How to Train a Bird Dog for Shed Hunting
March 03, 2014
Not long ago, the bird dog was looked at largely as a tool, left in the barn, backyard or garage until it was time to hunt. Today's dog is still a hunter, but often a family pet too.
The world of shed antler hunting with dogs has exploded in the last few years, and many of those same handlers are also looking to increase their odds of locating mortally-wounded whitetails.
Thanks largely to pro trainers, our grouse and pheasant dogs are capable of mastering far more tasks than once thought possible. It may not seem beneficial to take a finely-honed bird dog and train him to follow the scent of a wounded buck, or seek out a tall-tined antler lying in the grass, but it is.
Anything that gets a sporting dog into the field and woods, with the chance to use his eyes and nose, is a good thing.
Few people understand this better than Pulaski, Wis., resident and Dog Bone training products owner Jeremy Moore. Compared to many of today's top trainers, Moore's history is a short one. At only 33 years old, he has propelled himself into the gun dog world quickly.
While firmly entrenched in the upland and waterfowl training, Moore is stretching into shed antler and deer recovery. His multi-faceted love of the outdoors, along with a penchant for training dogs, has led to a high demand for Moore-trained pups.
Ducks To Deer
When asked about his training beginnings and the transition from duck hunting to shed hunting and deer-tracking dogs, Moore said, "I started getting serious about training dogs while I was in college. My parents have a small kennel (about one litter each year) of goldens, so I've been around dogs my whole life, but when I was in college I really got into duck hunting and that's when I bought my first Lab.
"I was also really into whitetail hunting then, but when I started waterfowl hunting and training duck dogs I put aside deer hunting for four or five years. I scheduled my classes around duck hunting and couldn't get enough of it. After graduating from college I picked up a dog from Wildrose Kennels in Mississippi and really started to follow their style of training. It didn't take long for that pup to turn into something special.
"During that time I started to get away from waterfowl hunting and back into the deer hunting scene. It was at that point I realized there really wasn't a dog connection to deer hunting where I lived, so the natural next step was to see if my dog could find shed antlers."
Moore had success training his 8-year-old Lab to hunt sheds. He had shed hunted his entire life, but found more fallen antlers that first year with his dog than all the previous years combined. It didn't take long to realize there was an opportunity to take shed dogs mainstream, and he again picked up another puppy from Wildrose.
"I started that pup on obedience training and then when she was about 6 months old I threw a shed antler for her. She enthusiastically ran up to that shed antler and poked herself with a tine. Immediately, she yipped and rolled over on her back. I knew that I had screwed up and had to figure out a way to conduct a softer introduction to antlers.
"It was a discouraging moment to have a shed dog that was afraid of antlers, and after thinking about it, I looked back to the steps I took when training upland dogs. I realized when I trained a pheasant dog, I certainly wouldn't just throw them into a pen with a live rooster to start the training. Instead, I took steps that would get them there."
As with so many things in life, the learning process of how to properly train a dog comes from making mistakes and one seemingly simple misstep with a puppy can alter the course of their lives and never truly be corrected.
This is why there are so many dogs that are terrified of gunfire or water deeper than their elbows. Moore knew this, and was dead-set on not delivering his new pup into the same fate with antlers.
"After that pup got poked I came up with the idea of a training antler," he recalled. "These dogs have been bred for 100 years to have soft mouths, and holding a hard piece of bone is a lot different than a freshly-killed bird, so I messed around with some prototypes until I came up with a training antler that had a rigid main beam but soft tines."
Moore's new training antlers proved to be a good move, and he quickly added scent to the Dog Bone training product line, which has grown to include different colored antlers as well. The basis for the line is to teach a dog to use both his eyes and nose to locate cast antlers, a far cry from the upland bird world, where the sense of smell dominates nearly every move the dog makes.
While expanding his training regimen to include shed antler dogs, Moore recognized many parallels to his bird hunting training. "My style of training involves a lot of patience. You simply cannot speed train dogs, they are not programmed that way.
"It's much better to focus on something for one or two minutes a day, build confidence, be consistent, and form good habits. This doesn't mean you can't train for several different things in a single day, but you have to follow those rules for everything."
As is often the case, the new direction of training puppies to locate shed antlers led to a further branching into the world of deer — specifically, game recovery. Whitetail hunting is extremely popular in the U.S., with licensed hunters numbering around 12 million. And if there's one thing nearly every deer hunter could use from time to time, it's post-shot recovery.
"My game recovery dogs are trained very similarly to how I teach upland dogs to track down crippled pheasants. In a sense, all game recovery is nothing but a long game of fetch. It involves teaching scent discrimination and giving the dog the tools necessary to figure out the puzzle."
Currently, nearly half of the states allow dogs to be used to recover wounded deer and there is a movement to expand that usage into more states. One of the toughest parts to game recovery training, according to Moore, involves locating the right training tools.
"With upland birds and waterfowl, there are dummies, real wings, a pile of scents, and the ability to get your hands on actual birds rather easily. For game recovery training, you need several scent source elements, including hides and blood, which are a lot harder to find and preserve for use year-round. I had to keep a freezer of both, stored up from the fall hunting season, so that I had the tools to train any time of the year.
"To start training a dog to find a mortally-wounded deer, I'll wrap a bumper dummy with deer hide. This is simply because my dogs love to retrieve and their reward after successfully scenting out the dummy is to get to pick it up and bring it back to me. It's important that they get that reward every time.
"The hard part is getting the dog to understand that a wounded deer, just like a wounded bird, gives off a different scent than a healthy animal. This is where their natural ability to discriminate different scents comes into play. It seems like a tall order for a dog, but it's really not."
Moore trains several dogs each year to hunt shed antlers as well as track or recover game, which are in high demand by outfitters and die-hard whitetail hunters. Inevitably he gets the same call each fall from a confused and sometimes frustrated owner.
"Not all deer that are shot are going to die from the wound. It's really amazing just how tough a deer can be and some will live; that's just the reality. While there may be a lot of blood and visual sign, the deer may not be mortally hit. This leads the hunter or the dog owner to believe the tag is filled and the trail will be short, but after doing this for a while I've witnessed that more often than not, the dog knows.
"They almost always say something like, 'We got 10 minutes into the trail and the dog just gave up.' What almost always happens is the dog knew the deer wasn't dead, and there was no reason to keep looking for what he wasn't going to find. I don't know how they know, but they do. I can't tell you how many times the same deer shows up alive on camera or is killed later on in the season."
Our dogs are capable of much more than we give them credit for, and if they are trained correctly, they will take to new tasks with vigor.
Trainers like Moore are a testament to that fact, and it will be interesting to see where they take dog training to next.
Whatever it is, you can bet that it will benefit a vast majority of hunters and give our dogs another chance to hit the woods and fields with a chance to prove themselves as more than a single-purpose tool.