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As deer hunters continue to look for ways to extend their season, shed hunting is becoming increasing popular. It didn’t take long for shed hunters to figure out using a dog while looking for antler sheds greatly increases the odds of finding those coveted shed antlers. One of the leaders in shed dog training is Tom Dokken of Northfield, Minnesota. If you’ve ever studied any kind of dog training, chances are you’ve heard of him. We had a chance to talk with Tom about what it takes to train a great shed hunting dog.
Dokken loves hunting birds with his dogs and so do many of his customers. Bringing that same know-how and ambition to shed hunting is a no-brainer. “There are so many people who have been hunting sheds for years, and doing it on their own. It’s just a natural progression to have the dog out there doing the same thing. These animals are capable of doing so many things from drug detection to all different sorts of scent detection, so why not use their god given abilities to go out and have some fun and find some shed antlers?”
Most shed hunting dogs are retrievers, but Dokken says just about every breed is capable of hunting and finding antlers. “Any dog can do it. They all have the ability to smell. But one of the prerequisites is you want to have a dog with some retrieving instinct. Because obviously when you’re out there hunting for shed antlers you would like, if they come upon an antler, to pick it up and bring it in.”
Most people Dokken talks with at seminars want to know if they can use their existing hunting dog as a shed hunter. He believes hunting sheds with your bird dog is a great idea and it won’t hurt their bird hunting abilities. “The dog will never take a shed antler over a bird. It is something you can cross train on and it goes quite well.”
Dokken says a lot of people think training a dog to hunt sheds is difficult. He breaks the training down into simple steps. “Think about that antler… as just like your training dummy or the ball you throw for your dog. If your dog has instinct, once you make it a game where you can toss that antler and he’ll pick it up, you’re really pretty much on your way.”
After teaching the dog to pick up a thrown antler, Dokken will simply place the antlers in the yard and send the dog to retrieve them. He makes it increasingly difficult for the dog to find them as it advances in the training. However, he says it is important not to make it too hard. Confidence is important. “The big key is making sure the dog is always successful and he is finding antlers. As you get better you will need more than one antler. You’ll need up to a half dozen or more.”
The main difference between hunting for sheds and hunting birds is the amount of scent. Dokken says it’s important to work into the wind. There isn’t much scent on an antler compared to a bird. “The smell that comes off of these antlers is at the base where it falls off the deer’s head when they’re shedding in the winter time. It’s not the antler itself.”
Dokken says the biggest obstacle in training a dog for shed hunting is finding a good place to hunt them. “Where you find them is going to be a big part of if your dog is going to progress or he’s just going to get bored because he’s not finding anything. Shed antlers aren’t around every corner and they’re not necessarily where you see deer during the hunting season.”
Deer often spend their winters closer to food sources and don’t roam as much as they do during the summer and fall. Dokken says farmers and conservation officers are good resources to find yarding areas. However, he stresses that shed hunters should leave deer alone until after the snow melts. Pushing deer out of yarding areas during the winter can weaken or even kill deer when they are at their most vulnerable.
One of the great things about shed hunting with dogs is the social aspect. Some wives and kids have never seen the family bird dog work. Shed hunting is something the entire family can enjoy together. “This is all about having fun. This is something you do in the spring when nothing else is going on. It’s a family event. Everybody thinks this is a guy thing. But this is family. This is taking the kids out. This is mom going with and just spending a day out in the woods having some fun.”
Bird dogs often compete in field trials. Dokken created a competition for shed dog hunting as well. It is currently hosted on the grounds of Oak Ridge Kennels, his property in Northfield, Minnesota. “These are timed events where there are a predetermined amount of antlers that are put out in normal shed hunting scenarios.”
The first event was held in 2011 and Josh Miller of New Richmond, Wisconsin won the NASHDA World Championship open event with his dog, Easton. Josh is a dog trainer and he currently works as a regional sales manager for SportDog. Josh began shed hunting as an extension of his deer season.
He said he started bringing his dog with him while hunting sheds just to get the dog out of the house. Miller noticed his dog would find old tennis balls in the strangest places. He thought if the dog can find tennis balls, why can’t he find sheds? “I never dreamed it would grow from that idea to what it is now with that same dog becoming the world champion.”
Miller says his dog, like most others, are not solely used to hunt sheds. They are usually first taught to hunt birds and are then introduced to hunting sheds. As a trainer, there are some differences. “When you are using a dog to pheasant hunt, that dog is looking for a scent trail. That bird has been walking around and leaving a scent trail.
Antlers obviously don’t leave a trail. Where ever that antler falls, it is not going to move from that spot. So we’re not training the dog to look for a scent trail, we’re looking for a scent… One of the hardest things to do is get them to zero in on that little bit of scent there is on an antler.” Miller says as a handler, using the wind is much more important while shed hunting than bird hunting.
Competing is a big part of how trainers compare their skills and their dogs. Miller says a shed dog competition is similar to a bird hunting field trial except there are no judges or subjectivity. It’s simply how fast your dog can find the sheds. “You have a 15 minute time limit… Each dog will get points for finding the shed and retrieving the shed. Those dogs that find and retrieve those six sheds, then get a time. The dogs with the best times for each course get placed in that order for the championship.”
Miller is a professional dog trainer but he says shed hunting and competing is something anyone can do. “One of the coolest things about this sport is it doesn’t have to be a bird dog. It doesn’t even have to be a deer hunter. There are plenty of people in this sport that just like getting out in the woods and have a dog at home. It doesn’t have to be a specific breed. It’s open to anyone that has an interest.” Miller says the best way to introduce yourself to shed dog training is to attend an event and see what it’s all about.