E306: Erin Lynes - "Shed Antler Hunting with Your Canine"

Searching for and retrieving antlers — either as a pursuit in the wild or for competition — is one of the fastest growing activities that appeals to a large variety of dogs. If you enjoy being outdoors with your dogs, this may be the game for you! Erin and I talk about the ins and outs of teaching your dog to hunt shed antlers in this podcast episode. 


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau, and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast, brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods. Today I have Erin Lynes here with me to talk about shed antler hunting. Hi Erin, welcome back to the podcast!

Erin Lynes: Hi Melissa. I'm so excited to be back on the podcast. Thanks for having me.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. To start us out, do you wanna just kind of remind everybody a little bit about you and who your dogs are?

Erin Lynes: Sure, yeah. I'm a dog breeder and trainer from Quesnel, BC Canada, and I live with a whole hoard of labs and one beagle. So I like to cross train and train seasonally. So we do a little bit of all the things a little bit at a time depending on how the weather and seasons allow us to do it. But as for my current dogs, that would take two podcasts to go through them all. So I'll tell you about my two oldest dogs and my two current shed antler dogs, if you'd like to hear about them. So yeah, the two older dogs, Kimber and Chester Kimber just turned 14 and Chester is about to turn 14 and they are both Labrador retrievers and those are two of the dogs that I first started shed antler hunting with. Actually Chester found the very first shed antler that we'd ever found totally by accident while we were duck hunting of all things.

And that's kind of what started off the passion with this particular sport. So he gets the credit for accidentally introducing us to this awesome hobby. Kimber actually was one of our best shed antler dogs for many years and even though she's older now and her mobility's getting to be a little bit less awesome with her advanced age, she still likes to do searches.

So when the conditions are perfect, we still take her out a little bit too. So she loves that. She's got a very, very good nose and loves the activity. But the two younger dogs that I'm currently training for shed antler hunting are Pounce who is a three-year-old black lab female and Marlin, who's just about two, he's a yellow lab and they love it.

So we get out as much as we can training during the off season. And unfortunately this year the off season has been extended quite a bit because we've had so much snow up here in Quesnel. But we're still working on doing some training and we are pretty sure that we're gonna be able to get out for our first actual shed hunt sometime this week for this year. So that's exciting. There's been a lot of buildup waiting for this. Lot of waiting for it. Yeah.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. So let's start with kinda the basics. What is shed hunting? What is it that we're talking about?

Erin Lynes: Yeah, that's a good place to start. So shed antler hunting is basically the sport or hobby of getting out into the wilderness and looking for antlers that wild animals like deer, elk, moose and caribou have naturally shed off their heads. So every shed season, which is late winter to early spring, depending on the species, these animals will shed their antler off. They'll drop them off naturally and leave them like little prizes throughout the wilderness for interested parties to find. So getting out there in the wild to find those is what we do. And there's plenty of people that do shed antler hunting without dogs, but obviously as a dog person I wanna do it with my dogs and it actually makes it so much more efficient and fun to do it as well.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, cuz I imagine the dogs can actually sniff them out, whereas we kind of have to rely on visual cues. Right?

Erin Lynes: Exactly. Yeah, they can access a lot more areas than we can too. So a lot of times Moose for example, will shed their antler while they're eating at the edge of a, of a pond in the winter and as the spring comes and the snow kind of melts, they get a little bit submerged and it's kind of deep and yucky and places that we probably wouldn't go as a human searcher.

The dogs can get in there real easily and they find all those difficult to find ones, so that's super helpful too. Yeah. So you kind of mentioned them in there, but what are the different types of antlers that you can hunt for? There are different species of each of these creatures, but basically anything that sheds antlers, we can look for their sheds.

Different species of deer. They're always the males, different species of elk. They're always the males and the male members of moose, but females and males from caribou species actually shed their antlers as well. So we can look for any of them depending on what's in your available region.

Melissa Breau: What do you do with them once you find them?

Erin Lynes: I'm so glad you asked that. So just like people collect ribbons from dog sports, we hoard and collect antlers. So the very nicest, most special ones go on display and the others you collect in little bins and in piles in your garage and you start to think, I've got too many, I should probably get rid of some of these. But you start going through them all and you're like, well I remember this one that was a really fun search, I can't get rid of that one. And this one I, oh yeah, that was very difficult. That was, that was the first one that Marlin ever found. I can't get rid of that one. And pretty soon you're just, you've just got piles and piles of them and so hoarding them is the primary thing to do with them.

