Shed hunting with your bird dog can be a great offseason exercise.
As the sun sets on the last day of upland hunting season, many will hang up their boots and collars, already dreaming of fall. But don’t fret: when one door closes, another opens to an alternative adventure that can be just as exciting.
Shed hunting is the popular sport of finding antlers after they drop. From trophies to profits, there is an array of rewards for this sought after “brown gold.” So, what can you do to turn your bird dog into a shed hunting champion?
Step 1 – Build a Foundation
Most hunting companions have a natural drive to retrieve. This is easy to encourage or continue to develop with a shed. Start by playing a simple game of fetch. This builds a foundation that gets them excited about finding antlers. Plastic training antlers are available to use with an added shed scent when starting a new dog. This helps prevent mouth pokes early on from potentially sharp tines on antlers. A real shed can be introduced at any time when the dog’s drive for antlers is high.
Step 2 – Build a Command
The next step is to put your dog in a down or sit, stay and throw the antler out. When you’re ready, give the dog the release to fetch. Introduce a chosen command for shed hunting here. This can be anything you like, like find the antler. My personal favorite is find bambi. Just keep it consistent! Giving the command is not about them understanding the word, but about them making the right associations with the word. Mix this in with the occasional game of fetch to keep things fun and unpredictable.
Step 3 – Build Confidence
After successfully getting retrieves when released, move to putting the dog in a stay and allowing them to watch as the shed is hidden in heavier coverage. Walk back to the dog and give the command to find the antler. Try many different controlled locations, increasing the level of difficulty when the dog is ready.
Step 4 – Build the Hunt Drive
Next, move to hiding the antler out of the dog’s line of sight. The goal here is to encourage the hunt drive. Only give hand signals or cues if they struggle, but allow them enough time to work the area. Increase the difficulty as the dog gains confidence and learns to use their nose for sheds. This transitions naturally into finding antlers on your first hunt.
Handlers are regularly concerned about how their dog will react if they come across a shed during bird season. Will this encourage a hunting dog to chase deer? A bird dog’s drive for a living, breathing prey is parallel to none. By providing distinct commands for shed hunting versus upland, you eliminate confusion and increase communication on expectations with your athlete. Reinforcing a consistent retrieve is important for any hunting dog. Shed hunting is no exception and the dog will be reminded that it’s never tolerated to chase deer.
Shed hunting allows for exciting and fun opportunities in an otherwise “off-season” for some upland hunters. It keeps the handler and dog conditioned while encouraging the dog to continue to utilize their nose. A great way to continue preparing for bird hunting in the fall!
Marissa is a licensed vet tech and biology major with a strong passion for the outdoors. Born and raised in Nebraska, exploring local uplands has become the foundation of her enthusiasm for hunting. She enjoys being involved in organizations devoted to helping others learn about conservation and outdoor activities. Much of her free time is dedicated to her family, fishing and all things related to bird dogs.