With his chocolate Labrador, Easton, by his side, Josh Miller walked into a training field not far from his kennel. Slung over one shoulder was a game holder weighed down not with pheasants or ducks but deer antlers, objects of Easton’s intense desire.
Commanding the dog to sit and stay, Miller then strolled ahead of the alert retriever and hid one antler, or “shed,’’ in tall grass, out of the animal’s sight. More demonstration than training regimen, the exercise that followed nevertheless thrilled Miller, and especially Easton.
“Good boy,’’ Miller said as Easton, 11 years old, scoured the countryside on command. With vacuum-like proficiency, he located the antler quickly, grasped it between his teeth and returned it to his master.
Welcome to shed hunting. Or at least the training that precedes competitive shed hunting, the Big Daddy of which is slated for next weekend at Dokken’s Oak Ridge Kennels (www.dokkensoakridgekennels.com) near Northfield.
“I’ll be running three dogs, and my assistant, Dave Larson, will run two,’’ said Miller, who has twice won the open division of the World Shed Hunting Championship, an event now in its fifth year and founded by Tom Dokken, whose kennel bears his name.
Arguably, the sport is the fastest growing among hunting-dog competitions, though entered dogs aren’t required to be any particular breed. They needn’t even have fancy pedigrees
Or any pedigree.
“But you do want a dog with a strong retrieving instinct,’’ Miller said as he petted Easton, the 2011 world champ. “It helps also if the dog is fast, but not so fast that he overruns his nose.’’
Shed hunting competitions are rooted in the desire among hunters to find and collect antlers that deer shed in winter.
Who exactly among dog owners first realized that some canines could be trained to seek and find antlers at a fast pace, while covering a large area, is unknown. Certainly within a dozen years or so ago, word spread among retriever owners particularly that the scent carried by antlers could alert dogs to their presence, even if covered by leaves or brush.
Perhaps predictably, bragging about whose dog could find antlers the quickest followed soon thereafter, and then competitions.
Miller, a professional trainer whose River Stone Kennels (www.riverstonekennelscom) are located not far from New Richmond, Wis., was intrigued early on by shed hunting, because he’s a bow hunter and nearly as fascinated with chasing whitetails as he is with training dogs.
“I love looking for sheds in the spring,’’ he said. “And using a dog to help only adds to the fun. It also gives an owner something to do with a dog at a time when there’s no hunting season open.’’
Yet the sport is finding aficionados among non-hunters, too.
“A lot of people own retrievers and other sporting breeds, but they don’t hunt with them,’’ Miller said. “Sometimes it’s because they don’t like being around guns. In other cases, hunting isn’t something they were exposed to as kids.
“Either way, they’re a good fit for shed hunting competitions because there are no guns, or even gunfire, as there is in gundog trials or tests. Instead you’re judged basically by how fast your dog can find and retrieve antlers in a given area.’’
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On Saturday, about 80 dogs, some from as far away as Florida, are expected to start the two-day World Championship. Each would have qualified earlier in smaller events held around the country.
Various breeds will compete. But most will be retrievers: Labradors, goldens, Chessies and even Labradoodles (Labrador-poodle crosses), among others.
The goal of each will be to seek six antlers hidden by judges in a field perhaps 5 acres in size. Time allowed will be 15 minutes, and credit will be awarded for time not used. So a dog that finds and returns to its handler all six antlers in, say, seven minutes, will be scored higher than one that takes 10 minutes, assuming no other penalties are assessed.
When Miller won the championship with Easton in 2011 and followed that title with another in 2013, running a customer’s black Labrador named Remi (owner: Matt Harten of Anoka), he and his charges used only a fraction of the allotted time.
“It’s not necessary, but it helps if a dog can take hand and whistle signals, so you can direct him to an area you can’t get to as quickly,’’ Miller said, noting that handlers aren’t allowed to run. “But mostly what I look for is a dog that can quarter quickly in front of you, fast but not too fast, because it’s easy to overrun antlers, which can cost you time.’’
Rules dictate that once a dog finds a shed, a handler can’t move in its direction. Instead the handler must remain still and wait for the dog to retrieve the antler to hand.
Open classes are for all competitors, including professionals. Amateur classes are for everyone except pros. And the “Junior’’ class is for dogs younger than 2 years old.
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Advantages shed hunting has over other dog competitions include its relatively low entry cost and an abundance of available training areas.
City folks, for instance, can train anywhere dogs are allowed to run loose. That might be a park or playground, or a vacant lot.
And antlers from wild deer aren’t required for training. Plastic training sheds are readily available in pet or sporting good stores, or online. The same scent that competition judges use is also widely available.
Yet Miller warns that trainers should be vigilantly scent-mindful.
“The biggest mistake people make is that they overtrain in their yards with artificial antlers,’’ he said. “Then they get their dogs in the wild and sometimes they run right by an actual antler, even if it’s scented.’’
Keen dogs can also lock in on scent trails trainers leave while planting sheds. In such cases, dogs might appear to be swift and sure, finding sheds quickly. But they’re not so much hunting for antlers as they are tracking their masters.
“That’s why we wear rubber boots and rubber gloves when handling antlers and planting them, and we’ll also scent-kill antlers before putting antler scent on them,’’ Miller said.
Competitions notwithstanding, shed hunting with a favorite dog can be its own reward. Following a dog in springtime, just after the snow melts, in pursuit of a wild antler, is good for dog and human alike.
“If I weren’t training so hard now for the championship, that’s what I’d be doing,’’ Miller said. “I monitor deer on trail cameras in the spring. That way I can tell when antlers have been dropped.
“It’s then I love to walk in the woods, following my dog.’’
Editor’s note: More about the North American Shed Hunting Dog Association (NASHDA) World Championship at www.everythingsheddog.com.