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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.

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