Recently I ran across two separate articles on training shed dogs. Both were of the Internet, Five-Easy-Steps-To variety, so I'll forgive them for a lack of depth. But that's where my mercy ends.
In both, the main advice was to familiarize puppies with antlers. So far so good, I thought, although neither of them recommended a soft, training antler for young pups. This is okay for some dogs, but for others not so much. Some dogs need soft introduction, literally, and the best way to do that is with a faux antler that is spongy. Why, you might ask?
Well, if you take an eight-week old puppy and toss a real antler, even a training antler with rounded-off tines, that dog might go tearing through your living room and clobber that bone, which doesn't give. One errant poke to the snout, the eye or even the chest might result in pain, which is obviously a negative.
The goal of any good trainer is to create positive, encouragement-based training experiences. Pain and fear have no place in training, and even a little accident with a real antler can leave a bad impression on a pup.
Whether introducing a pup to real antlers or fake ones, the next real step is to get the dog to retrieve them. Any dog that has a decent retrieving desire will do this, and it should not take any time to teach them to retrieve bone. In fact, you probably won't have to teach them at all, it should come naturally.
It's important to note here that antlers shouldn't be used as toys. Antlers should be used as a special training tool that evokes excitement. The antlers come out, the fun begins as far as he knows. This antler-induced excitement goes away quickly when he has unlimited access to them, so don't let that happen.
The Easy Part | Train Their Nose
Where most wannabe shed dog trainers go wrong is thinking that dogs work antlers with their noses all of the time. This belief leads to easy, but incorrect, training. At first tossing an antler in your yard and letting your dog work up to it will be fine. It's all about creating a positive association with finding an antler. It won't take long, usually about the time you move to knee-high grass, before you realize that the dog is indeed using his nose to find the antler.
Instead of keying in on antler scent, however, he'll be sniffing around for your scent. If you've handled an antler without gloves, that's what he is smelling. It's not the scent of antler, because after a very short time antlers don't have any identifying scent. They do when they are very freshly dropped, because of the waxy substance on the pedicle. You can train for this by buying commercial scents that mimic this substance, but an antler that has been laying on the forest floor for a few months has no identifying scent.
This also means that you'll eventually need to de-scent antlers and gloves, and work a shed dog on a truly scent-free antler. The first time you do this correctly, you'll feel like you haven't trained your dog at all. I've used both ozone machines and scent-elimination sprays for this task. Remove the scent from an antler, place it outside for a full day or two (toss it into the grass instead of setting it by your tracks, which your dog can and will follow).
When you work your shed dog downwind of that antler, you'll be able to tell almost immediately whether you've removed all of the scent. If you have, he likely won't find it unless he sees it. If your dog sees it and retrieves it, you are well on your way to a true shed dog.
The Hard Part | Train Their Eyes
Training dogs to look for antlers really isn't that much harder than training them to work the wind for them, but it goes against typical bird-dog training. We are used to dogs using their noses, but not their eyes as much. Real shed antlers that don't have your scent all over them are the only kind your dog is going to be looking for on a shed hunt, and he needs to be able to recognize an antler shape in the woods.
This means you need scent-free antlers and antler silhouettes. Make it easy at first by working in a soccer field or your backyard, but make sure that your dog can easily see antlers. When he runs to them and retrieves them, you'll know he is using his eyes.
Eventually, these steps will involve smaller antlers and trickier situations, but don't make it too difficult. Dog training involves baby steps, and the goal is to encourage success with every lesson.
Over time, your shed dog will work the wind trying to catch a whiff of a freshly dropped antler, but will also start to run and check out anything off-colored in the woods. That means he is actively looking for the visual cues that indicate an antler might be there. It may seem frustrating at first when your dog sprints to check out every discarded coffee cup or bone-white stick, but don't correct him. He is looking for antlers, and that is a very good thing.
If you really want to train a shed dog, don't fret. It just takes a two-pronged approach that focuses not only on his nose, but his eyes. If you do it correctly, you'll find more antlers and spend more quality time with your dog. It's that simple.