How to Shed Hunt with Your Dog

Snow fell hard on the Bitterroot River as I waded across in the dark. Ice shelves crept off the banks and cracked under my weight as I climbed up the other side. The snow crunched under my feet as I left the first tracks in the snow. 

Paralleling my tracks were four paw prints. Running back and forth, wearing her neoprene vest, my dog Pisgah ran as fast as she could through the new snow. Unfazed by the icy water she just swam through. As we climbed into the blind, made of Lincoln Log style stacked tree branches on the edge of the river, icicles dangled from her fur.  

As the sun rose over the Sapphire Mountains, two mallards flew in. Cupping their wings to land in the decoys. Pisgah saw them first and watched intensely. I drew and fired. My shots broke the silence of the snow-covered winter morning. Both birds fell from the air and Pisgah was out of the blind before the second duck hit the ice shelf. It wasn’t the first bird Pisgah ever retrieved, but I still couldn’t help but smile as my best hunting friend swam through the freezing river to bring back the beautiful drake mallard.  

It was my last day of duck hunting for the year and, as usual, it came with mixed emotions. Time spent bird hunting with Pisgah is priceless. Bird hunting creates a bond with a dog transcending the level of just a pet. I hike and backpack with her during the hunting offseason, but it’s never the same as sitting in a blind, or working a field. 

The last day of bird season is bittersweet. I’m full of memories while I countdown the days until next season.   A new sport, however, is gaining momentum every year adding a few more months of quality hunting time. When the snow begins to melt amid warming March days, shed antlers wait like treasures for your bird dog.

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According to Tom Dokken, the founder of the North American Shed Hunting Dog Association, shed hunting is the fastest-growing of all dog sports. With different contests culminating toward the World Shed Dog Championships, which take place every year. Dokken owns and operates Oak Ridge Kennels in Northfield Minnesota where shed hunting training has gained significant popularity. Dokken said the sport is not only creating more quality time with dog and owner, but it’s simple to get involved in and doesn’t necessarily require a bird dog. He remembers seeing a jack russell terrier making it all the way to the world championship. Labradors are still the preferred breed, however, because of their instinct to retrieve and their learning ability, Dokken said.  

The trick to shed hunting with dogs, according to Dokken, is to make antlers as enticing as a live bird.   Some hunters worry about their dogs losing interest in birds and solely hunting antlers after the training, but according to Dokken, no piece of bone will ever substitute the excitement that comes with a living, breathing bird. 

He also suggests learning who owns which parcel of farmland in your area. Like bird hunting, Dokken said it can be very beneficial to get to know farmers. He said shed antlers cause farmers a lot of grief when they damage farm equipment, or even puncture tires. Not only will you be doing a farmer a favor, but the use of your dog will help scour the area in a way you could never achieve on your own. Saving the farmer the time and effort or replacing tractor tires might even get you an invite back during bird season.

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Preparing your dog to find and retrieve sheds is a simple process, like basic bird retrieving skills

  1. Start using the antler in retrieving drills, throwing it in short distances at first to get your dog accustomed to the new toy, then progress to longer throws. 

2. Using manufactured aids on the antler, like “rack wax” will stimulate the smells of the small amounts of blood and fur that accompany a freshly dropped antler helping the dog recognize a natural scent out in the field.  

3. After your dog is accustomed to retrieving the antler, start hiding it around the house or yard. Gradually increase the distance you hide the bone outside creating longer and longer retrieves.   

4. In case your pooch wants to make a mad dash with the antler, try a cord to it and slowly reel your dog in. Then give it a treat in trade for the antler.   

5. Eventually rid the shed of all human scent. Creating more of a natural shed and less of a toy. Handling it with gloves and washing it thoroughly.

Last Updated August 2018