Last winter, when my Lab pup, Luna, was about only 10 months old, my wife and I were walking through a park near our house. It was a rare day with the girls at daycare and the two of us enjoying a break from the frigid weather.
As I’m prone to do, I turned the stroll into a shed-hunting mission of relatively light effort. We crossed a field of native prairie grass while watching Luna streak back and forth through the windbent, yellowed grass.
She had yet to find an antler on her own, but was loaded with promise.
Before heading home, Rachel and I decided to walk through one last woodline and enjoy the fresh air for a bit longer. That was when I noticed Luna digging in the grass and casually said, “I think she found one.”
Rachel, who had not yet been convinced that our puppy was anything above a low-level dimwit, wasn’t so sure. Luna ran back to me excitedly as if to say, “You are going to LOVE what I just found.” I sent her back with the find-the-bone command. She dug in the grass again and brought me a three-point shed, which was the culmination of an awful lot of training that started the day I picked her up and brought her home.
Later in the winter, good friend Eric Rain and I scoured a patch of public land in Wisconsin for antlers. During a single morning we found four, all of which Luna eventually brought to hand. She didn’t set the world on fire, instead focusing on flushing grouse and general puppy randomness, but it was clear she recognized antlers and was happy to bring them to me.
Fast forward to right now and you can imagine my surprise when I brought Luna outside to run a refresher course on sheds and she didn’t blow me away with her skills. Sure, she brought the stashed antlers to hand, but not with the enthusiasm of the previous year. It seems as if a few months chasing game birds of all varieties has tamped down her desire to retrieve cold, scentless bone. This is pretty common with shed dogs that serve the dual purpose of being bird dogs, so I’m back to some remedial shed work in order to get her back into shape for the rapidly approaching shed season.
To start with, we are running simple retrieving drills with a small antler to ensure that she is excited about bone. Luna’s favorite activity in the world aside from eating is retrieving, so when I throw something – anything – she goes and retrieves it. The dummies of spring, summer, and fall have been replaced by antlers and she doesn’t seem too bent out of shape by the switch.
I’m also stashing antlers throughout our backyard and leaving them overnight. Some I’m using antler scent on, others I’m cleaning completely with the same scent eliminator I use during deer season. The goal is to work with her every day on the stuff we covered extensively during her first winter, so that she’ll ease back into the role of being a shed hunter and ease out of the mindset that the best things in life are covered in feathers and smell much, much better than antlers.
I didn’t revert all of the way back to using antler silhouettes and treat training, because she doesn’t need it. If she did, I would.
After another week or so of yard training I’ll take her to the park by my house to breathe new life into the education process.
There is nothing better than training a dog where they’ll actually be hunting, and although I know that real antlers will be few and far between in there, we will still spend plenty of time scouring the woods and fields because of the park’s proximity to my house.
Hopefully by next spring, we’ll have enough new sheds to train with in a year, when inevitably, I’ll have to revisit antler-locating drills meant to sharpen skills dulled by a fall of chasing ducks and grouse.