ahead of time so you’re hunting into the wind and on the downwind side of a crosswind as much as possible.
To improve a dog’s ability to spot antlers, go back to basic training and use oversized cardboard cutouts. Place them around the yard or in very light cover where they’re easy to spot. Then do some more “Find the bone!” drills just like you did when you were first teaching your dog about antlers. Through repetition he’ll develop an eye for that distinctive shape.
The last weapon is a little trickier to develop, especially if you have an upland bird dog that is used to always hunting in gun range. My champion shed hunting dog, Easton, spent his first five years hunting within 20 yards of me. So, how I got him out of that rhythm was to plant the silhouettes at least 40 yards apart in a zigzag pattern and then let him go after them. When a dog knows he has the green light to run out and grab that antler, it doesn’t matter if it’s 100 yards away.
Obviously, this is counter to the training you’ve done for upland birds where you need your dog to hunt close, and the most common question I get is: “How do I keep my dog from thinking it’s ok to hunt so far and wide when it’s time to go back to bird hunting?”
Because shed hunting season doesn’t really begin until most bird seasons have ended, and because you are a good three or four months from the end of shed hunting until the next bird season, this shouldn’t be much of a problem as long as you spend plenty of time training for each separately. You definitely don’t want to confuse or try to trick your dog by, for example, going shed hunting in the morning and then going to a pheasant farm that afternoon. Keep the seasons completely separate is my advice.
Also, as I mentioned in my earlier article, use “Find the bone!” for shed hunting and “Hunt ‘em up!” for birds. Those are the words I use. You can say whatever you want, but the point is to use different commands so your dog isn’t confused.
Regardless of you and your dog’s level of experience or success with shed hunting, the most important thing is to get yourself and your dog out of the house and give it a try. I promise it will make the wait for the next bird hunting season seem a lot shorter!