Teaching your dog to shed hunt is a great way to keep your dog sharp and in shape during the winter. When bird season is over and the late winter months roll around, shed hunting is not only a great activity to build upon your dog’s retrieval skills, but also a ton of fun.
Depending on where you live, deer in your area will likely shed their antlers anywhere from January to March. While there’s an abundant deer population in most areas of the country, even the most experienced shed hunter runs into difficulty spotting the abandoned antlers.
This is why dogs make great shed hunting companions. A well-trained dog can cover four times more ground of even the best shed hunters in town. Not to mention that they can sniff out an antler while his owner cannot.
In addition to simply helping you pick up more sheds, your dog will love shed hunting once they’ve mastered it. It’s a great form of exercise in the colder months and will help build their confidence in retrieving. Once you get through the training process, you’ll be hitting the road with your dog in no time.
A dog with a good nose and a desire to please is a great candidate for shed hunting. Luckily, this describes most dogs–so regardless of breed, your dog is likely to be successful in shed hunting with proper training. Naturally, some breeds have more innate hunting instincts that will adapt even more quickly to training, like Retrievers, Labs, Spaniels, Setters, and Pointers.
If your dog is already an experienced hunting dog, it should be a smooth transition to shed hunting. However, the biggest obstacle for training older dogs is getting them excited to hunt sheds and learn the game. Since they’re used to retrieving birds and ducks, it will take some practice to get them used to the idea of simply retrieving a bone. Younger pups will be more sprightly and willing to learn, but less disciplined. The key for training any dog to shed hunt–old or young–is to be patient and take baby steps.
It all begins with a simple game of fetch. You’ll want to use a real antler, whether it’s one you already have from a previous hunt or one that you’ve purchased. Note that real, authentic antlers are the way to go. Fake ones will not work effectively since the scent of the shed is imperative for the dog to be able to track. You can purchase fresh scent to apply to your shed for training purposes if you need one.
Start your training in your yard or somewhere your dog feels comfortable. Let your dog smell and get familiar with the shed first before having him retrieve. For safety purposes, we recommend grinding down any sharp edges of the shed before introducing it to your pup. Then, leave the shed in plain sight and use a command that is completely different than what you use for finding birds. This way, your dog will realize this is a separate activity from hunting game. Most hunters use “find the bone” or “find the shed.”
The main factor in shed hunt training is praise. Your dog needs to be encouraged to continue retrieving sheds and bringing them back to you directly. When he does, he should be rewarded and praised so he wants to continue retrieving.
Once your dog has mastered the shed retrieve in your yard, start adding small layers of difficulty to build up his confidence and ability to focus. Try covering the shed or having him do a blind retrieve. It’s okay if he doesn’t retrieve right away–he needs to understand the game in its entirety before he’s a pro. By praising him when he succeeds and continuing the “find the bone” command when he’s struggling, he’ll slowly but surely understand what’s expected of him and learn to use his nose to find sheds.
When your dog has figured out that finding and bringing back the shed is just as rewarding as bringing back a fallen bird, you can expand into the training field. Hop in the truck with your pup and your kennel to a wooded area to begin your search. Longer distances and different types of cover are key here so he can follow his nose and eyes to search. Don’t be afraid to let him cover a lot of ground and go beyond the distance he would usually go in bird hunting. Your dog wants to succeed in his retrieval just as much as you want him to, and he needs to have the freedom to explore.
As your dog improves his shed hunting skills, everyone reaps the benefits. Your pup will enjoy the thrill of retrieving and pleasing his owner while you get to go home with more sheds. Give shed hunting a try and you may just find that you and your best friend have found a great way to extend your “hunting” season.
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