For many whitetail hunters, there isn’t an off season. When we’re not perched 20 feet in a tree waiting for Mr. Big to walk by, we are hanging stands, planting food plots or knocking on doors looking for the next great lease. Many deer hunters zero in on areas where big bucks live and look for shed antlers just to pass the days until deer season opens again. For some hunters, finding sheds during the offseason is a hobby; for others, it’s an obsession. Finding sheds is like going on an Easter egg hunt for whitetail addicts. They look behind every tree, under every log, and turn over leaves and brush in hopes of finding that hidden jewel that tells them a monster buck lives in those woods.
Roger Sigler from Antler Dog Kennels in Missouri has found his fair share of shed antlers over the years. Sigler doesn’t rely on his eyesight alone to find shed antlers; he relies on the nose of his K-9 companion. “I have spent several decades training dogs and other animals. I have trained dogs for police departments, for prisons, and have worked with people in California who train dogs for show business. Several years ago, I placed dogs in the care of prisoners. Many of the dogs were abused or abandoned dogs that needed care. The dogs had someone to look after them and the prisoners had someone to care for. The dogs lived with the prisoners 24 hours a day. It was a great program and I saw many prisoners’ attitudes change because of the dogs,” Sigler explained.
Sigler wanted to start a training program with the dogs and the prisoners, but knew the prisoners wouldn’t be able to train the dogs for several reasons. “I knew the prison system wouldn’t allow me to teach the prisoners how to train the dogs to become drug sniffing dogs or police dogs, so I started researching what type of specialized training we could teach dogs that prisoners could get involved in. My options were to train dogs to bemorel mushroom hunters or shed antler hunters. I decided training shed dogs would be fun. Since I enjoyed bird hunting over hunting dogs, it was a perfect fit for me,” Sigler added.
The training program was a hit. Eventually Sigler retired from training police dogs and training prisoners how to train dogs. He concentrated his efforts on training shed dogs full-time. He and his well-trained dogs find hundreds of sheds every year. Sigler sells puppies and started dogs that are trained to be shed dogs. In 2010, he will offer finished shed dogs. According to Sigler, the Labrador Retriever is the best breed for finding shed antlers. “Labs are great shed dogs because they love to retrieve, they mind well, have a good nose, and aren’t high strung like many other hunting dog breeds,” Sigler stated. Although Sigler believes labs are the best, any dog with a great nose may be able to find sheds.
If you have a lab that you use for bird hunting, Sigler says it isn’t impossible to teach him how to become a shed finding machine. “My experience taught me that a dog that is already a bird hunter will hunt for birds first and foremost. If his master takes him shed hunting and the dog stumbles onto some fresh pheasant scent, the dog will quit looking for sheds and concentrate on finding the bird. My dogs are given sheds to play with when they are weeks old. They are trained to be shed dogs first and bird hunters second, which is the way it has to be if you want a dog that excels in finding shed antlers. I’m not saying that a bird dog can’t be trained to find sheds, but the dogs that are best at finding sheds are the ones that started when they were puppies,” Sigler explained.
If you are interested in having a shed hunting dog that sleeps and breathes finding sheds, purchase a puppy and train him the way Sigler does. If you want to have a dog that can find sheds regularly, use his proven training methods and you may end up with a decent shed dog.
Having a great shed finding dog starts when the lab puppy is young. “I start playing fetch with puppies when they are eight weeks old. It is very important to remember when purchasing a puppy that not all labs are created equal. Finding a dog that loves to retrieve is a must. We start having the dogs retrieve antlers right away. Grabbing an antler doesn’t come naturally so sometimes we use a ball and shove an antler tine through it. From early on, we want the dog to know we want them to retrieve antlers. We want them to love fetching antlers,” Sigler added. In addition to fetching antlers, Sigler teaches the dogs obedience. Obedience training is vital; the dog needs to know who to listen to and needs to do what the master says. He introduces them to the sound of a gun and water. This produces a well-rounded dog that can serve dual purposes. Sigler never uses shock collars or hits his dogs. “We want our dogs to work for us because they love to retrieve. For them, the antler is the reward. Food is used as a reward early on, but we want them to want the sheds. Finding the sheds, returning them to me and getting praised for it is what drives the dogs; not the fear of getting beaten,” Sigler stated.
After a puppy understands basic obedience, the trainer gradually introduces more time with antlers and teaches the puppy to find the antlers. They begin playing fetch with an antler so the dog becomes familiar with the smell of the antler. “The goal with this style of training is teaching the dog scent discrimination. An antler is no more important to a dog than a stick. After they realize that a shed is what we want, he will start sniffing it out and locating it. Making that transition isn’t always easy, but over time a dog will learn that his job is finding shed antlers,” Sigler noted. The best shed dog is the one that understands what you want them to do and becomes obsessed with it. “I have a dog that every time a visitor comes to the house, it runs and finds an antler to play fetch. Getting a dog to become obsessed with the game like that takes time and repetition,” Sigler added.
After a dog is five months old, fetches an antler, and has basic obedience skills, Sigler starts concentrating on teaching the dogs to find sheds in larger areas. “We begin in a large indoor arena. After they consistently find the sheds in the arena, we move outside where we let the dog find sheds in an area about half the size of a football field. Next, we move up to an area the size of a football field and then to about a five-acre piece of land. We then graduate to a 50-acre piece of land,” Sigler explained. This training process takes several months. Sigler points out that during the early stages of the game, the training should take place in a controlled environment indoors where the trainer is always a short distance from the dog and in complete control of the dog. Over time, when the dog consistently does as he is told in the controlled environment and finds the hidden sheds, he graduates to a larger playground.
When a dog understands what his job is, Sigler makes the game a little harder. “After a dog masters finding hidden sheds in large open areas, we sterilize the antlers so they don’t have any human odor on them. We hide three or five of them in a field at a time. After they find sheds in a field, we don’t return to that field for a week or more so the dog doesn’t get familiar with the field. The goal is to make them search for the sheds. If we train the dogs in the same field constantly, the dog will learn where to look for the antlers. Constantly switching things up forces the dog to use his eyes and nose to find the antlers,” Sigler added.
As with any finished gun dog, it takes years to turn a puppy into a great shed finding dog. One of the most important things to remember is when training a dog to find sheds, train them regularly to get them to the point where they can consistently find sheds in the woods. “The training process is a long one but in the end, a well-trained shed dog will double the number of sheds a person can find,” Sigler said. On a recent spring trip to Canada, Sigler and his dogs found 210 sheds in five days. Many of the dogs on the Canada shed hunting excursion are older, well-trained dogs whose goal in life is finding sheds. “Training a shed dog is a long-term commitment. Many guys don’t have the time it takes to produce a finished dog. If they make the time, they will be rewarded with a great shed hunting companion. If they don’t have the time, they can purchase a started dog from me that have the basics down. I will offer finished dogs in the next couple years,” Sigler added.
Sigler believes dogs excel at finding shed antlers after training is done for two reasons. The first is scent. “Dogs can easily smell the antler, especially if it is from the previous fall. Sheds that are several years old are harder for a dog to find, but they still sniff them out. The second reason is because they know what they are looking for and their heads are only inches off the ground. “A dog covers twice as much ground as a person and they are so close to the ground that they see sheds we would walk right by,” Sigler explained.
If you are into shed hunting and want to increase the number of sheds you find, pick up a lab puppy and start the training process. In 18-24 months, you may have a shed hunting buddy that loves looking for sheds as much as you do.