With shed hunting soon season upon us I thought I would give a quick update on our best tips to get started shed hunting with your dog. The tips below can be used for elk, deer, and moose sheds and for puppies and grown dogs alike.
Shed hunting with your dog can be SO rewarding on so many levels- true, it is exciting to find sheds but the look on your dog’s face when they find one is AMAZING! It is also great bonding time with your dog- exploring in the mountains, even if you aren't so lucky with a huge antler bounty, is always a win!
First, a little over-simplified dog psychology point: Dogs in general like to have a job and they desire to do their job well as this makes them feel successful and makes you happy- and all any dog wants is to make their human happy!
Training is much easier if you recognize their innate need to have a job and please you. It is also beneficial if you make their job a game that is fun for them. This means that there are obvious rules, expectations, and rewards that your dog understands. If you train your dog to hunt sheds; they will view this as their job- which is great! Also, plan on spending lots of time training- even after they've mastered it… dogs forget easily and need regular training to stay on top of it.
Another thing to note is that dogs don't do well with many jobs- if your dog is trained to shed hunt and find birds- you're going to run into trouble because when they step into the outdoors they don't get to switch on and off which job they choose- they might find an antler, they might find a bird... what you will definitely find is that their performance in both areas will go down. I do not have a lot of advice on how to train for multiple jobs except to reinforce words like 'bird' and 'antler' to signal to your dog which they should be looking for.
To get started:
Start by making the ‘job’ a game by either using antlers you already own or buying a few here and ‘hiding’ them in a place where she will easily come across them and find them… then you reward her heavily! This works effectively because the antler itself is a reward (you can read about why dogs love them here) and so when finding them gets MORE rewards... that equals a very exciting game/job for your dog! Because your dog relies so heavily on scent, the shape and size of the antler is not necessarily important- do not feel like you need to invest in a massive shed antler to find more massive shed antlers.
If you have some outdoor ground to train on (grass backyard is great), Try putting a shed/antler out (not too far… you can build up and go farther and farther each time but it’s important that she is successful in finding the antler each time) and then walk her directly over top of the antler so that she runs right into it. This will build her confidence and you will have a chance to reward her and show her that finding antlers is her ‘job’ and that she is good at it.
She will eventually catch on and you can stand back and she will run out and look for the antler. She will know it’s out there because she’s figured out the ‘game’ and later on when you’re walking wilderness looking for sheds she will feel confident that there are antlers to be found… even though sometimes you get skunked! You can also try playing fetch with a shed so that she understands that retrieving antlers and bringing them to you is also her job.
Cooper our yellow lab is not food driven- he is especially attention loving, so when he does something well we always make sure to give him lots of love so he knows he did a good job. He is admittedly not the best shed dog because we’ve focused on birds and I have watched that dog launch over big sheds to find a bird many times- haha! But that is his job, and he’s really good at it.
Another point to note, for your first couple seasons it’s possible that you’ll be the one finding the antlers… but if you spot a shed it is important to make your dog feel successful and reward her for sharing your find… this will let her know that rewards (cookies or love) come when she finds antlers. This builds a strong association between antlers and rewards.
My last piece of advice would be to plan on spending LOTS of time looking for antlers, they are gaining so much popularity and there are more and more people in the woods looking for them that you may look for a long time and not be successful- but I wouldn’t blame your dog… they are getting picked up faster and faster each season… its very competitive!
The biggest tip- make is EASY and build on CONFIDENCE! Practice tons, and use LOTS of rewards. Also
Lastly, stay off private land, respect wildlife habitat, don't chase the elk, deer, and moose around looking for antlers, and pay attention to shed hunting rules, seasons, and licenses in your area. Most importantly- have fun and enjoy the time with your dog!