February 11, 2011
Hunters' fascination with antlers has led to antler leases, guided shed hunts, trained antler dogs -- and maybe even shed-antler seasons!
I vividly recall the pure joy of finding my first shed antler while running my beagles. Even today, that two-point shed is a prized possession prominently displayed in my home.
The magnetism and wonder of deer antlers have even spawned the North American Shed Hunters Club (NASHC) and its growing record book. Currently, the NASHC's world record for a typical, single whitetail antler is 1046„8 inches, while the largest nontypical, single shed is 1565„8 inches. The biggest typical matched set of whitetail sheds measures 1951„8 inches, while the record for a matched set of nontypical antlers measures 3105„8 inches. Of course, none of these measurements include inside spread.
Who could have imagined hunters would pay lease fees just to search for shed antlers, but some do because sheds can sell for thousands of dollars. The competition to gain access to certain properties for the purpose of finding shed antlers has increased so much that Colorado's Division of Wildlife actually established a Closed Season for shed hunting from January 1 through March 14 and from March 15 to May 15 from sunset to 10 a.m. for the Gunnison area! In Canada, some outfitters conduct guided shed-antler hunts each spring.
Biologists know that antler is the fastest growing tissue on Earth and, like fingerprints, all antlers are unique. In controlled day-length (photoperiod) tests, deer have been able to grow three sets of antlers in a year or keep their antlers for more than a year. Conversely, when deer shed their antlers, the erosion of bone between the pedicle and the antler is the quickest deterioration of living tissue known to man.
Since antlers are somewhat similar to human bone, scientists believe if we fully understood the antler growing and shedding process, the knowledge could lead to treatment of degenerative diseases such as osteoporosis and arthritis.
While hunters and scientists alike are intrigued by antlers, so is Roger Sigler, a man I first met while I was giving a seminar at the Wisconsin Deer Classic and Hunting Expo in Green Bay. To be honest, I thought his "Antler Dog" topic was some kind of joke. But after listening to his seminar, I was blown away by his information. Roger is a dog trainer from Missouri with over 40 years of experience working with search and rescue dogs, bomb locating dogs, and antler retrieving dogs.
The genesis of Roger's antler dog story actually started in a prison. With the approval of the warden, Roger worked with prisoners on dog obedience training, while his partner developed a plan for rescuing dogs from the local shelter. Since drugs and bombs are not allowed in the prison, Roger suggested that inmates teach the dogs to locate deer antlers. The warden, prisoners, and the press loved the program, but then disaster struck: Roger's partner ran off with one of the prisoners and ended up in prison herself after being profiled on "America's Most Wanted." Some stories you just can't make up!
Roger, his wife, Sharon, and their daughter Amy then decided to start raising and training antler dogs themselves. What started out as a way to help men in prison mushroomed into a full-time business specializing in raising Labrador retrievers for a growing clientele.
My initial skepticism about training dogs to recover antler sheds was based on my belief that antlers don't have any scent. Or do they? To my surprise, the answer is yes. In fact, it doesn't matter if the shed is a fresh drop or has been lying around for years, a good antler dog can find it. But how do these dogs tell the difference between the scent of antlers and other bones such as femurs? The answer may be found in the difference in physical makeup between antler and bone.
Roger Sigler, his wife, Sharon, and their daughter, Amy, specialize in training dogs to find shed antlers.
When antlers are in velvet, they're full of hollow blood vessels that grow out from the tip. When mineralization of the soft tissue (velvet) is transformed into a semi-solid bone, the matrix of the antler's capillaries hardens. The bacteria that grow within a shed antler, or more specifically inside the small capillaries, are likely different from those growing in femurs and other bones. Additionally, unlike most bones, growing antlers are highly vascular, and once hardened, have more surface area to grow bacteria.
If these assumptions are correct, the bacteria within or covering antlers would smell different from bone and be the specific scent antler dogs are trained to detect.
Just how specific? One day, Roger's wife had a dog named Faye that just wouldn't leave a small pond. After swimming small circles in the pond, Faye dove into the water and came up with an antler in her mouth. How long the antler had been under water is unknown, but if dogs can be trained to locate drugs in a vehicle's gas tank, they no doubt can find shed antlers almost anywhere.
Roger trains his dogs by using the Science of Participating Training. This method teaches a dog basic obedience commands that then evolve into locating and retrieving antler sheds. For example, Roger will first teach a dog to chase a ball with an antler inside. By slowly decreasing the size of the ball while increasing the antler size, he eventually eliminates the ball. Over time, he ends up with a dog more obsessed with antlers than any of us two-legged antler fanatics.
Like most bird dogs, antler dogs work about 50 yards in front of a hunter. The hunter works into the wind to maximize the air currents so the dog can catch the scent and find the prized shed. Antler dogs will cover at least three times the area a hunter could, including tight spots the hunter cannot easily access.
Depending on the dog's maturity and experience, a finished antler dog takes about one year to train. Now that Roger and his antler dogs are finding many record book antlers, I wonder if the NASHC will create a new category -- one for antlers found by hunters and another by antler dogs?
If a 170-inch buck starts growing his antlers on March 15 and stops on August 31, that equates to 168 growing days. That buck must average at least one inch of antler growth per day throughout that time period, an amazing accomplishment achieved only by mature, record-class bucks.
The origin of antler dogs rests with Roger Sigler, his wife, Sharon, and daughter Amy of
Smithville, Missouri. The Sigler's have combined the best training methods to create a shed hunter's newest best friend -- the antler dog. If you're interested in buying a dog or having one trained, contact Roger Sigler at (816) 289-1154 or visit www.antlerdogs.com.
For more information about the North American Shed Hunters Club, go to www.shedantlers.org or contact Tom or Mark Miller at (608) 666-2071.