Canines that Hunt Tines: Dogs Trained to Retrieve Shed Antlers

Mossy knew the quarry would remain motionless, so with nose to
the ground, the Labrador retriever crisscrossed among shrubs and
trees in typical hunting dog style.

Suddenly, the pup paused as his nose picked up a whiff of what
he was searching for. But unlike many hunting situations, there was
no downed duck to pick up or whir of wings as a pheasant flushed.
Instead, Mossy picked up a single white-tail deer antler with his
mouth and began a gleeful dash back toward trainer Carla Long. The
five-month-old dog is well on his way to becoming a successful
hunting companion for those who enjoy finding shed antlers.

“It’s really no different than training a bird dog,” said Long,
who lives with husband Larry and family in the rural Siloam Springs
area north of Albany in Gentry County. “I’m just instructing them
to find the scent of deer antlers, and I do it when they’re at an
early age.”

Male deer and elk shed their antlers in late winter and early
spring and then start growing new ones. But for a few months after
the antlers fall off they lay on the ground, until mice and rabbits
seeking minerals chew them up.

Many people enjoy hunting for shed antlers in the woods and
fields when the weather is cool and the landscape is open. Some
hope to find trophy-sized antlers. Others use them for crafts such
as knife handles or sculptures. Many shed antler hunters just enjoy
the different shapes and sizes of their finds as natural art.

Antlers can be difficult to find, though, because they drop in
brushy and grassy places. Deer will commonly lose one antler at a
time. Seeing a brownish or whitish antler on the ground can be
difficult and finding a matched pair even harder.

Dogs can smell antlers just like they can smell a quail or
pheasant. A hard, bone-like antler may have almost no smell to a
human. But a dog’s sense of smell is far keener.

Long trains Labrador pups to hone in on antler scent with their
nose and then find and retrieve what once was atop a buck deer’s
head.

“It’s what the dogs enjoy doing,” she said. “If they’re having
fun doing it, that’s the thing.”

Long charges $4,000 for a Labrador she has trained to find shed
antlers. She starts with registered pups from proven lineage with
no health issues and gives them basic obedience skills so they also
make good family pets. Owners take possession when the dog is six
to seven months old and they continue the shed antler training that
she started.

“The first year is a learning experience for the owner and the
dog,” Long said.

Some owners use her shed antler dogs for double duty, such as
for retrieving downed birds while waterfowl hunting. But she only
provides the shed antler hunting training. For many of her
customers, Long said, finding antlers is their main outdoor
hobby.

“The dogs give them a better chance of finding and recovering
antlers,” she said.

In past years, Long has trained dogs for game hunting. Then she
noticed a few trainers around the nation offered dogs for sale that
specialize in hunting shed antlers. So three years ago she began
antler training with pups.

On her front porch is a pile of antlers found in past hunts that
she uses for training. She leaves them out in the open air so they
can become free of any human or dog scent. Long wears
scent-blocking gloves when she’s handling antlers used for
training. Once a dog has retrieved an antler a few times, it’s
retired for a few weeks. She wants the dog to only hone in on
antler scent.

When puppies arrive at her house, one of the first things they
find is a pile of antlers in the yard. Puppies are allowed to play
with antlers for a few hours after training sessions. Long does
some toss and retrieve play with them, but she’s careful about not
doing too much.

“Antlers don’t fly,” she said. “I want them to be looking for a
motionless object and not looking for flight.”

Long has developed some techniques for conditioning pups to
antler scent that she does not reveal. But the basics are tapping a
dog’s instincts to hunt, to react to scent and to please the dog’s
best friend – the owner.

It’s probably possible that dogs could be trained to find morel
mushrooms with the same technique, Long said, though she hasn’t
tried that. Keeping a fragile morel fresh for training would be far
harder than storing hard and dense antlers.

For now, Long and her pups are happy seeking antlers. Mossy
takes such pride in finding an antler that his first impulse is to
run back to the kennel and show off his finds for the other pups in
training.

“Mossy is in heaven when he’s got an antler,” Long said. “He’s
obsessed with the antler.”

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