"We give dogs time we can spare, space we can spare and love we can spare. And in return, dogs give us their all. It's the best deal man has ever made." — M. Acklam
It is believed that somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago humans first domesticated wolves, beginning the evolutionary process that has now led to the domestic dog.
Since that time, dogs have become household pets, security guards, bomb-sniffing crime fighters and even blood trailers. And most recently, whitetail hunters have found a new use for man's best friend: shed hunting.
If you're an avid shed hunter, a dog trained to find sheds may be just what you need to take your antler collection to the next level.
That said, here's a high-level rundown of what you need to know to get started training your own antler finding, four-legged friend.
Picking A Dog
If you've decided you want a shed hunting dog but don't have a dog yet, it's time to pick a new pup. Numerous breeds of dogs can become fine shed hunters, but typically hunting breeds with a strong desire to work — and with powerful noses — are the best.
In discussions with experienced shed hunting dog trainer Roger Sigler, he repeatedly returned to the Labrador Retriever as the breed with the qualities needed in a shed hunting dog. They are tireless workers, love to hunt, have great noses and naturally want to retrieve for their owners.
When picking the actual puppy from a litter, make sure to look for one with a good amount of energy and a curious, explorative attitude. You want a dog that's willing to chase after a ball, follow you around the yard or wrestle and play with his brother and sisters.
Introducing A Dog To Sheds
Once you've got your dog, the first step in training is to get him/her introduced to antlers. This is a crucial step, and one that will set the foundation for everything else in the future. You want to make sure your puppy realizes, early on, that antlers are fun.
That said, get your pup started by giving him a small antler as his first chew toy. Use a tiny spike or fork horn as your pup's first real toy, and play with it frequently.
After your dog has become accustomed to his antler chew toy, the next step you'll want to take is to play fetch with the antler in your house. You can do this with your small antler, or purchase a rubber antler dummy, such as those produced by DogBone, which reduce the possibility of your pup getting poked by a hard tine.
Start small and reward your dog with lots of praise and treats when he starts to get the hang of retrieving the antler for you.
When you toss the antler, give your dog a command, such as "get the bone," and always say this when your dog heads out to retrieve the antler. You'll want to continue this throughout your pup's training so that eventually he'll begin to associate this command with the behavior you want.
Once your pup has taken to fetching an antler, it's time to head outside and up the ante. First, begin just by transferring your shed fetch game outside into the lawn.
At this point I definitely recommend switching to the rubber antler dummy, as your dog will be gaining a lot more speed as he runs up to the antler. The worst thing to have happen at this point is for them to take a tine to the eye or face and be scared of sheds for the rest of their life.
I'd also begin adding some synthetic "antler scent" to the dummy. You can purchase a liquid antler scent from DogBoneHunter or a wax based scent from Dokken's Dog Supplies Inc. This added scent will help your dog begin associating the visual of an antler with the scent.
When outdoor fetch with the antler dummy becomes second nature, it's time to start playing "shed hide and seek." Put your dog inside the house, and then place the antler somewhere in the yard. Now let your dog back out, and bring him within view of the antler. Give him his command, such as "get the bone," and then release him.
If you've followed all these instructions up to this point, your dog should be dying to get that antler, and he should more than likely see the shed and bring it back for you. Repeat this process over and over, varying where you hide the shed, thus making it more difficult each time.
Eventually you can increase to several antlers spread out and hid in various areas of the yard.
In The Field
When shed hide-and-seek finally gets old, it's time to head into the woods and fields to work through some final training exercises. At this point you're essentially playing a more advanced form of shed hide-and-seek, but with more antlers, and in real whitetail habitat such as CRP, cut crop fields and timber.
Several hours before you plan on taking your dog out, head into the field with a collection of antlers. Try to keep these antlers as free of human or other scents as possible — except for the synthetic antler scent you add.
Strategically place these antlers in various spots throughout the property you have to train on, and then either mark these spots in a GPS or with some kind of marker that you'll be able to identify.
