Josh Miller never imagined he would be a world champion at age 23. But he is, and achieving that lofty status with Easton, his trusty chocolate Labrador at his side, has sweetened the achievement that much more.
Josh, of New Richmond, Wis., and Easton are at the forefront of what in recent years has been a fast-growing hobby, and now is a fast-growing nationwide sport: shed hunting.
Not sheds as in buildings where lawn mowers are stored. But sheds as in antlers dropped each year in winter by whitetail bucks.
"Hunting'' for the dropped antlers, or sheds, in spring as snow melts has become increasingly popular among sporting types, as deer numbers have increased.
Typically, searches are conducted on foot in areas where deer concentrate, or "yard up,'' in winter. Bucks drop their antlers any time from about Christmas through the first few months of the year, and shed hunters who stumble onto even a single side of a big animal's antlers are thrilled.
Finding both sides -- a relatively rarer occurrence -- is still more exhilarating.
"I stumbled onto shed hunting with my dog,'' Josh said. "I'm really into bow hunting, and shed hunting was just something that I've always done as winter leaves and spring arrives.
"At that time of year -- generally in March -- it's been about the only thing I find to do outdoors.''
A professional dog trainer and sales manager for SportDog, a maker of electronic collars and other dog training aids, Josh grew up in Hudson, Wis.
Some of his first shed-hunting forays were in nearby Willow River State Park.
"I took Easton along with me for the exercise, and while I looked for sheds, he kept finding tennis balls,'' Josh said. "He's a nut for tennis balls, and he seems to find them everywhere. That's what got me thinking: Why couldn't I train Easton to find sheds for me?''
Tom Dokken, owner of Oak Ridge Kennels near Northfield and a dog-training mentor of Josh's, had been thinking similarly.
"I wasn't the first person to teach a dog to hunt sheds,'' Dokken said. "But I've always been a shed hunter myself, and having a dog in the woods really helps. Training a dog to hunt sheds isn't hard. You just change your technique around a little bit, and away you go.''
An astute businessman as well as a renowned retriever trainer and kennel owner, Dokken saw an opportunity to develop a shed-hunting dog group, the North American Shed Hunting Dog Association (NASHDA), and through it organize competitions among dogs and their owners.
He has since developed a website that offers training tips and training accessories for sale (www.sheddogtrainer.com).
Now, following NASHDA's first world championship a year ago. Dokken is heading up the April 21-22 title match.
"Shed-hunting competitions have significant advantages over other types of hunting-dog tests,'' Dokken said. "For one thing, it's not required to own a specialized dog. Lots of people -- particularly deer hunters who hunt sheds -- already own dogs that can be trained to find and retrieve sheds.
"Also, putting on a shed-hunting competition isn't manpower-intensive. And these are walking trials, so anyone can do it. You don't have to run like you do in some bird hunting championships.''
Rack scent is key
Shed-hunting dogs seek their quarry using their noses.
When a buck drops an antler, blood and other material carrying scent is left at its base. It's the odor of this material that a shed-hunting dog seeks while scouring the woods.
To simulate the smell during competitions, a product called Rack Wax is rubbed onto the bases of antlers. Six antlers are then planted in three separate fields, each measuring about 15 acres.
Points are awarded for each rack found by a dog, and each time a rack is delivered by a dog to its handler.
The quicker this occurs, the higher the score awarded.
"The three fields typically represent different cover types,'' Dokken said. "One might be a grass or CRP [Conservation Reserve Program] field. One might be wooded. The other might be mixed cover.''
When Josh and Easton won last year's championship, they bested dogs and handlers from Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Michigan, Arizona and Florida, among other states.
They also topped Lee and Tiffany Lakosky, of TV's "The Crush with Lee and Tiffany,'' who placed second.
Josh hopes he can win again this year.
"Easton is 8 now,'' he said. "When I was 15, I developed a real passion for training dogs, and I umpired Little League games an entire summer to save up enough money to buy him as a puppy.
"I've trained many dogs in the time since. But Easton has always excelled at everything I asked of him. We'll see how it goes this year.
"Either way, he's still my best dog.''
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org