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I get a lot of questions about training a dog to hunt for shed antlers. Because I get so many questions about it and it is relatively easy to teach, I am going to start a blog on training a shed antler dog.
You don’t need a retriever to hunt for sheds. Any dog with good food or toy drive can be trained for antler hunting. Retrievers already have strong retrieving instincts and the physical strength to carry a good sized antler but even a small dog can be taught to locate them.
The focus of this blog will be on teaching a dog to work for a reward. Before we begin, let me say that in dog training, there are often many different methods to achieve the same goal and this is certainly not the only way.
Reward-based training is a little bit different from blood trailing and other prey-based hunting activities which are self reinforcing (the hunt or chase itself is rewarding to the dog.) We have to give the antler appeal, give the dog a reason to hunt for antlers, and make antler hunting a fun game that the dog is willing to perform in order to win a reward.
In case you are wondering, antler hunting will not interfere with your dog’s other jobs if you do your training correctly. If you have a blood tracking dog, cross training him to hunt sheds during the Spring and Summer will not interfere with his other jobs.
So first things first…
Let’s talk about antlers, because not just any old antler will do.
The type of antlers that work best for this kind of thing are very fresh antlers with pedicle attached. Most of the odor originates from the pedical. If you look closely at the image below, you can see these pedicals have hair and skin tissue still attached to them. If you could smell them, you would detect a distinct animal odor very much like the forehead of a buck in rut. If a person can smell this a few inches away, the dog certainly can smell it from several feet or even yards downwind.
These antlers are very white in color because they came from pen-raised deer but normally antlers that are very dry and sun-bleached are not good to use. These are “fresh picked” from a deer pen, even though they are white.
If your dog already enjoys playing with or chewing on antlers, you may be able to skip this step, but it’s a good way to teach a dog the foundations of scenting and searching behavior.
Before we introduce the target odor (antler odor) we are going to show the dog how to use its nose to search for a reward (in the form of food or a toy.) In the beginning, we are going to have the dog self-reward by finding the source and eating it or playing with it. The key here is that the search and find behavior is perfectly reinforced through the dog’s ability to self-reward at source.
I have had the pleasure of working with some very food-driven dogs so, for the purposes of this blog, I’ll be focusing on food rewards but if your dog is more motivated by a certain toy or ball (or an antler!) by all means, substitute that item for the food.
I start with a very high value treat. Soft, moist foods are easy to break up and have the most appeal. If your dog doesn’t go crazy for soft pressed dog treats, pieces of hot dog work wonders.
I crate the dog or put him in a place where he can’t see what is going on and hide a piece of food under a bucket or a rock. Then I take the dog out and allow him to search for the food. If your dog has a good handle and is good at following your hand signals and directions, you don’t need to leash him but a leash will help you control the search area and help the dog find the treats faster. Walk him by the hides and give him time to search and pin point the odor. Once he finds the treat, quickly reward him by offering another treat. It’s important to carry a few treats in a pouch or baggy in your pocket so that you can quickly reward a successful find. This will help once it’s time to pair the food odor with the target odor (in our case, antlers.) You want to reward the find as quickly as possible. (If using a favorite toy instead of using food for this step, this would be a good time to bounce or throw the toy.)
Once your dog is consistently locating pieces of food, we can either pair that odor with an antler by hiding food and antlers together or teach the dog to target the antler without pairing.
If you are going to pair, just hide the antler and piece of food together. Continue rewarding for a successful search & find and eventually remove the piece of food from the hide area. The dog should begin to target the antler in anticipation of a receiving a reward from you. This is why it’s important to continue rewarding a successful search with food out of your pocket. The dog knows every time he found that odor in the past, it has earned him a reward so he will continue to search for it in anticipation of winning another reward.
I’ve trained a dog with pairing and I’ve trained a dog without pairing. Most dogs do better with either one or the other. If you’re not going to pair odors, you’ll have to teach the dog to target antlers with a technique dog trainers refer to as “shaping.” When shaping behaviors, all we are doing is fine-tuning a behavior that your dog already knows.
In a nutshell, we make the antler appealing and give the dog a reason to pick up. I might start off teasing the dog with an antler and rewarding him for chasing, pouncing on, or picking it up.
At first, you might just be rewarding the act of sniffing the antler. If the dog occasionally picks it up, start administering rewards for that behavior only. If the dog picks it up and brings it to you, only reward that and not just picking the antler up and dropping it.
Dogs do what works. And any behavior that results in reward is more likely to be repeated.
The reward may come in the form of a piece of food or having the antler tossed for him. It really depends on what motivates the dog. Some are so motivated by play that the antler itself becomes a toy. Others are more motivated by the food they earn for picking the antler up and bringing it to your hand. Whatever the case may be, the reward adds value to the antlers and a highly motivated dog will not be able to resist picking them up to earn that reward.
If the dog loves to tug, tie the antler to a rope and drag or swing it around. Whatever it takes to get the dog engaged and then pay, pay, pay! by rewarding the dog with more play time or food. Every time he grabs the antler, chases it, or paws at it, praise and reward.
