Bird Dogs Hunt Up Shed Antlers
If you’re looking for a fun offseason hobby, and your gun dog loves retrieving anything it can mouth and carry, consider training it to find shed antlers.
In fact, if your dog excels at finding cast-off antlers, you might want to enter it in competitions run by the North American Shed Hunting Dog Association. NASHDA’s annual events resume in April, and feature some of the nation’s top four-legged shed hunters.
Let’s pause for those with no idea what they’re reading. In hunters’ shorthand, cast antlers are called “sheds.” Males in the deer family – elk, moose, caribou, mule deer and white-tailed deer – typically shed their antlers from late November through early spring. Female caribou also grow antlers, and often carry them into June.
After shedding their antlers, bucks and bulls walk around “bald” for two or three months before growing a new matched set in spring and summer. New antlers grow until late August to early September, at which time they harden and shed their exterior “velvet,” which supplied the growing antlers’ blood and nutrients.
Wisconsin’s shed hunters often start searching for deer antlers in January. Their prime time, however, runs from March’s snow-melt through May’s green-up. Some shed-hunting fanatics also visit Canada and Western states to look for elk and moose sheds.
Shed hunting grew in popularity during the late 1900s, and grew even more in the early 2000s as gun-dog owners found yet another fun reason to stay afield with their four-legged friends. After all, shed-hunting dogs find far more antlers than do their handlers.
So says South Dakota’s Tom Dokken (sheddogtrainer.com), a well-known gun-dog trainer with four decades of experience. Ten years ago Dokken expanded his Oak Ridge Kennels business in Northfield, Minnesota, to include training for shed-hunting dogs.
Dokken is also NASHDA’s president, and regularly presents shed-hunting seminars at deer shows and events like Pheasant Fest. He loves bowhunting and scouting for deer, and figured it made sense to train gun dogs to find sheds.
“Being a dog trainer, I figured I should be able to teach dogs to find antlers,” Dokken said. “Deer hunting is a year-round activity for many people. Why not make dogs part of it? It’s a good cross-over hunt. Once bird-hunting closes for winter, it gives them something to do from January to April.”
Dokken said shed-hunting dogs are also popular for family outings, and often turn women onto shed hunting. “It’s more convenient than bird hunting because you don’t need a gun and you don’t need to drive far,” he said. “You can look for sheds near home in parks, golf courses or anywhere deer live. Women like it because they can take their dog for a walk and help it look for sheds. There’s all sorts of elements to this.”
What makes a good shed-hunting dog? “Any dog with strong retrieving desire can play the game,” Dokken said. “If it likes to pick things up and bring them back to you, it can be taught to find sheds. Just make it fun for them. We work with terriers, retrievers, pointing dogs and any other breed with ‘retrieve’ in them. I’d say most are retrieving breeds, but we see a bit of everything in our training and at the trials.”
Dogs are far better than humans at finding sheds, but because antlers have little scent, dogs still find pheasants, ruffed grouse, mourning doves or downed waterfowl more easily.
“A good shed dog finds five to 10 antlers for every one you find,” Dokken said. “When people hunt sheds, all we have is our eyes. A dog uses its eyes and nose. People struggle finding sheds in cut cornfields because everything looks like an antler. Dogs do much better in any setting. They cover a lot more ground in far less time.”
Training a dog to hunt sheds isn’t a snap, but neither is it expensive or daunting if the dog enjoys retrieving. All you need is a backyard, a tube of “rack wax” antler scent, and a couple of antlers, bone or plastic. You can also get books or videos with training tips, and some “rack wash” to scrub your scent from training sheds. Dokken also suggests using latex gloves when handling training sheds to keep them free of human odors. Apply rack wax liberally to antlers when training a new dog, and use less scent as the dog improves.
Dokken said many hunters find shed-dog hunting more relaxing than bird hunting. “I don’t worry about the dog getting out too far, because antlers can’t fly away,” he said. “I just let them range.”
He also said gun dogs won’t lose interest in birds, no matter how much they like hunting sheds. “Antlers can’t compete with a real bird,” Dokken said. “That’s like offering someone a T-bone or a block of wood. When dogs hunt pheasants, they go right into bird mode.”
But no matter how skilled the dog, it can’t find sheds where deer don’t live. You must target feeding areas, bedding areas, trails in between, and south-facing slopes where deer sun themselves on cold winter days.
As with any team sport, the more you enjoy working with your dog, the more you’ll learn from each other.
“People have always loved dogs, but dogs today are with us 95 percent of the time,” Dokken said. “Hunters used to keep their dogs outside in kennels. Dogs today are in the house. They’re part of the family. My wife isn’t a dog trainer, but she’s a passionate shed hunter because of our dog. It’s addictive. They’ll find an antler, and she wants to go back out to find the matched set.”