Tromping through the snow one spring, Greg Eckley’s dog turned around, raced uphill to a stand of trees and started digging.
Eckley stood and watched his Labrador for a minute. By the time he trudged up to him, only the dog’s behind stuck in the air.
He coaxed Buck, the dog, out of the hole and saw what he was after. There, buried under 3 feet of snow, was a hard, white deer antler. Buck had smelled the antler through the snow about 200 yards away.
Eckley learned to trust Buck’s instincts in the field, even if it meant climbing back up a hill covered in snow.
Buck brought back plenty of legs and rib bones in his years as a shed hunter. But he also found and retrieved countless elk and deer antlers. Several even scored large enough to be considered Boone and Crockett, Eckley said.
Training dogs to help look for sheds is a growing trend across the country. Shed hunters like Eckley say bringing a dog can double the number of antlers you find on a trip, especially through tall sage brush or thick woods. It’s also a good way to keep your bird dog trained to find and retrieve during the offseason.
Eckley, a Cody language arts teacher, didn’t plan to train Buck as a shed dog. He wanted a waterfowl retriever.
Buck found his first horn at 10 months old as more of a happy accident than a plan.
“I was walking in a drainage and glassing, and I could see him walking around and then he disappeared into a creek bottom,” Eckley said. “When I found him, he was on the other side of me, and I could hear something clanking in his teeth. He was carrying a big 7-point deer antler.”
Buck was so proud of himself his whole body wiggled. Eckley praised him, and a shed hunting dog was born.
Shed hunting in the spring didn’t seem to distract Buck from bird hunting in the fall. He knew if he was supposed to retrieve ducks, point for pheasants or bring back sheds.
Dale Ditolla, another Cody shed-hunter, used to spend days in the prairie and forests looking for antlers with his German shepherd, Kayla. One day, after a little coaxing, she started bringing them back to him. Ditolla's next German shepherd, Midnight, had a nose for antlers. He also started working with her as a pup.
The more antlers he found the more money he made. A brown elk antler in good shape is worth about $12 per pound this year, he said.
“You find a big set, that’s 12 pounds on each side,” he said. “I can’t say I’ve done it for the money, in all of those years I don’t think I made enough to offset the gas and trips. But I like going out in the spring.”
Eckley used to keep track of how many horns he found in a year compared to his dog’s pile. Buck’s cache was almost always twice as much as Eckley’s, often more.
Buck and Midnight are both gone now. Eckley and Ditolla have puppies again, and they started early with focused training.
Whether you have a natural retriever like Buck, or a dog with a good nose like Midnight, below are a few tips to get you and your dog started.
- Train them with sheds: Start by throwing the antler, and make sure your dog knows you’re happy when it brings the shed back. Once he or she knows what you want, try hiding it in your yard or in the field giving your retriever more of a challenge, Eckley said.
- Make sheds a treat: Don’t let your dog play with the antler all of the time. It should know the antler is special, so when it finds one in the field, it keys in on it right away and wants to bring it back. “I don’t leave antlers in the yard,” Eckley said. “I don’t want them to get bored. I want them to really desire the antler.”
- Go in the field: There’s nothing like the real experience to work on training. While practicing, try rubbing your antlers with sage brush or pine tree boughs to cover your smell with something natural, Eckley said.
- Be patient: As with all dog training, your pup might take weeks or even seasons to really understand what it needs to do. And remember, keep an eye on your dog in case it finds a big elk antler too heavy to carry back. Eckley’s dog would stay with a large antler until Eckley came to retrieve.
- Build a relationship: The closer you are to your dog, the more it will want to please you, Eckley said. “When they feel like they’re a part of the family, they want to be with you doing what you are doing.”