However, there are actually some practical uses for atler as well. Obviously we can use them as dog chews. So that's a real perk, especially with how expensive it is to buy antler chews and the fresh ones that you find in the wild that are in a big full piece rather than cut up into little chunks are way better for the dogs anyway.

So definitely we actually put a healthy proportion of the ones we find right back into dog bellies. The other thing that people do with them are crafts and artsy type things. So the really nice pristine antlers often get used for carving. People will make decorative carvings out of them. They can be used to make jewelry. My father-in-law actually takes antlers and he carves them into custom knife handles.

The antler part is the handle of the knife. They're very beautiful. So those sorts of crafty things can be done with them as well. Yeah, there's, there's, there's a number of different uses and actually now I just this week read research that they're looking at antlers and the stem cells within them to try and do something scientific about the regenerative process of the stem cells and antlers. Because antlers, when they grow, grow so fast, they'll grow like an inch and a day on some of the bigger animals. So they're looking at figuring out if there's something special about those stem cells that can be used, you know, helpfully in medicine. So I wouldn't be surprised if in the future there's some sort of medical process there as well.

Melissa Breau: Super interesting. And that's quite a diverse lot of things for, for our options.

Erin Lynes: Exactly.

Melissa Breau: So I think you mentioned, and there's something about competition. Can you actually compete in shed antler hunting and, and if so, can you kind of talk us through what that's like?

Erin Lynes: Yeah, so there are shed antler hunting trials relatively recent as a sport. So I'd say, I think probably around the last 10 years is when these have sprouted up shed antler hunting looks a little bit different than hunting for them in the wild, of course, like all trials do, it's, you have to have a little bit of an artificial setup. However, it's still dogs looking for antlers and retrieving them to the handler.

So, the scoring process is generally a time-based thing. Dogs have to find a set amount of antlers in a specific size space and they have to retrieve them to their handler with the fastest dog winning. Of course, they search one at a time like they would in nosework or any other event like that. And it's always blind to the handler. So the handler doesn't know where the antlers will be within the search area.

There are specific rules about what you can do as far as the handler to help the dog finish the retrieve. So once the dog has located an antler, most of the organizations require that you make no further forward progress as the handler. So you have to stop moving at the lower levels. You might be able to back up a few steps to encourage your dog to retrieve to you, but generally speaking, the dog has to finish the retrieve on their own and return it to you and then, the clock just keeps ticking until you found all those antler in that specific area.

Melissa Breau: Super interesting. So yeah, cause I'd imagine if you, you were just out kind of hunting with your, with your dog casually, you probably wouldn't look for quite that formal of a retrieve, but Yeah.

Erin Lynes: Yeah. So the formalist of the retrieve isn't as required with hunting in the wild. The other thing is that the scent is almost totally a different setup. So when you're hunting in the wild, your dog is looking for that one very specific antler scent that you've trained. And most dogs, even without formal training, are gonna find fresh antlers because it's just got an interesting smell. It smells a little bit like probably comparable to like a fresh bone sort of thing. That little bit of that meaty smell. So they're gonna be naturally interested in that. And in, in a big wide open space, a forest or a field, they're gonna be interested in that smell even without training.

Of course with training we teach them to, to bring it back to us. So that's helpful in a shed hunt trial. There's all kinds of other smells sort of contaminating the search area too. So the, the different handlers who have handled those atler from the previous rounds, the traffic of the dogs and the handlers throughout the course as the, as they've been doing their searches, the volunteers who've planted their antlers. So there can be quite like an extensive amount of scent in those areas. So it's a potentially even more challenging search to do it in the trials and a little more concentrated, I guess you could think about it that way. Are the antlers basically replaced in the same places for each dog? So typically what happens is like they'll go through all the dogs and the hand, the antlers will go back in the same places for that search. But any handlers that have a second dog or third dog entered, they'll use the same search area, but they'll find new hiding places for the antlers. So especially for those dogs, if they're running in that order, some of the areas that might have been blank before now have antler, some of the areas that are supposed to be blank now, now have that old scent. So there's a lot of, there's a lot of challenges with all those, those orders.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, I could see that would make it much more difficult for whichever dog you choose to run second.