I am currently training a young dog that loves to find the antlers and play with them but he has a bad habit of taking them off then prancing around for a few seconds before laying down to chew on them or dropping them in favor of something else.
If your dog is doing this, put him on a long leash. Stand on the leash but make sure he has plenty of slack to run around. Now hand him the antler. Once he’s got it in his mouth, cup your hand under it. Don’t ask him to do anything and don’t try to take it away from him. Just wait it out. The instant he drops the antler, even if he doesn’t drop it in your hand, pick it up and hand it back to him. Better yet, toss it to him if he enjoys picking it up. Remember, antlers are hard and pointy and most dogs don’t enjoy playing “catch” with them. They’ll duck or dodge if an antler is thrown at their head. So be careful not to clock the dog while playing antler games.
In the next part of this blog, we will hide some antlers and begin showing the dog how to search for them. If you have any questions about any of the techniques up until now, please post them as I would love to answer them!
Lacy owners are always wanting to know what kinds of activities and training are fun to do with their working breed. Most of our dogs work seasonally which can mean weeks or months of down time.
Antler hunting is simple nose work and a fun search and scenting activity for virtually all dogs. It’s easy to learn and provides mental and physical stimulation.
It is easy to teach a dog to find shed antlers through basic reward based training. To start out, you present an antler to the dog and every time the dog pays noses or mouths the antler , mark the behavior with good feedback and rewarded the dog with a high value food item. After a few repetitions, the dog will be excited to find an antler in anticipation of earning a reward.
After a few repetitions, you can begin hiding the antlers and encouraging the dog to search for them.
Some dogs are more food driven and will work harder for a food reward. Others are more motivated by toys and play so their reward might be to have the antler tossed for them so they can chase and retrieve it.
When we practice shed hunting, I will plant several sheds over a large area. It helps to wear gloves so the oils from your skin do not contaminate the antler. Fresh antlers are better than old, dry antlers. In fact, Spring is the best time to take a dog hunting because freshly shed antlers are ripe with fresh scent from the buck’s head hair, blood, and skin cells.
Like bird dogs, antler dogs work about 50 yards in front of a hunter. I work the dog into the wind to maximize the air currents. Antler dogs will cover at least three times the area a hunter could, including tight spots the hunter cannot easily access.
Here are a couple of videos of Rowdy working. The first video is longer the second. In both videos, you can see where she catches the scent downwind.
If you want to hunt lions and bears, you have to find lions and bears…and in the vast rugged West, that is often easier said than done. For decades, dogs have helped hunters and ranchers locate, track, and tree game in a variety of conditions. Traditionally a roll fulfilled by hounds, Lacys, cur dogs and similar breeds are gaining popularity as effective tree dogs because of their intelligence and versatility.
“You can go catch a lion Monday, check traps on Tuesday and push cows around on Wednesday,” says Cory Davidson of Central Nevada. Multi purpose dogs are ideal for ranchers. A dog capable of tracking a variety of predators is instrumental in keeping livestock safe from coyotes and big cats. Cory hunts with a mixed pack of hounds and one Lacy. He admires the speed of a Lacy dog and believes they hunt harder…even though the hounds possess a cold nose for picking up the oldest tracks.
Lions, bears, and small game such as racoons and squirrels resort to climbing trees or ledges for safety. Once the dogs have located a track and found the quarry, their job is to push it up a tree and surround the base, baying to keep the animal from fleeing. Dogs that bay consistently and maintain respect for the cat or bear are more effective at holding the animal and less likely to be wounded or killed.
A multi purpose dog does require a bit more time to train. It’s easier to train a pup from experienced dogs than to start from scratch.
Since Lacys are so intelligent, they are easy to teach to track and tree. Most hunters start puppies on drags where a line is tied to a lion pelt (or whichever type of animal you intend to hunt) and drug through the woods. As with blood tracking, a good tracker must be conditioned to track. This means nurturing the desire to hunt and locate prey by keeping it fun and rewarding for the dog. There are few things more fun and exciting to a bay dog than a critter in a cage. A live animal can be trapped and a put it into a cage for the dog to bay and chase across the ground. Though not often thought of as a treeing breed, Lacys can be taught to tree very easily by suspending a caged animal from a tree where the dog has to opportunity to approach the tree and become excited about the prize in the top.
Lacys and cur dogs are well-balanced breeds, adaptable to various types of hunting and terrain. Their agility, speed, and a baying style that is unrelenting make them good choices for hunting predators in rough country. Although not specifically bred for treeing abilities, they are intelligent enough to learn to tree very quickly and can become proficient in trailing and treeing bear, cougar and bobcat when hunted in packs.
The life of a hunting or ranch dog and the nature of his work is inherently dangerous. In the outdoors, domestic dogs are exposed to the elements and always at risk of a venomous snake encounter. Snake avoidance conditioning is often referred to as snake proofing or de-snaking and is very effective at teaching dogs to steer clear of snakes.
I put my first lacy puppy through a snake avoidance class when she was about a year old. Four years later she will still alert to the smell or sight of most snakes which is not only beneficial for her, it lets me know that a snake is present.
