Find the Bone! guide to training your shed dog

Thursday, January 08, 2015
Nicole Larson
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"How do I go about training my shed dog?" One question I get asked all the time. Problem is there's no one answer, and it's not a one size fits all approach. In this first part of my "find the bone" shed dog tips and tricks, i will cover introduction and training topics I'm most frequently asked about.

As for credentials, I've handled dogs all my life and actually have obedience trained over 100 different dogs working with various shelters and non-profit organizations using researched methods and some of my own that work well for me. I have a passion for teaching and training DOGS!

Now I have a lab who is a pheasant hunting, Bird-Obsessed rockstar. He lives and breathes ducks, grouse and long tails and it will always be his passion. Most Labs are excellent hunters and versatile dogs in general with a great desire to retrieve, so obviously they make a great choice for shed dogs.
Every dog, just like humans, have their own strengths and weaknesses. Every Dog is better at some things than others. how you go about training your dog as a pup will affect him or her the rest of their life and this applies to any breed.
Be sure you understand basic obedience, and that you have your dogs ground work done before you get too serious with other types of in-depth training and refining.
Training a dog to shed hunt isn't always an easy task, and there are many factors that come into play. How old your dog is, your dogs desire to retrieve, breed, and your desire to train them- all are major parts in training for shed hunting. The younger your dog is, the easier it is to teach them most of the time. My dog was not introduced to sheds until he was nearly 3 years old. He never really showed interest with them and i had to make it a game, and show him what i wanted before he SLOWLY began to catch on. PATIENCE is key here. Building a desire to find and hunt antlers is not as natural as hunting birds, and since my dog was introduced to BIRDS before antlers, making antler "hunting" exciting was going to be tough. And to be honest, it will always be second best to my dog, as the instinct to chase birds will never just go away and besides its really what he was bred for. So if possible teach your pup to love sheds, before birds. 
For beginners, i like to use a real antler with the tines cut off so the pup/ dog cannot hurt themselves with it. If you don't have a real antler available you can buy them at your local pet store, you can also buy shed dog training systems with soft antlers to use as training tools, and they work well.
 When my dog first saw an antler he looked at it, peed on it, and walked away. I wasn't impressed. And i guess neither was he. It didn't fly, squawk or smell like anything fun so why would he want to "fetch" it for me?  every time he walked by the antler, touched it, smelled it, stepped on it, or tried to chew on it -id say "Bone! good boy" so he associated the word "bone" with the object and began noticing it was a positive thing. This works excellent for puppies!!
This is where basic obedience comes into play also. Your dog should be familiar with retrieving things and shouldn't be afraid to "hold" different objects in his mouth for you, like soft, hard, and textured things just like an antler. Teaching "Fetch it up" and "hold" commands are important tools and great training exercises for your dog. Don't confuse your dog or overwhelm them with too many commands and new things all at once. take your time and make it FUN. I cannot say this enough, work with your dog often, and make it interesting and fun so they want to do it with you and for you. Now that you understand the basics, and your dog is obedience trained AND familiar with antlers... let's head to the field!

I began taking the shed antlers and playing small games with my Dog after he became familiar with the "bone". Id ask him to hold the antler and praise him for it. Id set it down and ask him to "fetch it up" and he would grab it readily at times and other times took more encouragement, but the more repetition the more he was willing to do what i wanted him to do. Gauge wasn't a so-called natural, but he was learning what exactly i wanted even if it didn't make sense to him- he was gaining confidence every time we went out.  Hide and seek became his favorite game to play with me.
 I began washing off the antlers and using gloves to place them so he couldn't scent them. For a lab who relies SO HEAVILY on his nose, sight hunting and actually looking for antlers was a true test for him. I started moving our "find the bone" games to other places so he would transfer his skill (so he didn't think finding sheds was just meant for the yard)  and i wold make them more and more difficult to find. sometimes he would wander past them a few times, and sometimes he would find one right away. Adjust the level of difficulty with how well your dog is finding them. 
After a few weeks of practice, and lots of trial and error- Gauge was finding antlers like a PRO and retrieving to hand. He now readily will spot an antler and pick it up for me, no matter where i am or what we are doing, if he sees it - he usually will pick it up and bring it to me. It only means one thing to him... PRAISE!
Like i said earlier, training a dog is not a "one size fits all" approach. I trust the owner of the dogs knows his or her dog and knows what works for them. sometimes i feel like i train people more than dogs! No dog will be perfect at it but some are pretty darn good and I'm proud to say if trained a few, including my own. 
Gauge knows what i want him to do, and even still, if he gets a whiff of Rooster he forgets  about any antlers until he flushes the bird, gives me a weird look because i didn't shoot, and carries on. Sometimes with old antlers, he won't even notice them or will walk right over them a few times until he finally finds it, and i will make it a huge deal when he picks it up! Lots of praise encourages them to continue. Guage still has a lot of training ahead of him, but i can guarantee you it can only get better from here!
Hunting antlers isn't really considered a natural thing for them, but once they begin picking them up and seeking them out for you its a great feeling and its such a wonderful way to spend the off season exercising with your hunting buddy and training in the off season! 
Once your dog is comfortable finding sheds, its time to get some practice in! I will cover more interesting topics on training a shed dog and different techniques on one of my next blogs.
Good Luck!