When most people think about the experience of hunting with dogs, they think of small or big game hunting, which involves tracking down and retrieving live game.
However, there is a form of hunting that doesn’t involve any chases or kills: shed hunting.
Shed hunting involves the use of dogs that are trained to track the scent of antlers that are naturally shed by a variety of mammals as the weather changes in winter.
Training your dog to find antler sheds isn’t difficult, but it takes a certain amount of patience and perseverance.
You also need to know how to conduct the training sessions properly to avoid exhausting your potentially injuring your dog. This article is a step-by-step guide to training your dog for shed hunting, so read on to learn how to cultivate the best results.
What Is Shed Hunting?
We’ve already explained that shed hunting involves tracking down the antlers that deer, moose, elk, and caribou shed during the winter months. However, shed hunting is done for various reasons.
Sometimes, shed hunting really is all about the antlers themselves. Antlers can be sold for decorative purposes or carved into various tools and objects, either for retail or personal use.
Another major motivator behind shed hunting is to gain a sense of a particular animal’s movements and behavior. Finding antlers in a certain spot can provide valuable insight for next season’s big game hunt.
Whatever your reasons for shed hunting, you’ll need 2 things: an obedient dog and a well-thought-out training strategy. You’ll have to take care of the former yourself, but if you keep reading, you can find the latter outlined below!
Training A Dog To Find Antler Sheds
Basic Retrieval Training
First thing’s first: if your dog is going to learn how to retrieve deer antlers, they will need to start with the basics of retrieval. The best place to start with this is a simple game of fetch.
Throwing a ball and having your dog bring it back to you is not only a fun and rewarding form of exercise for both of you, but it will also cement the concept of fetching and returning in your dog’s mind.
You’ll also need to provide some positive reinforcement so that your dog associates retrieving an object with a good outcome.
Praise and pats work well as rewards, but treats (in moderation) might be even more encouraging depending on the breed.
Mastering ‘fetch’ is an excellent starting point for shed hunt training, but eventually, your dog will need to know what it’s looking for.
At this point, you might be tempted to move straight to training with real antler sheds, but first, we recommend using a replica. You can find soft replica antlers easily through online retailers.
These are great for transitioning into hunting with real sheds because they’ll allow your dog to recognize the shape and size of real antlers without the risk of injury. Remember, real antlers are sharp!
Using replica antlers also means that you can continue using ‘fetch’ to associate the antlers with retrieval. Since the replica antlers won’t be sharp, there’s no risk to this process.
Once you start this stage of training, we recommend conducting training sessions somewhere with a straight, narrow path, like a hallway. This reduces the potential for distraction and enhances focus.
At this point, you can also start introducing verbal commands to increase word-object association. The exact wording you use is up to you, but something like ‘get the shed’ should do the trick.
Just make sure you use the same wording consistently so that your dog doesn’t get confused.
Training With Real Sheds
When your dog is comfortable retrieving replicas, it’s time to start training with real sheds.
First, let your dog familiarize themselves with what a real shed looks, feels, and tastes like. Allow the dog to feel out the antler with their mouth for a couple of minutes before taking it away.
If you let your dog chew on the antlers for too long, they will associate them with chewing, which could become a problem.
Next, place the antlers somewhere out of sight and give your chosen command as explained in the previous section. When your dog brings back the antlers, reward them with praise or treats.
It’s very important that you NEVER throw real antlers around your dog. They are sharp and a bad experience can easily put your dog off shed hunting, or worse, seriously injure them.
The final stage of shed hunt training is introducing scent. In addition to knowing what real antlers look like, your dog will need to know what they smell like in order to track them down in nature.
Your local hunting or archery store should have bottles of artificial scent designed to mimic the natural scent left behind on antler sheds.
Spray some artificial scent onto a real antler, using gloves if possible so that you don’t confuse your dog by transferring your own human smell to the sheds.
Once you’ve done this, hide the antlers somewhere upwind so that the scent will carry.
Next, give the command, and wait for your dog to get the hang of it. This might take a few attempts, but once your dog has made the association, you’ll be ready to start shed hunting for real!
Frequently Asked Questions
Which Dog Breeds Are The Best For Shed Hunting?
Many medium and large dog breeds can be trained to shed hunt, but some are naturally more adept than others. Golden retrievers, unsurprisingly, are amongst the best shed hunters, as are Labrador retrievers, Beagles, Bloodhounds, and German Shepherds.
English Setters, German wirehaired pointers, Foxhounds, and rotas also make good shed hunters.
How Long Should Shed Training Sessions Be?
Try not to make your training sessions any longer than about 15 minutes, every other day (or 3 times weekly).
This might not sound like a long time, and it’s not, but that’s the point. To avoid making your dog frustrated and overtired, it’s best to keep sessions short and not too frequent.
Does Shed Hunting Affect The Animals?
If your motivation behind shed hunting is purely to collect the antlers (for whatever purpose), you might be wondering if any animals will be impacted.
Even if you are shed hunting strategically in advance of the next hunting season, it’s in your best interest to keep animal welfare in mind so that you don’t inadvertently deplete populations.
After all, the success of your next hunt ultimately depends on there being enough animals to hunt in the first place.
In the process of shed hunting, you might come across groups of elk, deer, and other antler-bearing animals. These animals will already be weak due to the winter climate, so they’re more vulnerable to stress.
Spooking these animals can cause them to overexert themselves which, in a caloric deficit, can lead to death. This may have far-reaching implications for their future population.
The best way to shed hunt without damaging any animal populations is to wait until late spring, when deer, elk, caribou, and moose move on from their wintering grounds.
This way, you can pick up the leftover antlers without disturbing their original owners. Plus, sheds will be easier to find when the snow has melted.
You don’t need to worry about the passage of time affecting the scent of the sheds either. The smell comes from the calcium inside the bone, so it’s deeply embedded in the antlers and will still be there come springtime.