By Mark Kenyon
Over the past few years I’ve really gotten into shed hunting, as many other whitetail hunters have as well. And over this course of time I’ve also heard more and more about people using dogs to help them find fallen antlers. I was intrigued. I’d wanted a hunting dog for some time, but never been a really hardcore bird or waterfowl hunter. Getting a dog to help me find sheds seemed like a much better fit, as I’d be out shed hunting for a couple months every year any ways. So my search began. And in May of 2011, as many of you probably saw, I welcomed an 8 week old black lab puppy into my family! I now had a shed dog.
That all being said, I know there are many folks out there today looking into this very same idea. How can I train a dog to help me find sheds? Now that I’ve had my dog for almost a year and I’ve gone through this training process, I’d like to share with you how I’ve trained my dog so far. I based my training regimen off of a number of different articles/books I’ve read and tips I’ve been given by professionals such as Roger Sigler of AntlerDogs.com. Hopefully this insight can help you train your pooch to find more bone for you in the future!
The training of my shed dog started the day I got him. My dog Booner’s first toys were small shed antlers. They quickly became some of his favorite chew toys and soon we started miniature games of fetch. After several months of this, Boone’s chewing began to really take a toll on the sheds so we then had to take those away, and only use them as rewards. Lets say Booner would sit and stay, I’d give him the shed for a 5 minute romp/chew. He was pumped! The most important part of this early phase was getting my dog excited about sheds.
The second phase started when Boone was 5 or 6 months old and was really starting to use his nose. Now that he had developed a strong desire for sheds, I started playing a little game of hide and seek with him. I’d give Boone the shed for a second, and then leave in a room while I closed the door and hid the shed somewhere in the next room over. I’d then open the door and tell Boone to “Get the bone!” He then quickly started searching around the rooms and would pretty much always eventually find the bone and then return it to me! Every time he brought me the shed, I’d praise him like crazy. This continued to be a fun game until deer season ended, and it was now time to hit the field.
Once January came along, I began getting Boone out into the field and testing his ability to find sheds outside. This started first in the lawn. I’d first have Boone on a leash, held stationary at a location while I would walk out into the lawn and drop a shed on the ground. I’d then walk back, tell Boone to “Get the bone!” and then release him. He immediately would sprint towards the shed, pick it up and run back. From here we increased the fun by putting Booner inside, while I would then hide the bone in the lawn without him watching. He’d then come sprinting out, quartering across the lawn with his nose down until he saw or smelled the antler!
I should also mention that at this point I had picked up a couple tools that helped me through this later stage of training. First I got my hands on the “DogBone Shed Antler Retrieving Kit“. This included a rubber shed antler, a booklet with some additional training ideas and a bottle of “shed scent”. I began using the rubber antler as a great tool when we moved out into the field, as I could throw this big “shed” off into the corn or grass for Booner to fetch, and not have to worry about him running full speed at it and poking himself on a tine. I also began using the scent to give my old sheds and the fake shed the odor of some freshly dropped bone. By having this strong scent associated with the antlers, Booner began tracking the antlers not only with his eyes but also his nose. I also bought another training booklet from Tom Dokken, a renowned shed dog trainer, and some “Rack Wax” scent, and have used both of these items to refine my training approach.
At this point now Booner had been consistently finding sheds in the yard and retrieving them to me, whether it be the fake antler or real ones. So it was time to move into the real world. I began walking Booner through tall CRP grass and cut crop fields around my house and when Boone was looking the other way, I’d toss the rubber shed antler off into the grass or corn upwind of us. I’d then holler at Boone to “get the bone” and he’d start grid searching the area for the shed. 9 times out of 10 he’d find it! After doing this for a good number of walks I started planting sheds in the field for him to find on our way. I’d head off into the fields before our walk and hide sheds across the field, marking them with a flag or putting them in easy to remember locations. I’d then go back to the house, get Booner and start walking. Again after walking though these areas with the wind in our face he’d almost always find the bone and bring it back. We were on our way!
The First Shed Hunt
Mid February finally hit and it was time to actually start looking for some real sheds, with Booner’s training coming along well I figured it was time to give him his first real try in the field. As we began our first shed hunt, I pulled out his fake shed with scent and tossed it around for him a couple times, encouraging him to “get the bone”. He excitedly chased the shed down every time and brought it back. It was time to get searching. Now on our first time my plan was simple, keep Booner focused by repeatedly telling him to “get the bone”. Occasionally throughout the trip I would hide one of my own sheds in a bush, and then call Boone over to “get the bone”. He’d find it, I’d praise him up and down and he began experiencing some success in the “field”.
On this trip, I did find a shed myself and the best thing to do in this case I believe is wait to pick up the shed, and instead call your dog over. I called Booner over, gave him the command and he started searching. While he actually ran over the snow covered shed a couple times, he eventually sniffed it out and picked it up excitedly. Again this was a way to get Booner excited about his success, and my strong praise made sure he was awarded accordingly.
On this first trip Booner did not find a shed himself, and he hasn’t on the few trips we’ve had since. But I believe he’s definitely heading in the right direction. Having Booner in the field with me has been a blast so far, and when he finally does come trotting back to me with a shed he found, it will be such a thrill. Finding sheds is fun, but with a dog in the equation the enjoyment is so much greater and the antler finding success can be too!
UPDATE 1/30/13: I’m now in my second year of training Booner to find sheds, and I’ve written an updated article detailing how our training regimen has changed! To read that article, click the link below!