The fun-filled, off-season pursuit of trophy racks
With her nose to the ground, two-year-old Ayla is off and running. With dogged determination, the female Labrador retriever combs a cut cornfield, always working into the wind.
The yellow Lab isn't after birds or bunnies. Ayla is after bones.
Ayla is one of several dogs trained by Roger and Sharon Sigler to use her super-sniffer to find and retrieve shed antler sheds. Ayla and her ilk are the original bone collectors.
Owned and operated by the Siglers, Antler Ridge in Smithville, Mo., is a training Mecca for shed dogs. If you're looking to purchase an antler dog or learn how to train one, Antler Ridge is the place to go. The Siglers have created a unique training program that teaches dogs and their owners how to work together to find sheds.
We'll explore the Siglers' training program. But first, let's look at why shed hunting should be part of every bowhunter's arsenal.
Benefits to Hunters
Shed hunting has become increasingly popular among hunters and non-hunters alike. It's great exercise, offers something the whole family can do together and can even put a few dollars in your wallet (see sidebar).
Among the many benefits of shed hunting is the fact that it's an excellent way to accomplish post-season scouting. Finding an impressive shed immediately tells you the brute that wore that headgear survived the hunting seasons. Shed searching often reveals other deer sign such as bedding areas, droppings and rubs -- all valuable information a hunter can use next year.
The help of a good antler dog can really help you clean up in prime shed-hunting territory. On a recent excursion to the Canadian prairie, Roger Sigler's dog found more than 100 sheds in just three days.
"It's amazing to see some of the sheds that are found in areas where there's a lot of hunting pressure," said Tom Miller, vice president of the North American Shed Hunters Club (NASHC). "A few years ago, my brother Mark and I found a non-typical set from a whitetail buck we didn't know existed. Two years later, I shot the buck, and he scored in the 190s."
That's the simple beauty of shed hunting. Find a shed and you know its former owner is still out there.
Anyone who's ever looked for sheds knows it's hard work that often results in sore feet and wounded pride. Many an accomplished bowhunter has returned from a shed-hunting excursion empty-handed. But finding an antler sticking out of two feet of snow is a rush some hunters find irresistible.
"It can really become addictive," said Wisconsin resident Dennis Fishbaugher, who owns a Sigler antler dog. "I'd just as soon find a big set of sheds as shoot a buck."
Besides being an excellent scouting tool, Miller said deer managers use sheds to gauge overall herd health. Bone mass decreases when deer are stressed and not getting proper nutrition. If antler sheds are getting lighter over the years, you may want to consider putting in additional food plots or reducing the number of does in your herd.
Other than the cost of gas and a new pair of boots from time to time, shed hunting is free. You don't have to buy a license or tag, and there is no formal shed hunting season in any state in the country -- at least not yet.
"In some areas, such as the Gunnison area in Colorado, it's gotten so competitive that the Colorado Department of Natural Resources is considering instituting a shed-hunting season," explained Miller. "A lot of deer and elk winter there, and the shed hunters are going in earlier and earlier each year."
Dogs can learn to find shed antlers as early as 15 weeks of age. The key is to keep the training process fun and instill a genuine love of antler hunting in your dog.
Finally, shed hunting is a great way to get youngsters outside enjoying all Mother Nature has to offer. Ask any parent and they'll tell you that, with so many other competing activities, it's harder and harder to get kids to spend time outdoors. Shed hunting encourages kids to explore and learn about hunting, wildlife and good land stewardship. Having an antler dog makes shed hunting more exciting -- and successful.
Let's look at how to select a shed puppy and some of the major steps the Siglers use to train their dogs.
Picking a Pooch
Like buying any hunting dog, there are no guarantees you'll choose a champion shed hunter. Roger Sigler has trained beagles, German shorthair pointers, shepherds and even pit bulls to bring back bone. For his money, a Labrador retriever is hard to beat.
"Labs have the right attitude and working skills to retrieve," said Sigler. "They're easy to train, make great family pets and usually aren't aggressive toward other dogs or people."
Before buying a Lab puppy, look closely at its dam and sire to be sure hunting and retrieving are in its bloodlines. Ask questions about each parent's disposition and drive to minimize the odds of getting a pup with personality quirks or poor motivation.
A good trick for picking the right pooch is to take a ball and play fetch with each puppy. Choose the one that goes and gets the ball, holds onto it and doesn't bring it back to you. A dog that wants to own the ball more than it wants to give it back to you is a pup with potential -- and the one you want.
The best coonhound I ever had needed little training to trail and tree raccoons in thick marshes and mud-bogged swamps. With good bloodlines, you may find the same is true for your antler dog.
"Some dogs have an inherent understanding, and you don't have to do a lot of training," Sigler explained. "Just like children, all dogs learn at their own pace, so you have to train them at a pace they're comfortable with or you'll ruin them."
Training Your Antler Dog
Training a shed dog is a subject that could fill the pages of an entire book. Be sure to start the endeavor with patience and a positive attitude and proceed gradually, one step at a time, always making it fun for your dog.
Roger Sigler poses with Ayla, a two-year-old yellow Labrador retriever. Ayla is one of Antler Ridge's top shed-hunting dogs.
Sigler uses a unique method called the Science of Participative Training to teach dogs incrementally, starting with basic obedience and moving on to locating and retrieving sheds. Unlike traditional training methods that use negative reinforcement (e.g., shock collars), Sigler's approach is interactive and based on positive rewards. Like human shed hunters, dogs learn just how much fun shed hunting can be.
Sigler has developed a video, available on his website, that teaches his training methods. Here are the main steps in going from puppy to finished dog:
1. Basic Socialization: Starting at eight weeks, introduce your pup to new sights, smells and situations. Take the dog with you running errands or picking the kids up from school to build a bond between you and set the stage for future lessons.
2. Obedience: Teach correct behavior by marking it when it occurs by using a bell or clicker and immediately providing a reward. Sigler's method is different from standard clicker training because of its complexity and the interaction between you and your dog. A dog learns a series of commands by marking and rewarding each positive step in the right direction. Here, it is critical that your dog learn to stay, which is the command Sigler uses to tell the dog it's time to hunt for antlers.
3. Scent Discrimination: Sigler's dogs can distinguish between an antler and other deer bones. Start with a simple game of choose the right hand, being sure to first mark the correct choice and then rewarding. Over time, make things harder by increasing the options your dog has to choose from.
4. Fun Fetch: Teach your dog to love retrieving antlers by throwing an antler, marking a good retrieval and rewarding it with a game of fetch. Keep it positive, and only train for as long as your dog's attention span allows. "Over time, rather than expect a reward, the antler will be the reward for your dog," explained Rusty Rutledge, owner of a Sigler-trained dog that he uses to find sheds on his 2,000-acre, high-fence whitetail ranch.
5. Search: Start by hiding a couple antlers in a small area. Mark a good find and retrieval and reward with fun fetch. As your dog improves, progress to larger and more difficult areas, such as cornfields or wooded thickets. Teach at your dog's pace -- not yours. Finished dogs take about a year to train. Like your own hunting skills, your dog's ability will improve with maturity and experience. Before you know it, you'll have an antler dog that finds 10 times as many sheds as you do.