October 17, 2003
By Steve Hornbeck
After more than a decade of using my Labrador retrievers to help me find whitetail sheds, I can guarantee you the right dog will put a human searcher to shame. Here's how I trained mine to do the job.
In the August 2001 issue, 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 was May 2, 2002, 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.
That antler would be his only toy until after his first "solo" find in the woods, which came two days before he reached the age of six months. In that span, Louis had retrieved the antler hundreds, if not thousands, of times. I'd begun by tossing it only a short distance, but progressed to throwing it as far as I could.
As Louis' age increased, so did the size of the antlers he retrieved. I began to fear he would injure himself on an antler in his exuberance to make the retrieve. Luckily, he sorted out that pointy problem without incident.
I took Louis to obedience classes, where he learned the "sit," "stay" and "come" commands, as well as a few directional hand signals. With new commands, our home game began to take some new twists. While Louis was told to "sit . . . stay," I'd walk around the house and toss an antler onto the lawn. When I returned, I'd give the "find a bone" command. Louis would quickly scent trail me to the antler or find it by combining sight and scent if I'd given it a toss far off my path.
This graduated to making multiple retrieves as I pre-placed antlers in the yard for him to find. Again, I'd command Louis to "sit . . . stay," walk to a point out of his sight and return to give the "find a bone" command. After he'd returned with the first antler, I'd send him out again by repeating the command and pointing in the direction from which he'd come.
Looking back on this, my error was that I never gave Louis small chew bones as a reward, only verbal praise. Two years later, Henry would demonstrate to me what a huge oversight I'd made with his father.
You might be thinking that this training process is a huge time consumer. But our sessions were rarely over 15 minutes, and Louis enjoyed the game as much as his progress inspired my hope. It wasn't long before he was taking just minutes to find up to eight antlers scattered from the lawn to the standing wheat fields surrounding our home. We did this from three to seven days a week.
By the way, Henry didn't require a minute's worth of instruction and exceeded his father's performance simply by joining and observing in the field. This is a phenomenon often seen in pack-hunting hounds on the trail and at the tree their quarry has climbed. I'm grateful it transferred to antler-hunting Labs.
The winter of 1990-'91 found Louis and me roaming the hills surrounding our home in search of freshly fallen bone. On those early trips, when I'd spot an antler I'd walk toward it; then, when only yards away, I'd tell the dog to "find a bone." But I never gave Louis credit for any of these finds, instead chalking them up as "assists."
On March 9, 1991, we were walking down a snow-laden ridge when Louis bounded over a fallen snag and disappeared for several seconds. I hollered after him, "Find a bone, Lou!" No one can imagine how hard I hugged that pup when he bounded back over the snag with a 65-inch 5-point shed with a kicker point off the eye guard.
Louis obviously enjoyed the squeeze, because that day he made three more unassisted finds. As the saying goes, "the floodgates were open." Later that spring, I'd even find him digging antlers from under trees that had fallen on them over the years!
I once threw a rock way down a hillside toward an antler I could see, because I didn't want to have to climb down there myself. I repeated the toss three times, in each case telling Louis to "find a bone." It took three times until he finally got to the antler I could see — because the first two times, he found other sheds before he got to the one I'd sent him after. Three bones in the bag: two for Louis, one for me.
It became a real challenge to beat that dog at finding sheds. In fact, in a 12-antler day — and we had many — Louis would find nine to my three. Frequently we'd exceed 20 bones in a day. Rarely did I lead in the count — but never did I care!
Paula, my wife-to-be, was working out of state at the time, and she thought my stories were just "proud papa" talk until the day she came home briefly and took a walk with Louis and me. That day, at barely over six months of age, Louis made his first unassisted retrieve of an elk antler!
On that same hike, I spotted a deer antler several yards west of us down a ridge. I did the rock-throwing send-off I'd used in the past, and Louis headed west. Soon, he returned with the shed.
I repeated the command to "find a bone" as Paula and I headed down a ridge to the east. You might expect that a young pup would have followed his humans, but Louis abruptly headed back down the west ridge to retrieve the mate to the antler he'd just brought me. This dog was for real!
A critical point to recognize, in my view, is that most of a dog's antler finds are of an olfactory nature. And, as any bear, lion, coon, hog, deer or bird hunter knows, when it comes to dogs' scenting abilities, some days are diamonds, others stone. I've seen Louis and Henry walk past sheds that were mere inches from their heels. The scent pattern just wasn't right for them on that day in that place.
There are, however, some tricks to try. For instance, here in Idaho, in any area of east-west canyons there's a north-facing slope covered with deep forest or other heavy vegetation. The south-facing slope across the canyon gets much warmer as the sun rises. The air rising off the south-facing slope creates a void in the draw separating it from the ridge to the south. Thus, the cooler air on the north-facing slope falls throughout the day. Hunt with your dog low on the north-facing slope to keep his nose well fed with that wonderful aroma of antler! Of course, in flat country it also pays to keep the wind in a dog's nose.
With Louis' first litter of pups, we became a two-dog family. It was amazing to see Henry follow his dad's lead and eventually surpass his ability.
It finally got to the point that Louis couldn't bring me an antler. Henry would intercept him and steal the antler so he'd get the small chew bones I'd started filling my pockets with. One day, as I was getting out of my pick-up to start a day of antler hunting, I heard them back in the timber "growling it out." Sure enough, Henry proudly came carrying the first find of the day out to the road!
One day I actually found myself unable to travel on through the woods, due to a constant parade of Labs bearing antlers. In fact, I sat in one spot and tied on nine sheds before the dogs quit bringing them from all directions!
A concern I often hear voiced is, "If I'm going to own a bird dog, won't teaching him to hunt antlers diminish his drive to hunt birds?" I don't think that's a problem. Henry carries the paper in the morning, the mail in the afternoon and my dirty socks to the laundry. Louis was as happy bringing me my work gloves as he was a cold beverage.
One of Henry's most amazing finds came at the end of a long day, after I'd taken the wrong ridge through a dense stand of lodgepole pine. With me unable to see any landmarks, we ended up miles from the vehicle with many steep canyons to cross before dark.
The dogs and I were exhausted. However, as we descended toward the pickup, Henry got a snoot full of something sweet. He climbed well out of sight and returned with a great antler I otherwise never would have seen. I was in awe of his having that much desire to find an antler at the end of a day, after his tongue had been close to his toes for hours. Another time, Henry almost knocked me down as he frantically dug in the deep grass at my feet to uncover another antler I'd never have found without him.
To dogs, "bone is bone is bone." If you train dogs to hunt sheds, they'll bring you not just antlers but an array of other bones. Of course, some things in the woods I'd rather my dogs not eat, so I taught them the simple command, "Drop!" It should be given sternly but not in a punishing tone.
Of course, dogs have personalities. Louis always was an aspiring "alpha," but I stood in his way. He challenged me almost daily with bristled hair, a curled lip and guttural growls, but we sorted out our differences over the years. Henry, on the other hand, is the consummate "omega" type: subservient and eager to please, even though he knew he was at the bottom of the pack. While Louis would barrel off to who knows where and return with a look of defiant independence, Henry would glance up a hill or down a draw and look to me for approval. Told to "find a bone," he then might go 100 yards or more to retrieve what his magical nose had detected.
If you train a dog to find sheds, you soon could be having the time of your life — and possibly enjoy more antler-hunting success than you've ever imagined. Try it and see.