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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