Erin Lynes: Yes. Yeah.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. So shed antler hunting kind of sounds a little bit different than some of the other scent games, right? Like traditional nosework or something. Since you're kind of searching for something that may or may not actually be there when you're searching in the wild or even the competitions are quite a bit different than a normal nosework competition, right. When you're searching in the wild, how do you kind of keep your dog's motivation up for hunting if sometimes they're just not gonna find anything?

Erin Lynes: I'm really glad you asked that question cuz that's an important piece of the puzzle. One of the things we wanna do when we're introducing our dogs to shed antler hunting is we wanna make sure that it's all about the happy feelings. So the search itself has to be pretty fun and interesting to the dog that way when they're, they're searching around and it might take minutes or hours or a very long time to find any sort of antler, they're not having a bad time doing it, they're still enjoying themselves even when it's not super fruitful. However, when we're out hunting, we also do specifically bring antlers that we can plant if it seems like it's been going too long without success. Our dogs are super dependent on us picking areas to search that are likely to be, you know, filled with antlers.

And humans don't always get that right. So we wanna make sure that they still, they still understand, okay, yeah, there could be antlers anywhere, keep searching and the longer you search, the more likely you are to find one and it's, and we're gonna have an awesome time when we find one. So I think compared to the trials, when you're out hunting, your dog is working at a little bit lower arousal level because they're not expecting to find like five antlers in three minutes. They are sort of like enjoying the experience a little more, looking for that sent, checking out anything in the environment that is perhaps a little bit novel because that would be an intelligent thing to investigate. And then, yeah, and then just making sure that you've got some way to reinforce them for their search efforts by having those, those training antlers along that you can use.

Melissa Breau: Do you worry about, or do you differentiate somehow maybe for the dog, like when you're just going on an off leash hike versus like when you're going out specifically to search for antlers, like how do you, how do you ensure that like every off leash hike doesn't become an antler search session in the dog's mind and vice versa? You know what I mean?

Erin Lynes: Yeah. First of all, I would love if my dogs found antler on every off leash hike. I'm totally open to them doing that. So the skills that we utilize for shed antler hunting should be pretty complimentary to off leash hiking. We want them to be interacting with the environment but not too far away. We want them to be within sight always. We want it to be reasonably controlled. We want them to be going in the same general direction that we're going. There's definitely cues to the dog when we're totally wanting them to search and encouraging it versus just out on a hike so they, I know that they understand and read those cues. Like, I'm not gonna stop and look at every little pointy thing in the forest when we're out on a hike, but I'm definitely gonna do it when we're out. Shed antler hunting and they take those opportunities, they're like, oh, you're interested, I'm interested too. They know the difference, but I don't think you have to worry too much about bad behaviors leaking over into off leash hikes from shed antler hunting because the behaviors that we teach are, are so complimentary, just staying in within an appropriate range, checking out the environment, but not, we don't want them obviously going chasing off on wild animal smells or anything like that. So it's pretty compatible. If you've got a dog who's already a really solid, off-leash leash hiker, I would totally suggest looking into shed antler hunting because it's something that you can do two things at once.

Melissa Breau: Totally. Okay. So talk to me a little about the skills. We're talking about actually teaching the dog here for shed antler hunting. How do you approach it? Like what, what pieces do we need to kind of teach them?

Erin Lynes: So for most dogs, they need to learn how to become comfortable retrieving the antler. So antlers vary in size, they vary in shape, they are pretty hard. So sometimes it takes a little bit of a process to get the dogs used to the feel of an antler in their mouth and that isn't totally fun and rewarding. Retrieve objects. So that's a big part of it. And then the specific search skills as well. So we want them to be searching independently, confidently. We don't want them to be relying too much on us directing them around because we're not always gonna know where to direct them around. And then obviously staying in the range of the handler is a big part of it too, so they kind of have to be working the environment with, but with like one eye and one ear sort of on the handler as well and, and being fairly ready to respond to handler requests while they're, they're searching too.

Melissa Breau: So I'd assume that when you're teaching this initially you kind of don't wanna use antlers that have already been sterilized for some sort of professional things. You want the scent, right?

Erin Lynes: Ideally you would be training with antlers that have been naturally shed and haven't been handled too much and have not been like professionally sterilized or anything like that. That would be your ideal if you're training for shed antler trials or if you just are having a terrible time finding antlers to use for training, then using any antler you can find would be better than not having any antlers.

