Dogs shed hair, males of the deer family shed antlers. Granted, not a perfect analogy—antlers are dropped only once a year, after all—but it’s one way to remember that antlers, like dog hair, are renewable resources. Working with dogs to find these “sheds” is an increasingly popular activity. Many dogs love to chew on them (serious shed-dog enthusiasts don’t allow their dogs to do so, however, because it reduces their finding value with the dog), and hobbyists enjoy crafting with them.
Deer typically lose their antlers from late winter to early spring, which makes summer an ideal time to train your dog to find the bony castoffs. The first bit of good news is that the training is neither difficult nor expensive. The second is that many types of dogs can become skilled at shed recovery; it’s not breed-specific. Any dog who’s interested in retrieving and has a good nose—a very large category!—can do it.
“There are advantages with certain [types] of dogs, such as those with a natural retrieve, [but the dog] doesn’t have to be a Lab,” says Jeremy Moore, Wisconsin-based professional shed-dog trainer. “Plenty of dogs love to play fetch. It’s not overly complicated. You’ve got to have a plan and the right tools.” Moore advises training one element at a time and keeping it fun.
Before beginning shed training, however, it’s a good idea to work on a few foundation skills. For safety, Mike Stewart—professional dog trainer and owner of Wildrose Kennels, who has been training dogs for shed retrieval since 2005—recommends that you work with your dog to brush up on obedience. Sit and stay, of course, as well as recall; your dog needs to know how to stay with you in the wide open environments where most sheds are found. Integrate basic obedience training into your summer routine, both indoors and out and in a variety of locations.
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It’s also important to home in on the retrieve. One way to do that—besides throwing a tennis ball—is to have the dog watch as you walk about 10 feet out in a straight line, place the ball on the ground, return and send the dog to fetch it. This helps develop her trailing memory, bridging the gap between retrieving a thrown ball and retrieving a ball—and later, antlers—on the ground.
Next, acclimate your dog to the smell of antlers by adding liquid antler scent, a mixture of deer blood and bone. Dot scent on a tennis ball and play familiar retrieval games. Use a green tennis ball and you’ll also have a tool for advanced training.
Stewart advises desensitizing your dog to other animals and wildlife, or you’re likely spend your shed time with the pup in pursuit of a squirrel. One way to do this is to train in public parks where there are plenty of distractions: birds, squirrels, other dogs, people.
Once your dog’s basic obedience is up to par, it’s time to train shed-specific skills. With a little patience, you can have a lot of fun. (A shout-out here to Jeremy Moore, who developed the three steps that follow.)
One: Condition the dog to the shape of the antler. Moore uses a safe, flexible dummy antler. “If [a dog] gets poked or jabbed, you’re going to have a dog who shies away from antlers.”
Play fetch games using the dummy. Start inside in a closed-door hallway, then take it to the back yard. Keep it fun and praise lavishly (baby talk is allowed). If heat is an issue, practice water retrievals by tossing the dummy into a pool or lake. The dummy floats, and your dog will connect the retrieve with a positive experience.
Two: Work the dog’s nose. Building on previous training, add antler scent to the dummy. Enjoy more games in retrieval mode, and have a party when your dog delivers.
Those green, antler-scented tennis balls come in handy at this stage. Roll one into green grass cover and tell your pup to find it. Voila! You’ve helped her connect with a familiar shape and added nose work.
“Associate the scent with the same reward [your dog] got for shape,” says Moore. Reward. Reward. Reward. Keep it exciting—don’t make it just another job. Your dog will gain confidence through consistent training.
Three: Condition your dog to the feel of real antlers. Called the “finishing antler,” this specimen should be very close to the dummy in size and shape to provide a smooth transition to the real deal. (Natural scent is found at an antler’s base, so don’t use a cut-off piece.) Enhance the specimen by adding a generous amount of antler scent.
Do familiar retrieving games, connecting the finishing antler with a positive activity. When you’re confident that your dog is comfortable with real antlers, place a few on the ground and in grass cover (just as they would be found in nature) and instruct her to find them.
From your back yard, move the game to a neighbor’s back yard or a park. Antlers cue her that it’s a retrieval party waiting to happen. However, resist the temptation to go big right away.
“Set your dog up for success. Don’t go from your back yard to a 40-acre field. Don’t overwhelm the dog with distractions,” Moore says.
As your dog’s training progress, widen the training environment. As Moore notes, “If the only place you train is your back yard, [your dog] will be very good finding shed only in the back yard.”
Finishing a shed dog combines exercising the body and engaging the mind. Mike Stewart takes the dogs he’s training out on acreage and walks in a zigzag pattern, cueing direction with his hands. Zigzagging covers more ground and provides dogs with a better chance for finds. If he sees that a dog is going flat and losing focus, he waits until she’s not looking and tosses out antlers he’s brought with him to renew her interest.
“Sooner or later, she has to find something, or she’s going to quit. Make finding shed special,” Stewart says. Pump your pup with success.