During a snake avoidance class, the instructor uses an e-collar as an aversion tool. Defanged snakes are placed on the ground and the dog is given an opportunity to wind the snake and make visual contact. Timing is important and a good trainer knows how to read a dog’s curiosity and body language and apply a high level of stimulation at just the right moment to divert the dog away from the snake. In most cases it only takes one incident for the dog to learn. After the initial experience, the dog is led down wind to a concealed snake to ensure he recognizes it by smell alone. Ideally, the dog should learn to identify snakes with all three senses, sight, sound, and smell.
Sometimes the instructor puts the snake in between the dog and handler and asks the handler to call his dog. This is to confirm that the dog has learned to give snakes a wide berth. When tested in this manner, my dogs will dig their heels in and refuse to move any closer, even if led toward the snake.
It’s important to note that not all species smell the same to a dog. Though rattlesnakes are most often used because they are most likely to bite and very deadly, snake avoidance trainers will usually bring a cottonmouth and a copperhead to give the dog a full range of smells to identify. According to Harlen Winters, a trainer from Burnet, Texas, rat snakes, coral snakes, or dead rattlesnakes will not produce the identical smell that the dog has learned to avoid. Just last week, however, my dogs alerted at the smell and sight of a fresh snake skin in the yard. I don’t know if they were going by scent or sight but they avoided that particular area for two days. Harlen also recommends a yearly refresher course and most trainers will do this free of charge.
Despite all our efforts to keep our dogs safe in the woods, accidents do happen. Sometimes a dog will inadvertently step on a snake. If a dog does get bit by a venomous snake, immediately administer Benadryl at 1mg/pound and take the dog to the nearest vet for a round of antibiotics and fluids. Antivenin is expensive and many vets don’t keep it on hand but it is beneficial if given within 24 hours.
Ever since B.F. Skinner laid out the foundations of Operant Conditioning, OC based methods have been increasingly used to teach dogs and other animals a wide variety of behaviors. Much of the original development of the training techniques occurred at marine parks, where scientists and trainers were assisted by graduate students and Skinner’s children. Then, with the aid and impetus of the Internet, groups of dog owners and trainers alike discovered the benefits of OC and the Positive Training movement began to explode. Today, there remain two fundamentally different approaches to dog training: Positive Reinforcement (Here Fifi sweetie, come to Mommy and you get this treat) and Traditional (Hey Atlas, you crazy cur, stay away from that rabbit trail or my boot is going where the sun don’t shine). The trend, however, is clearly towards OC based Positive Reinforcement training methods. Dogs trained with the new techniques have shown, in obedience, agility and other competitions, that these techniques produce results that equal or surpass Traditional correction based training methods. The most popular OC based training method, by far, is Clicker Training. Originally conceptualized by Karen Pryor at Sealife Marine Park in Hawaii, Clicker Training has even being used for performance training of human athletes.
Why you should understand Operant Conditioning
“But I have a hog hunting/blood tracking/herding Lacy Dog bred to do those things. And he does them. What do I need with some fancy technique?” Well, the funny thing is you already use Operant Conditioning with your dog, all the time, every single day. This is so important I’m going to repeat it. You are use Operant Conditioning, every day, every time you interact with your dog! Now, given you are going to do something, don’t you want to get it right? Hey, you have a Lacy Dog. You know he is smarter than 99.9% of the dogs out there, and I bet your dog watches every little thing you say and do. You picked your dog because of what he is capable of doing. So make the most of it!
And there is a specific reason why this is the right technique for a Lacy Dog, even more so than for other breeds. Reading the NLDA Breed Standard, a Lacy is to have “incredible drive and determination to work.” These are reflections of a Lacy’s high prey drive, or predatory instinct. Lacy Dogs are bred to retain as much of their wild wolf ancestor’s predatory instinct as possible and still be safe around humans. One of the things that separates wild predators from domestic animals is that wild predators cannot be successfully disciplined. You can’t discipline a killer whale or a tiger, and, most importantly, you can’t use discipline to successfully train a wolf. Yank on a wolf’s collar and all he does is yank back even harder. Read the rest of this entry »
There is no single, surefire method to train a Lacy on hogs. Each dog is different and what works for one hunter may not work for another. However, these are some of the things we’ve found most successful with our own dogs as well as other dogs we have trained. Please remember safety first and be patient.
The first step, regardless of the dog’s age, is introducing them to a hog. Our own pups start that process at six to eight weeks old, always on a hog of equal or smaller size. The puppies typically see the piglet as a playmate until the piglet nips them, which is usually what “keys” the pup off. Older dogs may need a companion to help them find their way. We use one of our finished dogs to teach older pups and dogs the first few times. After that introduction, we have them work alone for a while so they learn to trust themselves.
As the dog progresses and gains confidence, as well as knowledge of how the hog moves and thinks, we graduate them up in hog size until they can control a 200 to 250 pound boar efficiently. Repetition is important, working the dog on a daily bases increases their drive and helps keep them focused. A young pup will have a short attention span, so five to ten minutes a day is enough. Older dogs can work anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes. It’s important not to overwork your dog. Give them breaks and let them get a drink. Read the rest of this entry »