So for some dogs, especially if they're a little bit reluctant to retrieve big, full-size antlers using the little precut pet store chew actually does work as sort of an intermediate step. And in a pinch you can also use those. There is a product called Rack Wax that has antler scent embedded into it. It's sort of like a, comes in like a little lipstick tube type thing and you can put that on any antler or we've even used bones, just random bones in a, in a real page to get the scent onto something that's hard for the dog to search for. Definitely using a minimally handled wild, fresh shed is best. But there are other options when you're training. It doesn't have to be shed outs or nothing when you're first starting out. There's a bit of leeway there.

Melissa Breau: Where do you find the rack wax?

Erin Lynes: That you can order from almost any hunting supply place. And I've even seen it on Amazon, I think. So just, just Google rack wax and links will come up for you when you're looking for it.

Melissa Breau: All right. So tell me a little more about the class. What do you cover in the class? Are there any, you know, prerequisite skills that dogs need or teams need kind of coming in?

Erin Lynes: Yeah, so we're gonna assume that most dogs coming into this class are fairly novice at searching. So I don't expect any previous experience in searching. It is important that the dog already will retrieve something, so it doesn't have to be an antler. That part we will work on in class.

However, the dog should be willing to retrieve something, understand the process of retrieving something. It helps if your dog has a stay for some of the training exercises. However, we do have a backup plan if you have a helper or a crate, we can get by without the state. It's not, it's not critical to the actual action of shed antler search, it just makes some of the training exercises a little easier. So those are sort of the, the only real prerequisites that we have for this particular class and how the class will go is it's split into sort of two streams that will merge partway through the class. So we start out working on training that antler retrieve and getting the dogs very comfortable with retrieving an antler and bringing that right to their handler.

And then the other part is teaching some search pattern games. So we'll initially start off with food. So we're separating the search out into something that is very straightforward for the dog, making sure that they are confident working away from the handler and helping the handler learn to read their dog, which is super important in this particular sport because you really need to be able to identify when your dog is focused and working versus when they're sort of just sort of scanning the area and Searchie that way.

So those two streams eventually merge and then we start to work on having the dog search for antlers specifically and in various configurations as the class goes on. We increase the difficulty so that they'll be learning how to search for multiple antlers in different configurations that are gradually more challenging up, elevated antler, semi buried antler multiples, all that kind of thing.

Melissa Breau: So who should kind of consider signing up?

Erin Lynes: Who should take the class? This class is awesome for people who like to get out in the wilderness. If you're already spending a bunch of time hiking with your dogs or that's something you wanna do, I would definitely recommend this class for you. If you've got an interest in shed antler trials, take this class because we'll get you started on all the skills you need to do well in shed antler trials as well.

Melissa Breau: Any age limits?

Erin Lynes: As long as the dog can reliably retrieve, there's not an age limit. So if you've got like a real early bloomer of a puppy who's retrieving really well, you could totally get started in this right away.

Melissa Breau: Cool. Super fun. So what else do you have coming up class-wise or schedule-wise or all that stuff?

Erin Lynes: Yeah, so also in this April semester I'm teaching my dry land dock diving class. I think this is the third year that it's running and it's been really well received. So for people who don't have access to a pool all year or they're getting ready for dock diving season, trying to get all prepped and get their dog fit, or starting a dog that is brand new to the sport, that class is perfect for all of those scenarios. And as a follow up to that, which is new this year, I'll be teaching in June an actual dock diving class for FDSA. So all the getting wet parts of it and the advanced skills that we need the pool for. So that will be really exciting.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome.

Erin Lynes: Yeah, I'm excited.

Melissa Breau: Any final thoughts or kind of key points that you wanna touch on or lead listeners with?

Erin Lynes: Yeah, so if you are at all interested in shed antler hunting, go ahead and take this class and we're gonna, we're gonna make sure that your dogs have the skills to do the work in the wild or in trials. And I think even though the two different concepts are fairly different, there is so much there that's the same in the, in the foundation behaviors that it's, it's gonna work for either one.

Melissa Breau: Cool. Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Erin.

Erin Lynes: Thanks for having me, Melissa.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thanks to our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week with Stacy Barnett to talk about airflow and how it impacts scent work. So it's sort of related. If you haven't already subscribed to our podcast and iTunes with a podcast app of your choice to our next episode, automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available. Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast, music provided royalty free by bensound.com.

The track featured here is called Buddy. Audio Editing provided by Chris Lang. Thanks again for tuning in and happy training.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

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