By Mark Kenyon
There are few things more exciting than coming over a rise and spotting that ivory sheen glistening in the sun. Across the field, tines sticking up high like a light house emerging from the sea – there it is. An antler. Not much can beat that rush as you first set eyes on the prize you’ve been searching for all day, but I can think of one such thing. And that is the feeling of pride and excitement that can be felt when your own, self trained dog is the one to set eyes on that antler first and brings it to your feet! I’ve been blessed over the past two years to own a dog and train him to shed hunt. It’s been an adventure, to say the least, but one that I’m happy I’ve set off on. Now that I’m in my second year with my dog Booner, I wanted to share with you what our training regimen looks like today and how it differs from the first year of work we went through.
In The Beginning
Training my dog to shed hunt was a journey I first embarked on almost two years ago, and it truly began right upon picking up my pup, Booner, from the breeder. I won’t go into too much detail regarding my first year of training, but I’ll give you a brief overview and you can read the full scoop in my original article if you’d like to see more, Training My Dog To Shed Hunt – Tips and Strategies for Training A Dog To Find Shed Antlers.
So, upon bringing Booner home, I immediately began getting him introduced to sheds. Small sheds were his first chew toys, and over the coming weeks and months Booner learned to love his sheds as favorite toys. From there we advanced to playing fetch or “hide and seek” with small sheds and a larger rubber fake shed from DogBone. After Boone began associating sheds with fun, we took it outside and began playing the same games but in the lawn. Eventually he knew that when I said “Get the bone”, he had to go grab that shed and from there I began hiding the antler in tall grass or brush to make it even more difficult. This continued to progress in difficulty and we trained in this fashion up til February of 2012. From there it was time to hit the woods! We were only able to shed hunt a couple marginal properties in Michigan in 2012, and Booner never found a shed on his own. But there weren’t many sheds to come by in the first place, as we only found one shed here the whole season! Based on his performance in training, I had confidence that if a real shed was in the area, he’d be able to find it.
That said, now we’re in to Year 2 and the pressure is ramping up for Booner. Since the deer season ended on January 1, I’ve been ratcheting his training up and have had him pretty active in the field every day that I could get him out there. From everything I’ve read, heard and learned, the key to really getting a dog to hunt sheds is repetition and reward. A dog needs to know that a shed equals a reward/fun, and he needs this to be reiterated to him time and time again. That said, as 2013 rolled around, I began reintroducing Boone to sheds in the field and reinforcing the positive association as much as possible.
Advanced “Shed Fetch”
To keep Booner interested in sheds, throughout the past year and especially now that we’re into 2013, I’ve been playing a type of advanced “shed fetch” with him. I throw my rubber shed in the tall grass, and I repeatedly praised him up and down every time he is able to find the shed and return it. A key here is that I make Booner sit and stay next to me, and then throw the antler as far as I can into the tall CRP grass.By making him stay next to me, I can launch the antler a good distance away from him and it makes it more difficult to locate the antler just by seeing where it lands. I also use “DogBone Antler Scent” on the antler, which replciates the smell of a shed, and this helps encourage Boone to use his nose when searching for the antler in the grass.
At this point in his training, Booner knows what he’s looking for when I tell him to “get the bone”, so he barrels off into the grass on my command and cuts back and forth until he hits the scent. Despite his expertise in this game, I consistently play it with him to continue making sure he knows that finding that shed and bringing it back is a good thing. Every time he returns with the shed I shower him with love and praise. Needless to say, he loves this game and it’s a great way to reinforce the basics of shed hunting while also giving him some great exercise in the back yard!
Two more tips for this game, the first being that I try to throw the shed into the wind. This way Booner will have a better chance of catching scent of the antler and use his nose to find it. Secondly, if ever Booner has a hard time finding the antler, I will not retrieve it for him. Being a Labrador Retriever he has the inate desire to find and retrieve, so I want to let them come out. If he struggles to find it, I’ll sit and wait for as long as I need to until he finds it. I think this encourages him to continually work harder to find sheds, use his nose more, and actively search in new areas. These are all habits I want him to take into the field.
The “Shed Hunting Obstacle Course”
That said, this is just a warm up. The real training now comes in the form of what I call the “shed hunting obstacle course”. This obstacle course is my attempt to replicate a real life shed hunting situation. Every morning of every weekend day so far this year, I’ve brought 5 real sheds with me into the woods and fields around my home property and hid them in various locales. I wear gloves and rubber boots in an effort to reduce my scent, and I also walk all over the area to minimize Booner’s ability to track just my single scent trail. What I want is for him to be able to pinpoint these sheds by their own scent (which is supplemented by the Antler Scent), not by any scent related to me.
That said, I hide the 5 sheds in various locations in terrain varying from open fields, to thick CRP, to rolling timber. Again, in an effort to keep Boone from following just my trail, I’ll often try to throw the sheds away from me – keeping distance between my scent and where the antler lies. I mentally mark where these antlers are now resting and I’ll then go inside and spend a couple hours taking care of other chores and let the sheds sit. Finally when the time is right, I’ll bring Booner outside, head towards the back yard and tell him to “get the bone”! From the moment the first word leaves my lips, Booner tears off into the field and off he goes in search of antlers.
At this point, given all of the previous training, Booner knows what he’s looking for and he gets right to work. But I continue to put him in this “obstacle course” because I again want to constantly reinforce that he needs to be looking for antlers when we’re out walking, and then reinforce that when he finds them, his master will be happy! This reward/reinforcement method seems to be working because 95% of the time he finds the sheds, no matter how tricky of a location I might have for the antlers. He’ll almost always find the sheds when he gets relatively near one, or directly downwind of one. But on the occasions that he misses one, I’ll continue to walk around the general area, which encourages Boone to follow my lead and he’ll eventually come across the shed. Every time he picks one up, as mentioned before, I heap the praise on him and he is again rewarded for doing a good job. On an interesting side note, I’ve heard that it’s a good idea not to immediately force the dog to give you the shed upon him returning it to you. It’s important the dog associates sheds with fun, so sometimes it’s not a bad idea to let the dog run around with the antler and have a little fun with it.
So there you have it. In year two of training my dog to shed hunt I have worked on repeated positive reinforcement when Boone finds and delivers sheds, and have then consistently practiced a “shed hunting obstacle” course with multiple antlers, simulating a real shed hunting experience as closely as possible.
In the coming weeks I’ll really be able to put Booner to the test, as we head out into the unexplored woods in search of Michigan bone. Even more exciting though is the fact that I’ll be bringing him along for trips to Illinois and Iowa later in February/March. Those trips ought to offer him some of his best chances yet to put his training to use and I can’t wait to see what he finds!
If you love shed hunting, I can promise you that you’ll love having a shed dog even more. There’s just something about watching a dog work, and it’s even better when the dog is working towards collecting you some bone! It’s been an absolute blast training Booner to find antlers, and it’s made the late winter months of shed hunting a lot more fun now that my dog can join me. A dog, in my case a shed hunting dog, truly is man’s best friend!
Have you trained your dog to shed hunt? Have any additional tips? We’d love to hear them! Additionally, if you have any more questions regarding how I’ve been training my dog or questions about your own situations – please ask us in the comments section!