A few years ago, shed dogs were all the rage. A lot of the big whitetail names were running retrievers, that by social media standards, appeared to be antler finding machines. Average Joes were getting in on the game, too. And just like with a lot of outdoor fads that burn hot, it appeared that if you wanted to get serious about antlers, you’d better have a dedicated shed dog.
Part of this was due to the fact that anyone with a spark of electricity between his ears knows that the dog-less pheasant hunter doesn’t stand a chance against someone running even a mediocre bird dog. The same goes for the duck hunter who doesn’t want to be limited to tiny ponds and wadable water or lose half of the ducks he shoots. Sporting dogs and their abilities level up so much of our bird hunting that it’s not even the same thing without them.
Why, then, shouldn’t a shed dog increase your odds of success exponentially?
They won’t, and quite honestly, even the greatest shed dog is only going to pad your yearly stats by a nominal amount of antlers. This number will be tethered directly to the quality of shed hunting you have access to and the time you spend training and actually shed hunting.
No one knows this more than Wisconsin’s Jeremy Moore. Moore owns Dog Bone Hunter and has trained quite a few shed dogs. He’s also very realistic about antler dogs and their abilities.
“A shed dog will definitely help you find more sheds. It’s another set of eyes and a great nose that is working for you, but there’s a bigger reason I find more sheds with a shed dog. I go more often. I walk more miles, have more fun, and enjoy the process more.”
Moore’s last point is the best reason to train a shed dog, in my opinion. It adds to the hunting season with your dog without taking anything away from its ability to flush roosters or retrieve greenheads in the swamp. Shed hunting is an extension of the season, and a great skill to add to a dog’s repertoire—provided you’ve got one with a desire to retrieve.
A lot of dogs don’t have that urge, including a fair amount of bird dogs. Many sporting breeds will never make a good antler dog, because they don’t have much, or any, retrieving instinct. Even a dog with great retrieving desire, like my current Lab, will make a decent shed dog only when there aren’t other more interesting things to smell in the woods.
If the woodcock are coming back up from their southern, worm-eating winter grounds, Luna’s shed hunting suffers. If we are too close to decent pheasant habitat or running through grouse-heavy territory in the Northwoods, all bets are off. Tom Dokken, who is one of the most well-known trainers in the country often says, “A bone can’t compete with a living, breathing bird.”
He often describes it as if the antler were burnt toast and live birds a juicy steak.
This is not meant to dissuade folks from training a shed dog, but a plea to temper expectations. The most successful shed dogs you see are those that get exposure to a lot of training, and more importantly, a lot of successful shed hunts. This, according to Moore, is the secret sauce to developing a quality shed dog.
“Dogs learn by forming habits, and habits are formed by repetition and consistency. When we train pheasant dogs, I can put them on hundreds of birds in realistic training situations. The same is necessary for shed dogs so that the light bulb will eventually turn on.”
This training helps them use their noses, and just as importantly, their eyes. Anyone with a shed antler can take care of this part fairly easily, but it’s the actual shed hunting that solidifies a shed dog. This is because the antlers they find out there aren’t covered in your hand scent and aren’t the result of a quick backyard training drill where success is a learned, and forgone, conclusion.
Many of us don’t have great spots to shed hunt, which means the most well-trained dog is destined to plateau. My first shed dog, a golden retriever, spent weeks each season shed hunting with me in the days before I had kids and was flush with free time. We averaged (as a team), maybe six or eight antlers a year. We spent almost all of our time on pressured public ground and were happy with half a dozen in any given spring.
She found some of the antlers, including the biggest shed in my trophy room. But it was a rare day when she’d prance up to me with an antler clenched in her teeth. It was still worth training her and having her with me on every shed hunt.
It was worth training my current dog as well. In fact, she found her first unassisted shed as a 10-month-old puppy and any dog owner out there knows that was a special moment. At 8 she’s found plenty of sheds but is much more of a bird dog because that’s what she loves.
As a dog lover, I simply view shed hunts as a chance to spend more time outdoors with my four-legged compadre. We might find a couple more antlers a year, which is nice, but that really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. It’s more of a chance to get outside.
To scout throughout the winter and spring and to spend more time working together helps improve our relationship. We don’t set the world on fire shed-wise. And neither will you if you buy a Lab puppy this spring with big dreams of it vacuuming up antlers across the countryside (unless you own 1,000 acres of deer ground in southern Iowa).
The shed dog reality is that they will, with proper training, increase your odds of not blanking on every antler excursion. They’ll also give you a good excuse to shed hunt more. That’s alone is as valuable as a few extra antlers each year.