If shed hunting is modern deer hunting’s Hot Ticket, then the shed dog is the sport’s Next Big Thing. One well-trained dog will cover five times more ground than the leanest, meanest, shed hunter around. What’s more, a dog can sniff out an antler when his master cannot. It’s little wonder that the popularity of shed hunting pups is increasing by the day.
Perhaps no one has fueled that movement more than Tom Dokken. Dokken, one of the finest gun dog trainers in the country, is also a passionate whitetail hunter. When Dokken realized the growing popularity of shed hunting, he felt he’d found another venue for his training skills. Not only did Dokken succeed, he’s established a country-wide system of shed dog field trials that culminates in a national championship. This spring nearly 100 dogs from across the country qualified.
Most shed hunters have no interest in competition, we just want extra help finding sheds, and perhaps add another season for the hunting dog we already own. Dokken specializes in just such a mission. I visited him earlier this spring and had the pleasure of watching Chase, a two-year old male black lab, find and retrieve antlers like a shed-seeking missile.
“The important thing to remember is, dogs—even highly bred retrievers—do not hit the ground nuts about sheds,” Dokken said as he sprung Chase from his crate. “Training a shed dog is a lot like building a house. We know what we want the finished product to look like, but at the start, we’re just staring at a pile of lumber, siding, and shingles. But if you take things slow and work in a progression, you can have a finished product you’re proud of.”
Dokken then demonstrated four drills that will turn your retriever into a shed hunter.
Drill #1: Intro to Antlers
“The first step is simply teaching the dog that antlers are fun, exciting, and something you want them to find and bring to you,” Dokken says. “If your dog already has solid retrieving training, take a small shed (as in really small…a forkhorn is better than an arching three-point, which has more tines to poke a pup and discourage him), show it to the pup and get him excited about it. Give it a small toss, let him see it land, and make a big fuss over him when he grabs it. Then, call him in and praise him for the retrieve. Just keep that up, making it fun and easy.“
Drill #2: Look Alive
Once the dog is antler-crazy, the next step is teaching him to search out ahead and use his eyes to find a shed. “The toughest part with a pup is to get him off your boot heels and looking on his own,” Dokken says. “We want him to use his eyes as well as his nose, so I make oversize silhouettes of a shed antler and place several of them around a small field. It can be a short-grass field, like a football or soccer field, to start. I drop a shed next to each silhouette.
“As the pup walks the field he’ll notice the silhouette and run over to investigate. When he runs toward the silhouette, I encourage him with a command. I use ‘Find the bone.’ You can use any command, just make sure it’s not one you’re using already. If you’re a bird hunter and you have the dog looking for pheasants with ‘hunt it up’, don’t use that command or he’ll go nuts trying to find a bird. The main thing is that every time he gets to a silhouette, he has the reward of finding a shed.”
Drill #3: Sniff it Out
While there’s not as much scent on an antler as there is on, say, a mallard, Dokken says there’s enough for a dog to key on. “The bone itself has some scent, but the most odor comes from a waxy substance found right at the base of the antler, where it attaches to the skull. Once I have the dog working away from me and hunting well by sight, I apply a liberal dose of ‘Rack Wax’ (sheddogtrainer.com), a product that mimics the smell of this waxy substance, to the tines and beam. Now when I run the dog on the silhouettes, I make sure we’re working into the wind, so the dog has the advantage of his nose. When it’s time to remove the silhouettes, I like to drop the antlers in about the same area for awhile, then extend the distance a bit and make the dog work. Once I feel he’s getting the hang of it, I’ll start dropping antlers in fields with taller grass, so I know he’s really using his nose to find them.”
**Drill #4: Simulate the Hunt **
When the pup is finding antlers by sight, smell, or a combination of the two, it’s just a matter of increasing the difficulty to mimic an actual shed hunt. Plant antlers in different terrain/cover scenarios, treating them liberally with antler wax to start, then reducing the dose as the pup’s skill increases. And take care to wear rubber gloves to reduce your scent, which can lead the pup to the antler as well. You should gradually increased the size of the antlers in your training sessions, so your dog can handle a long-tined shed without hurting himself (during our training session Dokken pulled out a hefty elk shed for Chase to “find,” and while Chase hauled the shed in with enthusiasm, he was clearly confused about the best way to handle such a giant chunk of bone).
Above all, Dokken says, never hesitate to go back to the basics if the pup seems confused or isn’t achieving success. “Keep the sessions short and designed for the dog to achieve success before moving on to the next step. Just keep the praise and enthusiasm high, and before long you’ll have an eager companion for your shed hunts. And trust me, there’s nothing like watching him trot back to you with that first shed.”