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By JOHN MEACHAM
Hunting shed antlers with dogs is the fastest-growing man-dog sport in the country, and Sharon and Roger Sigler of Smithville, Mo. were the pioneers.
It all started 12 years ago, Sharon Sigler said in an interview for Outdoor Guide Magazine.
“We had horses and were out riding one day,” she said. “I looked around, and Roger was behind me on his horse and he was looking all around at the ground. I asked him what he was doing. I thought maybe he’d lost something.
“He said he was looking for antler sheds. I looked down in front of my horse and said, ‘You mean like this?’ and he said, ‘Exactly like that.’ There was a matched set right beside my horse.”
The Siglers had extensive dog-training knowledge and thought they might be able to train dogs to look for shed antlers.
“There wasn’t anybody else doing it at the time, because we searched the Internet, magazines and books trying to find somebody that we could learn something from,” she said. “It was hit or miss when we first started. We didn’t know what kind of dogs would make the best antler dogs. We had to start from scratch.”
Sharon and Roger had been doing search-and-rescue training with German shepherds and bird-hunting training with German shorthairs, but they found that these breeds did not have the skills for antler hunting. They even tried a pit bull but found it didn’t have the drive they were looking for.
“We decided Labrador retrievers had the qualities our antler dogs would need,” she said. “We thought starting with an older pup might save time, but our first endeavor proved us wrong. We bought four Labs that were four to six months old. They’d been kept in a kennel, with very little human contact, so they were scared of everything. They made nice pets, but we needed dogs that not only had the hunt skills but the social skills as well.”
The couple decided they would have to develop their own dogs, and now have their own bloodline of second-, third- and fourth-generation antler dogs.
“This makes our job a lot easier, because the puppies already have the aptitude for antler hunting. The parents have continued that line on to their offspring,” she said.
Their Labs weigh 50 to 65 pounds, are very agile and can run all day, she said, and they love to hunt, which is the first requirement for an antler dog.
“The one thing we can’t teach is the hunting instinct. That’s what makes our dogs so special. They must have the willingness and the attitude to run for hours, hunting for antlers over hill and dale, and maybe never even find one. Of course, once they find one, they bring it back to the owner or handler.”
Antler dogs hunt by smell and by sight, according to Sharon.
“I’ve seen them running through a field or woods and be 15 or 20 feet away, and if the wind is in the right direction, they’ll catch that scent and just swap ends. They can smell them even if they’re years old.”
The shed hunting season begins right after the archery and firearm seasons close, so hunters were the first to get on board when the Siglers began promoting the new sport through magazine articles. Shed hunting with dogs has since become a family affair as well.
“Any time people can do something with their dogs, there always seems to be an interest,” Sharon said. “After all, ‘dog’ spelled backward is ‘God.’ Just being in the great outdoors with your best friend, your dog, is a marvelous experience.”
There now are shed-hunting field trials.
“It was inevitable that competition would become a part of the sport. A number of our dog owners participate in the trials and do very well,” she said. “I believe there are a couple of organizations that have formed associations for trials.”
Antler dogs can be trained to blood-trail and hunt game as well as sheds.
“Hunting antlers is more difficult, because an antler doesn’t have a whole lot of attraction to a dog,” Sharon said. “It’s like a stick lying out there in the woods. It doesn’t run or fly like a bird, and it doesn’t have feathers or blood. The dog has to be taught, through scent discrimination, that it is the antler it is hunting. The retrieve is just a part of the necessary skills of the antler dog.
“We will have dogs ready at six to eight months of age to go to the field come shed season, but they’re always better the second year. They can multi-purpose, but we suggest giving them that first year to get the knowledge of hunting for antlers under their belt before you start doing other things with them.”
Sharon and Roger have now trained almost 500 antler dogs.
“We have dogs in 38 states and four provinces in Canada, and this year one of our dogs is going to Ireland,” she said.
The Siglers have antler dogs for sale and offer training for outside dogs that pass an aptitude test. They welcome visitors to their training facility in Smithville. They also offer instructional material. For information, go online to antlerdogs.com.