Wait a few hours and then bring your dog out this location. Get him revved up by letting him play with another antler for a bit and then head out into the field, giving him the "get the bone" command.
When you're just starting out, you'll want to help your pup out (if needed) by walking towards the known locations and making sure your dog is headed in the right direction. As your dog finds the antlers, which he should be at this point, heap the praise on him as you go.
Continue different variations of this training exercise until your dog is consistently finding the antlers, even when well hidden and left out for long periods of time.
At this point, you can head out and finally shed hunt! When I'm shed hunting, I always like to bring along an old antler of my own — so if we don't find any that day, I can at least toss this shed somewhere for my dog to find. This keeps the dog involved, and reinforces that he's doing a good job and that each time we head out shed hunting, it's a good time.
Training a shed dog can be an incredibly fun and satisfying endeavor for the avid shed hunter. As a bonus, if you do your job right and give your pup lots of love, he might just add a few shed antlers to your collection. That may just be the best deal a shed hunter ever made.
First time shed hunter Amber found these impressive racks. Just goes to show that it doesn't matter if it's your first or tenth time, success is all about getting afield.
A Winter Shed Head
Ben Williams found this massive 173-inch gross, 3.5 mainframe set in New York. Nice find, Ben!
Central Illinois' Finest
Rain, snow, or shine, sheds are out there for you and Brian Gauge to find. Brian found this nice set in west central Illinois.
Shed Hunter in Training
Shed hunting is a great way to get your kids out in the field while providing an excellent opportunity to teach them a thing or two. Casey Charlton's 4-year-old son looks like he's going to be a full-time shed hunter before long.
Shed Hunting Like a Pro
Craig Bell shows off his impressive 10-pointer set.
A Shed Head
Shed Head's Craig Bell with yet another impressive set of sheds.
Ethan Bailey's Rack Room
Ethan Bailey certainly knows his whitetails.
The Great Anticipation
Jeff Schoeps with a great set he picked up. This buck carried match for eight days and had Jeff walking with great anticipation.
Collect Your Thoughts
Joe Kelly with the biggest set from his collection. Found on his private property, 214 1/8 in.
Jason Bethel: "First ones of the year here in Kansas, what a find! Match set." Awesome!
Start 'Em Young
Kelly Lynn starting out the little one right! Now that's parenting!
Matt Davis: "It's a shame when you find quality dead heads on your farm."
All Grins Here
A happy Ryan Dreher poses with his matching 7-point set.
Breaking the Ice
An 8-point set like this is enough to bring a smile to any shed hunter's face.
Know Where to Look
Often times bucks will bed just off the edges of food sources, such as corn, bean or other agricultural fields during the night while feeding and drop their antlers.
A Needle in a Haystack
Sometimes the best place to find sheds is near the bedding area of a buck. Look for thick cover, cedars and other conifers, or south facing hillsides. All of these types of areas can be popular bedding areas during the winter. This shed hunter obviously did his homework.
The Rack Room
It won't be tough finding room for a giant set like this. Very nice!
The Big Score
Finding matching sheds like this 20-point set is what shed hunting is all about.
Craig Bell shows that with persistence comes great results.
Regardless of the temperature, now is the perfect time to get afield and find those sheds!
The First Set is the Toughest
Nothing breaks the ice quicker than finding your first sheds of the year. For Shelby here, this rack looks to be the first of many in Kansas.
Take a Load Off
Is there anything better than laying down after a hard days work shed hunting? We didn't think so.
Hunting for All Ages
Tyler Treft: "My daughter natalee found this matching set today in Kansas. And found 7 all together." Wonderful to see kids out and about. Great set Natalee!
Fetch the Bone
Zachary Pearson and his lab doing some training with the shed she found last year.
Mark Kenyon runs Wired To Hunt, one of the top deer hunting resources online, featuring daily deer hunting news, stories and strategies for the whitetail addict.