Training a Dog to Find Shed Antlers
by John Jeanneney
DCA Newsletter March 2006
Searching for the antlers that male deer shed each winter can become an absorbing activity for hunters and non-hunters alike. On one level it’s a pleasant activity that we can do better in partnership with a dachshund. Exploring more deeply it can become a window to our primitive natural heritage. Before legs are lifted on this idea, let me explain.
Antlers are not just worn-out hardware that the bucks discard in early winter. They are a natural art form, which is appreciated by hunters and non-hunters alike. I believe that the antlers have a primitive mystical power that you can feel if you open your consciousness to them. Antler magic is greatest when they are still mounted on the deer, as it bounds away through the birches. They look much smaller when the deer is killed or after he sheds his antlers naturally. Hunters call this psychological phenomenon “ground shrink”, but the “sheds” remain as seeds for our imagination, for the memories and fantasies we share with the cave painters of Lascaux and Altamira.
Shed antlers are an interesting conversation piece for the mantle above a country fire place. I keep my own favorite pair of sheds, the pair that moved me most, right on my desk. You might say that I participated in their shedding process; this experience sealed my conviction that antlers have a super-real quality.
In 2004 I tracked a wounded buck with my dachshund Sabina. After going almost two miles, the buck turned on us and stood at bay. His antlers glowed huge in my flashlight beam. And then he charged, ripping Sabina and plowing on into me. I opened my eyes to see one of his antlers, not a very large one, lying just in front of my nose as I lay on the ground. The shock of contact had knocked the antler from its socket; since it was late in the season it was almost time for antler drop.
Tonight these little antlers, with their six points, rest beside my computer; when I hold them I see their glowing immensity at the moment of charge. These antlers are not old, dry bones; they still have mystical power to evoke the deer in all his beauty and force. Through imagination we can transcend the reality of ground shrink, and the golden moment lives.
Let’s come down to earth. First you must feel the exhilaration of finding antlers. How do you do it with your dachshund partner?
I have talked with some hunters who used dogs to find sheds, and I have observed my own tracking dogs do the same thing on a natural, instinctive basis. Here are some suggestions about training and using your tracking dog to find those antlers that have a story to tell. This will be good spring exercise for both of you.
First you will need a dog that handles well and will stay within sight. Careful and gentle use of an e-collar may be needed to remind the dog to quarter back and forth within a hundred yards of the handler. Your goal is to maintain contact with your dog, not to punish him.
Every hunter has picked up a few sheds on his travels. Ask if you can borrow a few to train your dog. Old sheds have little or no scent, so you will have to scent the ones that you use for training purposes. You can use a commercial hunting scent, based on buck secretions and preferably gel-based, or you can just rub the antlers with natural deer scent. Scent from the preorbital glands just in from of the eyes of a deer head frozen from the past season or from a road kill will work. The waxy “toe jam” that you find around the interdigital glands at the top of the hoof where the two parts come together is good and lasts well. In my opinion tarsal gland scent is a bit strong, but you will find this in most commercial scents that are based on buck rather than doe scent.
Scatter the scented antlers around the woods where you are going to train your dog. The sheds should be at least 100 yards apart, and you might want to mark a nearby branch with some sort of colored tape so that you can find anything that the dog misses. When you distribute the antlers wear rubber boots and gloves, and plan to work your dog on the exercise sometime the following day.
Work the dog over the shed-strewn area with the dog wearing a small bell. When the dog scents the shed, he will stop to investigate. You must be in a position to observe this and to praise the dog immediately from a distance. Then trot right over and admire the find as if it were solid gold. Give the dog a treat, and keep on raving about what a great thing he has discovered. Then move on to find the next shed, and go through the procedure again.
When you start looking for natural sheds with your dog the best thing is to begin just as soon after antler drop as the snow cover permits. You want to find those antlers before the mice do, and I have found that the natural deer scent around the antler bases seems to get very thin after a month or so. Continue the praise and reward routine as in training.
Bob Provencher from Maine is an avid deer hunter, and shed hunting is his great passion. This week Bob sent me this note and the pictures of antlers found by his smooth dachshund Gimli.
“It's coming together for Gimli! He gets full credit for these two. I had walked past the antler with the pedicle sticking straight up out of the snow. When I walk, I always sweep my vision behind me to get another angle on ground that I've theoretically already looked at. When I looked back over my left shoulder, this time my eyes went to the antler just as Gimli was reaching for it from 6 inches away! Yes!! As I was praising the dog, feeding him treats and snapping pics, my thoughts went to finding the match to the shed. As soon as I swung my head to the right, I recognized the mate 20 feet away and also buried in the snow. I picked up the first antler and urged Gimli to "Find The Antler"... Gimmers trots a bee-line to the second antler and flips it in the air. I've got an antler dog!”
Bob says: “Gimli Der Zwergling Von Salzburg is 1½ years old, and he is my first dachshund. We traveled all the way from Freeport, Maine to Riverhead, Long Island to get Gimli. He's a 32 pound standard and the sire of his litter was CH Hiswill Crusader of Kochana. I've been told he comes from a line that includes "Best Of Breed" at Westminster and a field champion. I'm an official scorer for the Maine Antler & Skull Trophy Club and I've been shed hunting now for about ten years. I typically pick-up 20-30 deer sheds per season, with my best year at 65 sheds. I was originally steered toward the breed by another shed hunter who is now on his second miniature dachshund, and has always sworn by the breed's nose and natural ability to find antlers. His only complaint was that the mini wasn't rugged enough to get around certain obstacles like blowdowns and streams. This is not the case with Gimli. My friend is now training a lab, but I think he'd be happier with the larger dachshund. This dog is a great package... He is well suited for the thick wooded and brushy terrain that Maine offers. He has the advantage of being able to go under obstacles, hunts close with his nose, will not tear off on long pursuits after running game (he knows he can't catch them...). His comfort perimeter is out to about 40-50 yds. I like to keep a bell on him. If the bell stops ringing, I'll look to see what's gotten his attention. He sometimes takes the lead after air scent, but will stay on the "trail" only if I follow him. I'd love to train him as a blood tracker (I have John's book) but I just haven't got the time right now.”