Fetching fun: Teaching dogs to sniff out antlers
Northfield, Minn. (AP) — Rookie dived into a field of snow, his nose plowing a groove toward an unseen object.
"Find some bone, Rookie. Find 'em," said dog trainer Tom Dokken, Rookie's owner.
In his 30 years of dog training, Dokken has taught untold numbers of retrievers, pointers and setters to find pheasants, ducks and grouse.
Now he has another mission: teaching dogs to find shed antlers from deer.
We're watching 5-year-old Rookie, a black Labrador, track down an antler Dokken had hidden in the snow. Dokken is simulating how Rookie might find an antler dropped by a buck deer in late winter, perhaps leaving the antler half-covered with snow.
Antlers don't have much scent, not nearly as much as a warm, breathing pheasant. Still, Rookie worked his way through the woodlot, sniffing the air, until he was downwind of an antler.
Once Rookie caught a whiff of the antler, he wheeled around, found the four-point shed, picked it up and brought it back to Dokken.
"Atta boy," his owner gushed.
"The great thing about using dogs to find sheds," Dokken said, "is that they cover 10 times the ground you do. Looking for sheds is kind of like an Easter egg hunt. It's fun. It's also the time of year when you want to get outdoors and get some exercise."
Dokken isn't the first person to train a dog to find sheds. He isn't the first person, either, to become fascinated with searching for antlers.
"I'm an avid bowhunter, and Dokken said. He has, though, collaborated with sporting-dog writer Jerry Thoms on a new book, "Training Your Dog to Hunt for Shed Deer Antlers." Dokken also is giving a seminar on training dogs to find shed antlers.
Dokken will give the seminar Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Minnesota Deer Classic, which opens Friday for a three-day run at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.
In recent years, shed antler hunting has grown wildly in popularity. Shed hunters have their own clubs, antler awards system and Web sites. Early spring is when searchers start looking for antlers dropped by deer during the winter, and before rodents begin to gnaw on them.
A few years ago, Dokken began developing a training program for dogs to find shed antlers. He said the same principles apply to training a dog to find sheds as hunting pheasants.
"You start with easy tasks and train for success," Dokken said, "and gradually make the search more difficult."
Naturally, Labradors and other dogs with a strong retrieve desire are easier to train to find sheds, but Dokken said pointers can learn to find sheds, too.
He starts the training indoors. "I can play around with the dog and hide antlers in the house and get them to find them," Dokken said.
Some dogs have a strong desire to find and retrieve things; others might need a reward, such as a small food treat. It helps them learn that finding the antler has a benefit.
Antlers have scent, but not a lot. Dokken uses two new products, Rack Wax and Antler Scent, to help teach dogs to pick up the scent of the antler. He also has developed a foam rubber "training" antler for new trainers who might not have the real thing.
The Antler Scent, made by a Wisconsin company, is made of pulverized antlers and extracts, and Dokken applied it liberally to his training antler to help Rookie find it. But as Rookie learned to identify the antler smell, Dokken used less and less scent.
Freshly dropped antlers also have a waxy substance around their base, and Rack Wax, a product Dokken sells under his name, replicates that substance.
"The idea is to make it ridiculously easy for the dog to find the antler in the beginning," Dokken said.
He said dogs not only learn to pick up the scent of a dropped antler but also eventually learn to recognize the shape of antlers.
Will teaching a dog to find antlers ruin it for hunting birds? Not likely, Dokken said.
"For a hunting dog, there's a big difference between a live pheasant and an antler," he said.
Dokken will use Rookie to find sheds in areas that get a lot of winter use from deer, such as farm shelterbelts, the edges of food plots and cornfields and heavily used travel routes. He'll also look for sheds in deer bedding areas and where they cross fences. "Jumping a fence can jar a loose antler free," he said.
In northern Minnesota, shed hunters and dogs should focus their efforts in deer yards, areas such as cedar swamps or heavy conifer cover that provide shelter for deer.
During the demonstration, Rookie quickly found four antlers hidden in the woods and fields along a trail behind Dokken's training facility. In search mode, Rookie would plow through deep snow in a clump of trees to find the antlers as Dokken urged him on.
Each antler had a small red ribbon attached so Dokken could see the antler. Because dogs are colorblind, Dokken said, Rookie was searching mostly by nose.
As Rookie headed down the trail, I asked Dokken for an antler and tossed it into the snow about 15 yards off the trail. Dokken called Rookie back and said, "Rookie, find the bone!"
Even with the antler partially submerged in the snow where I'd thrown it, Rookie found the antler and brought it back to his master.
Dokken said he believes shed hunting with trained dogs will appeal to people who live in suburbs and cities where deer live.
"It's a type of hunting with your dog where you don't have a gun. And we know there are plenty of deer dropping sheds in urban areas."
Some years ago, Dokken was training dogs and stopped for a break at his pickup. He was in the country, and while the dogs were milling around the truck, one of them slipped into a shelterbelt and brought back a shed antler. Tail wagging with his prize, the dog happily brought it back to his master.
"It was one of the craziest things," Dokken said. "Now I'm thinking, why not go for a walk in the woods with your dog looking for sheds? It's a great thing to do this time of year."
Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press (Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)