It seems that each year more and more interest develops in shed hunting with dogs. I can’t help but be excited about this; another sport is evolving within the sporting dog world and as a trainer, hunter and hunting dog enthusiast I am excited about any opportunity to try something new with my hunting dogs.
I am often questioned, “How do I train my dog to hunt for deer sheds”? My answer begins very simple; “The same way you taught them to hunt upland birds”! Certainly I am not being completely literal, however if we think about what shed hunting is, there are several similarities that do overlap between shed and upland bird hunting. Let’s briefly discuss the overlapping factors, and then look at a training regimen to expose our dogs to shed hunting.
To me, upland bird hunting is the act of searching a given area, whether it be the woods (grouse), prairie, grasslands or any other type of terrain and cover for certain types of birds. Surely I am simplifying things, but overall the dog is doing just that; using their noses, eyes, obedience, athleticism and training to find an object that they were taught to find. Finding a deer shed is theoretically the same thing! We need to simplify things, and allow the dog to learn what we are asking of them by 1) socializing them with all necessary elements such as terrain, cover, scent, object (bird, deer shed, fur, etc.) and 2) trying to incorporate as many of their senses as possible into the training (sight, smell, touch, taste).
Chances are, if your dog is already a finished hunting dog they have been very much introduced to all kinds of terrain and cover, and understand the type of range you’d like them to hunt in. When you shed hunt, it is best to maintain whatever range you like to bird hunt with, so that the dog has a very consistent experience with you in the field each time. If you are starting a young gun dog, it is important to get them out into various types of cover such as grass, prairies, woods, swamps, etc. Allow them to acclimate themselves to the types of environments that you will be hunting in. This will help them build comfort and confidence in these places, making the training process much simpler for not just the hunting dog, but for you as well.
The next thing that will need to happen is to teach the dog what a shed is. Over time, we want the dog to be enthusiastic towards a shed, wanting to retrieve it, chase it and ultimately find it. This should not take long; after all, antlers are some of the most popular chew toys out there for gun dogs! Incorporate a shed into your play; get the pup excited about the antler and do short tosses, let the dog chase the antler, mouth it, bite it and retrieve it. If they do retrieve it, give them a lot of verbal praise, pet them all over and do not take the antler out of their mouth right away. We want to send a message; “when you have the deer shed, life is good!”. It is crucial at this time to introduce a command or name for the antler. I use “Bone”; “find the bone”, “where’s the bone”, “get the bone”. Feel free to use whatever you wish as an identifier word, but incorporate it as you introduce the antler so that the dog starts to correlate the word with the object (auditory sense).
Something to keep in mind is the age and size of your hunting dog when you expose them to sheds. A small puppy should have a smaller antler or even a piece of an antler so that it is small, lightweight and manageable for them to mouth and retrieve. An older dog can handle a bigger shed, but again, we want to encourage them to retrieve it. Antlers can first be awkward and different to a dog, so work them into it gradually through play and positive, playful experiences.
The introductory stage to the antler is a great way for the dog to get the feel, the visual, the smell and the taste (again, trying to incorporate the senses). Your praise, both verbal and physical incorporates sound and feel as well. Do not be afraid to boost some of this for the sake of helping the hunting dog. Wax based deer shed scent is on the market and can easily be applied to training antlers, as well as real antlers. Apply the scent during this stage and introduce the scent to the dog simultaneously.
The introductory stage can last weeks depending on the dog. As the dog begins to truly enjoy retrieving the antler and playing with it, you can take the antler to the yard (any safe area you can play with the dog) and begin placing it out in the grass. At this stage, use mowed grass that allows the dog to see the antler, making it simpler on the dog and giving them more success “finding” the antler. By now, the dog has heard the identifier word (“Bone” for example) and shows great interest in the antler. To start, make the dog sit in the yard facing you. Simply walk out and place the antler somewhere in there line of sight so that they can clearly tell where it is. Walk back to the dog and give your command to release and find the antler (“Find the bone”). If they are apprehensive (they might be at first, they have never been told this before from a remote sit position!), simply repeat the command and be encouraging. Do not be afraid to say their name, or fetch, or any other command you may have to get them moving. The goal is to simply show the dog that “find the bone” means to go locate the antler. Allowing them to see the placement at first maximizes the success rate, and leads to positive reinforcement when they locate the antler.
The next step is to put the dog in the crate, or somewhere secure that they cannot see you place the antler in the yard. Place the antler in the yard somewhere in open space, do not make it hard to see or find just yet. Also, make sure that there is scent on the antler; we want to maximize the success right now. Go get the dog and repeat the exercise. Try to be animated and excited with the dog. You want them to think this is fun! Each time, try to hide the antler in a new place, but mostly open and easy to see and find to start. You will notice over time that the dog will begin to deliberately search the yard and pursue the antler, indicating that they are starting to understand what you want them to do! Only do a couple of repetitions per day, it is crucial to not over-train! As the hunting dog improves, you can start to get creative with your hiding spots (under a bush, near a table, etc.). Do not burry the antler, or put it anywhere that isn’t on the ground, it is not time for that challenging of a hide yet!
By now you are probably catching onto the pattern. When you can hide the antler all over the yard, and the dog comes out enthusiastically and deliberately searching for it with success, you can then start to try tougher conditions. I like to find a field that has some cover, still lower than knee-height. I put a piece of orange survey tape where I hide the scent covered shed and repeat the same drill that I do in the yard. Try to run the dog into the wind (again, maximize their senses) and start with small searches. Bring them to the general area and use your commands. Let the dog hunt and locate the antler. Like the previous drills, over time and after repetition the dog will improve and gain confidence doing this in more cover. Gradually increase the level of cover, and then start trying other areas such as woods or wetlands. This is no different than planting birds for our hunting dogs and teaching them to quarter and locate birds based on scent, using the wind in their favor and so on. By using a set command or verbal queue like “find the bone”, the dog eventually identifies the command and knows the difference between that and “find the bird” (even though they sound similar at first).
Like any of the training we do with our sporting dogs, the dog will improve the more they train and the more they hunt. This process does take time but it is fairly simple in comparison to upland or waterfowl training and needing to use live birds! Sheds can be used over and over, and the wax based scents are very easy to apply. This is simply a search and retrieval game with your dog and with proper introduction of antlers, commands and various conditions that the dog will hunt in the training process is fun and relatively straight forward. Happy training!