It’s too bad bird seasons only last a few months. It seems like fall arrives and brings the excitement of pheasant and duck hunting, but then before you know it winter has set in and all you can do is dream and wait for the next season. Thankfully there’s another kind of hunting you can do during the off-season as soon as the snow starts to melt, and it’s a great way to keep your dog tuned up and in shape, not to mention keeping him physically fit: shed antler hunting. Let me help you and your dog get off on the right foot with this fun exercise.
The biggest challenge in getting a dog interested in looking for shed antlers, especially for an older dog, is the fact that there’s no way a piece of bone is going to be as exciting as a warm, live pheasant or grouse. But my dog, Easton, was 5 years old before we started shed hunting and he ended up winning a shed-hunting championship, so it can be done!
The first thing I do is get a shed antler, maybe a small side from a little basket-rack for a puppy or a little larger one for an older dog, and coat it with a product like Dokken’s Rack Wax to give it a fresh smell. Then it’s a matter of teaching your dog that looking for the shed is all about having fun. Get your dog fired up with a lot of “Find the bone! Find the bone!” chatter and then toss the shed a short distance where it’s easy for your dog to see it.
If you’re doing this with a puppy, it’s not much different than when you’re throwing fun bumpers. You’ll want to keep a check cord on him so he can’t run off with the antler or lie down and start chewing on it. Teach him that the sooner he brings it back to you, the sooner he’ll get to go chase it again.
However, in the same way you don’t overdo retrieving drills with dummies or birds, you want to keep these sessions short so your dog is always wanting more. After your dog has figured out that this is every bit as much fun as looking for birds, and is enthusiastically chasing down the antler and bringing it back, the next step is to get him just as excited about searching for sheds out in the field.
I start with simply placing an antler in plain sight out in the yard, and then I use that same, excited “Find the bone!” command I used during retrieving drills. So, now your dog is going to learn to get out and search for sheds just like he does for upland birds. From there, simply transition to hiding antlers in gradually increasing cover so your dog has to learn to use his nose.
When it’s time to go out for an antler-hunting practice session or an actual springtime shed hunt, you can obviously use whatever command you want, but be sure to differentiate between shed hunting and bird hunting. For example, I use “Find the bone!” versus “Hunt ‘em up!” One reason for this is that during shed hunting you want to give your dog the freedom to cover as much ground as possible, whereas in bird hunting you need him to always be within gun range, say, 20 yards or so.
I’ll go into more detail about this, as well as how to get the maximum efficiency out of your new shed-hunting partner, in my next article.
Always check your local and state regulations related to dog training and the use of game birds on private and public property.