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Training Your Dog for Shed Hunting

Here's a 6-step plan for teaching your pup to retrieve shed antlers.

Training Your Dog for Shed Hunting

Locating and retrieving shed antlers keeps dogs in hunting shape during the off-season. (Author photo)

Shed hunting continues to grow in popularity among deer and elk hunters. If you’re looking to take your shed-hunting success to the next level, train your dog to hunt for them alongside you.

While picking up sheds, or any bones, comes naturally to most dog breeds, there are things to teach a pup that will help it become more productive in finding shed antlers.

As with all things related to dog training, starting them early in life, and maintaining consistency and discipline, are keys to long-term success.

1. START ’EM YOUNG

When your pup is 8 or 9 weeks old, saw off an antler tine from a deer or elk rack and give it to your dog. If you don’t have an extra rack, antler pieces can be purchased online or at a pet shop.

Avoid giving the pup a big shed with multiple points, eye guards and burrs, as you don’t want it to get poked and have a bad experience. Lie down with your pup, get it excited and let it mouth the antler. As the pup chews the antler—taking in its smells and feeling the hard texture—rub its ears, back and neck and offer words of support. Encourage it to bite, lick and chew on the antler. This will get the pup excited and send the message that it’s okay to behave this way.

2. SHEDS AREN’T TOYS

After a minute or two, take away the antler. If the pup starts to lose interest sooner, quickly move the antler around, getting the pup excited about it, then take the antler away from the pup when it’s excited and wanting more. This will build a desire.

Scott Haugen, Pups with shed antler
Introducing pieces of antler when pups are 8 or 9 weeks old is a great way to get them used to the smell and texture of a shed. (Author photo)

“One of the biggest mistakes is leaving the pup with an antler and walking away,” says Jess Spradley of Cabin Creek Gun Dogs, a noted trainer and breeder of pudelpointers, a breed known for its shed-hunting ability. “Antlers are not chew toys and a pup should not be left alone with them. It’s up to you, the trainer, to engage the pup and control its level of interest and interaction.”

A few days later, repeat the session, making sure to lie with the dog and not let it run off with the antler. The goal is to get the pup excited about the shed and recognize it, not take possessive ownership of it. After a minute or two, take the antler away while the pup is wanting more.

3. THE TRAINING BEGINS

“Once a pup gets excited about seeing and smelling the shed, hide it in the yard,” says Spradley. “Place it so the pup can easily find it after walking a few feet, and reward it with praise once it locates the shed and picks it up. Don’t let the pup run off with the shed or start chewing on it; you may need a leash to direct it. Your goal is to reward the pup for finding it, and eventually delivering it to you.”




Do this a couple times, not letting the dog see where you hide the antler.

A couple days later, tie the shed to a string and drag it on the ground (moist grass is best for capturing the scent). Let the pup track the smell until it finds the shed. You might want to put the dog on a lead and direct it to the shed, following the drag trail. You want the pup to have success and learn what it’s supposed to be finding.

4. RAMP IT UP

After a month or two, introduce a full deer shed to your pup. If your pup is sensitive to the tines, saw off the tips so it doesn’t get poked. Before the pup’s baby teeth start falling out, encourage it to pick up a shed, rather than you hand it to the dog. Carry the pup and place an antler on the ground, with the tines pointing down. Back up five feet, put the pup down and give your command to get the shed. The pup will likely run to the shed, which is why placing it with the tines down is important—so it doesn’t get poked.

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As their baby teeth start falling out, some pups might quit picking up a shed for a couple of months, and that’s okay. This is a great time to introduce shed hunting by sight recognition. Reintroduce the real shed at six or seven months of age, when the adult teeth are firm.

5. SIGHT RECOGNITION

Once a pup starts training with a whole deer shed, it will recognize it by size and shape. Because bleached antlers that have been on the ground for a year or two hold little scent, your dog will need to find these by sight recognition.

To train for this, hide a plastic or rubber antler in the yard for the pup to find. Place it where the pup can easily see it, then progress to hiding it in a field, along a trail in the woods, even in brush where the dog can locate it. Each time, the pup should deliver to hand. When the adult teeth are in, resume this training with a real, bleached shed.

Never let the puppy chew on a shed for more than 2 minutes, as this could lead to it chewing on a shed it finds in the wild, rather than immediately bringing it to you. Always take the shed away when the pup is fully engaged, making sure to praise. This will let itp know it’s doing the right thing and keep it wanting more.

6. FINISHING TOUCHES

As the shed training progresses, you want the dog to recognize the antler by its natural smell, not odors that are transferred to the antler with bare hands. Wash the antler and handle it with rubber gloves when hiding it. Roughing it up with abrasive paper will help freshen the antler’s scent.

As in all training, be positive with your pup and make the experience fun. With time and dedication, you and your pup will enjoy many years of fun shed hunting together.

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