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Stand Hunting

A Nose for Shed Antlers

by Steve Hornbeck   |  September 22nd, 2010 10

Photo courtesy of Steve Hornbeck

In a previous NAW article, I referred to my antler-hunting Labrador retrievers. Since then, I’ve frequently been asked how I “got them to do that.”

Louis was my 11-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever, and one of his sons is 9-year-old Henry. Louis’ last day when the tumors in his heart finally invaded his lungs. He was buried with an antler the size of the one he’d begun training with as a pup.

The same month Louis passed away, Henry and I took a walk through the northern Idaho woods where he’d made his first unassisted antler discovery. Incredibly, one of the few antlers we found that day was off the same buck that had grown Henry’s first solo find. The shed Henry picked up on that trip had lay there for at least 12 years but was still in almost perfect condition!

Yes, some of the finds these two dogs made over the years were amazing, and they proved to me that the right canine companion can greatly boost shed-hunting success.

The selection of the Labrador retriever breed for my first effort at teaching a dog to hunt antlers was no accident. A local arson investigation conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms resulted in a newspaper article that focused on a Lab named Radar.

Since Radar had left his litter, he’d never been allowed to eat until he’d been exposed to the smell of some fire excellerant. This could be gas, lighter fluid, etc. As Radar aged, his training progressed to the point he could mark a single drop of gasoline in a field of 100 acres! He eventually was able to find that spot even after a fire of thousands of degrees of heat has passed over the area.

The power of a dog’s nose is something we humans can’t even begin to comprehend. I marvel at the ability of some of the top-notch cougar and bear hounds that I’ve seen strike a track crossing a recently oiled road. Not only can they pick up the trail, they can do so while standing on a dog box seven feet off the ground in a pick-up bed! What’s more, the pick-up is usually traveling between 5 and 20 miles per hour! And, the pick-up is inundated with the fresh scent of chainsaws, gas and oil!

Why did I choose to train Labradors as “antler hunters,” instead of another breed? Their prevalence in customs and BATF work and for use as seeing-eye dogs, along with the breed’s overall trainability, gave me confidence in selecting them. But I think many breeds could be taught this skill. Possibly some would be even better suited and have better endurance, especially in the hotter days of late spring.

I’m not a dog trainer, so I knew from the start that I’d need help in even basic training of my first shed-hunting dog. It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating: The greatest limitation on a dog’s ability to learn is its master’s ability to teach. The obedience classes I attended with Louis when he was a pup resulted in some of the best-spent money that ever left my hand.

Louis joined us on the 49th day of his life, said to be the optimal time to remove a pup from its litter. The first time he set foot in my yard, he made a two-foot retrieve of a forkhorn antler that was waiting at the end of our sidewalk. Within minutes of Louis having entered my life, his education was under way.

  • Aaron

    Incredible journey my friend, those dogs are top-notch! I have been training my Weim to find antlers, he would rather chew on them over his food any day.

  • JC

    I have a female Pitbull she is 7 months old. Do u think that i could get her to shed hunt please comment back thank you

    • BigLipGrabber

      I have a blue dominion, razors edge pit. He found his first shed on a routine non shed hunting walk in the woods ! I have been working more with him since and seems quite enthusiastic about it.

  • dog guy

    probably, yes

    • JC

      thanks im trying, she is just really stubborn

  • Nathan

    I just got a 9 week old yellow male lab. He does great with voice commands so far. Come, sit, etc. Seems like a very smart pup. I'm wanting him to be able to shed hunt. No ducks or geese. Just hunt antlers. I've kept the other puppy toys away from him and only let him play with the antlers. In your opinion what is the first step I need to do to put him on the right track. I don't want to guess and be teaching him something that would mess him up in the future.

  • ryan

    i have a red bone coon hound. do you think i can get him to hunt sheds without going after coons

  • cooter

    I've got an English lab that's six months old and he lives for shed antlers. I'm ate up w hunting mature bucks and their shed antlers. I've been training him in the house and our cow field but being that it's late Feb. I can't see taking him to the woods to scare off the big boys before they shed. I hope and pray we will have a great first season!!!!! Good luck to all ya'll fellow shedders.

  • Shaye Blanton

    i got a red nose pitbull about 1 1/2 yrs old she has actually done really well with finding sheds mostly just working in the yard or the woods near the house id lay some out at night then in the morning have her find them getting ready to take her into the words with me this month and see how she does. mostly doing like u did with the find ur bone command or wheres the deer and she picked it up quite fast

  • Nicole

    I have a black n tan and a beagle. The black n tan hunts coon and the beagle has never hunted before. They are both about 2 years old. Im just wondering if i should train them both at the same time or if I should just train one at a time and if so which one.

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