Ten years ago it would have been difficult to find anyone who used a dog to hunt shed antlers. Today, not so much. Not only do shed dog breeders exist across the country, it’s also possible to visit your local sporting goods store and purchase training tools specifically designed to teach dogs to seek out and retrieve cast antlers.
These tools, along with a basic understanding of how dogs go about finding bone, can be used to turn any dog into a shed antler hunter. This is especially true if you have an established bird hunter who happens to possess a strong retrieving drive. Better yet, this can all be done without dulling any of your dog’s finely honed bird hunting skills.
To begin, simply introduce your dog to an antler. This can be done through the use of an actual shed antler or a store-bought foam training antler. If your dog is cagey about carrying around hard bone, the store-bought softy is the way to go. Otherwise, choose an antler that is small enough for your dog to easily pick up. If your training antler has long, thin tines, consider sawing them off so they won’t accidentally poke your pup during an enthusiastic retrieve.
Once your dog shows interest in an antler through a game of fetch or by skittering it across the floor, advance his training to the backyard. Hide the antler in plain sight and say, “find the bone.” Like any dog training, make the initial stage as easy as possible to ensure success and foster confidence.
Next, hide the antler where your dog cannot see it in some knee-high grass. Your pooch will inevitably key in on the scent from your hands, which is fine. The point is to get the dog to course downwind while not only sniffing for your scent, but also looking for an antler.
Eventually, you’ll want to wear latex gloves and spray the antler with scent-eliminating spray. This may confound your dog at first, however, if you make it easy enough to find the antler then it won’t be a problem. This is a good time to add some of the commercial antler scent that is on the market for more realism. These scents mimic the waxy substance found at the base of a freshly cast shed and offer the only identifiable scent of the largely scent-free bone.
You’ll notice your bird dog will probably go about antler hunting with his nose leading the charge because that’s how he hunt birds. However, over time you’ll probably see your dog charge across the yard to check out random light-colored objects like a styrofoam coffee cup blown from the street or a random newspaper page. This tells you that your dog has learned to use his eyes as well as his nose, which is crucial during a shed hunt. Some trainers will push this further by using cardboard silhouettes of antlers throughout the various training phases to get their dogs to focus on a large wall of tines sticking out of the grass. They’ll place a treat or a small, real antler at the base to solidify the drills.
Focus on the olfactory and visual aspects of shed hunting through simple drills and it won’t take long for most hunting dogs to realize that looking for antlers is fun, and actually finding some bone and bringing it to hand is even better. At that point you can pat yourself on the back knowing you’ve added a new trick to your pup’s arsenal and have extended the “hunting” season an extra three months.