“Good girl, Molly, good girl.” I beamed with pride as my young chocolate Labrador retriever brought me a newly shed deer antler. Tail wagging, and charging hard, she couldn’t wait for my kisses and a hard scratch behind her ears. As Molly toppled me over, she dropped the antler near my head and began to lick my frozen face. I love it when she finds whitetail deer antlers, or “sheds.” Most deer cast their headgear sometime in late winter, making spring a wonderful season to pursue the shiny treasures. I also find that by the time spring rolls around, the dogs and I are both a bit pudgy, and require some much-needed fresh air and exercise.
Antlers adorn every corner of my house. Like my caveman ancestors, I’m fascinated by the bones that deer grow every year. In addition to my primal fascination with antlers, I love to train puppies, hunt with dogs, and build lasting relationships with man’s best friend. So I decided to combine my love for both dogs and antlers, and since then I’ve become a passionate shed hunter.
Most dogs are natural retrievers, but must be taught to retrieve antlers specifically. Here’s how I trained my dogs. The day we brought Molly home, instead of trying to fight her instinct to chew, I let her gnaw on a sacrificial antler. A deer antler is good for a puppy; it satisfies the urge to chew on shoes, remote controls, or the wooden trim around your door. Whenever we’d catch Molly chewing something she shouldn’t, we’d merely redirect her by replacing the contraband with her antler. We didn’t yell or spank; we simply redirected. Right out of the gate, Molly knew that antlers were fun.
Next, I taught Molly how to fetch. In a confined area of the house, such as a hallway or a large closet, I’d ball up old socks and we’d play tug of war as Molly chewed on them. Then, I’d throw the balled sock a few feet away, and eventually she’d grab it and bring it back because she wanted to play more. I’d praise her, and continue the game of fetch with these balled socks, throwing them farther and farther each time. I never once chased her, though, as I didn’t want to encourage her to play keep away.
The next logical transition for us was to begin fetching with a tennis ball. Eventually, we took the tennis ball outside. This was when our golden retriever, Bensen, started to get involved in the training. On a side note, I believe it’s critical to have an older, well-trained dog around to show a puppy how things at the house are supposed to work. True to his breed, Bensen is a master fetcher. Outdoors, we use a tennis ball thrower.
Neither Bensen nor Molly had ever hunted for antlers — although I’d stumbled upon a few on my own — so the rest of the training process was new to all of us. To learn about the process, I read as much as I could and spent a fair amount of time watching YouTube videos. I realized I needed to coat the tennis ball with deer antler scent, which I ordered online, to incorporate the dog’s sense of smell with the act of fetching. Then, I began throwing the antler-scented tennis ball upwind into the tall grass, off to the south side of my yard. Not only did the dogs have to look for the ball, but they also had to smell for it.
Off and Running
The next step was to get Bensen and Molly fetching antlers together. We switched to antlers instead of the tennis ball when playing fetch. Once again, I threw them upwind into the grass. After that, I’d hide the scented antler in the yard or the field and let the dogs find it before we’d even start to play fetch. Once the dogs knew to search for the antler smell, we were ready to start shed hunting in the field. Note that antlers tend to lose their smell over time, so I like to touch up old ones with antler scent. On the other hand, freshly shed antlers have a unique odor of deer fur, blood, and other glandular secretions.
Depending on the snowfall amounts, I’ve found sheds anytime from January to April, but March is generally an excellent time to start hunting. The dogs and I search for antlers in relevant areas, such as trails, bedding areas, water holes, fence crossings, and near late-winter food sources. You should be able to find antlers wherever lots of deer roam. As with training, start downwind from the area you think antlers will be. Once the dogs start working, their instincts will take over. With practice, you’ll establish a comfort level with how far ahead your dog can get. I try not to let my dogs out of my sight. If the action is slow, I’ll plant a training antler somewhere and get excited when the dogs find it. I try to make finding any antler a celebration. After all, shed hunting is supposed to be fun.
Last year, both dogs developed quite a sense of competition, and they didn’t want to share credit with each other for any antlers they’d discovered. Whoever grabbed the antler first would come racing back to me as quickly as possible. Their competition made me happy, because the dogs finally understood what we were doing. If you have a dog like Bensen, with the natural drive to hunt and fetch, then taking that animal shed hunting alone would be fine. But if you’re trying to train a puppy, such as I am with Molly, it helps to take them hunting with a more experienced shed dog who knows what they’re doing.
I’m no professional dog trainer, but this training method has worked for me. As with any skill taught to a dog, you should plan on reinforcing it often. I can’t believe how much I need to reinforce simple commands, such as “come” and “sit.” The most important thing to teach your dogs is that fetching is fun and antlers are treasured. Combine the two of them, and you’ve got yourself a shed-hunting partner.
Shed Dog Pointers
Beware of traps. Depending on what state you’re in, shed-hunting season and trapping season may overlap. A leg-hold trap can damage a dog’s leg or foot. It’s possible to release a dog from a neck snare, but some are set to strangle the animal rather quickly. You don’t want your dog running off and getting tangled up in a trap.
Be mindful of deer droppings. While searching for antlers, you’ll inevitably run across piles of fresh deer poop, also known as “shed dog caviar.” My veterinarian says droppings shouldn’t be a concern so long as dogs are up to date on their shots and vaccinations. However, as soon as I notice the dogs eating droppings, I call them off because I don’t care for my dogs eating deer poop and then kissing me.
Ask permission. Always ask permission before shed hunting on anyone’s property. Also, when hunting in a group on private property, proper shed-hunting etiquette dictates that any antlers found belong to the landowner. I’ve also observed situations where a nice buck’s been killed, and everyone in the neighborhood who has shed antlers from that buck gives them to the lucky hunter.
Jason Herbert is a teacher, farmer, and homebrewer who lives on a small family hops farm in southwest Michigan with his wife and four children. Training his dogs to hunt antler sheds has fed his “antler addiction,” and increased his haul each spring.