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    Labrador Retrievers Fetch Deer Antlers

    By Marti Attoun

    With a sweep of her arm, Sharon Sigler commands, “Search!” and the hunt is on. Sir Lawrence, a yellow Labrador retriever, bounds across the stubbly field, zigzagging as he picks up and follows his favorite scent.

    Within minutes, the Lab pounces on his prize and carries it back to Sharon. But it’s not a dove or a duck. He opens his jaws and releases the trophy — a whitetail deer antler.

    “He lives for this,” Sharon says. “He’ll hunt all day long.”

    Sharon and Roger Sigler raise and train Labs for the growing sport of hunting shed antlers, or “sheds” as they’re called. At their aptly named Antler Ridge farm in Smithville, Mo., the Siglers and their daughter, Amy, work with their dogs daily on fetching antlers. Sharon rides her horse or four-wheeler across their 70 acres of fields and woods to hide antlers for training.

    “I call it the world’s largest Easter egg hunt,” Sharon says about the sport.

    In late winter and spring, shed hunters trek through woods and fields in search of the trophies.

    Some people decorate their homes with antlers. Artists and craftsmen use them for making knife handles, jewelry, furniture, and chandeliers. Some people gather sheds strictly to resell and one of the Siglers’ customers runs a thriving business selling antler dog chews.

    Roger developed his antler-dog program 12 years ago, based on positive reinforcement. A professional animal trainer since the 1960s, he’s worked with horses, mules, and dogs. He’s trained dogs to detect bombs and drugs and to search for lost humans.

    Roger has long specialized in training sporting dogs — setters, pointers, and retrievers. He’s spent the last 30 hunting seasons on the Canadian prairie with his team of dogs.

    After years of training dogs for all types of disciplines and beating the bushes himself to find shed antlers, Roger wondered if he could train a four-legged companion to sniff out and retrieve sheds.

    “To a dog, an antler has no more value than a stick until that dog has been taught through scent discrimination that the antler is the scent he should be hunting,” Roger says.

    With reward-based training beginning when the pups are about nine weeks old, the Labs quickly associate antlers with praise and fun and treats.

    “Labs have all of the skill set needed for antler dogs,” Roger says. “The retrieve instinct is bred into them. They have intelligence, personality, good stamina, and they’re great family dogs — just all-around great dogs.”

    The pups begin fetching games with a ball impaled with an antler tine and by the time they’re about five months old, they’re enthusiastically hunting for hidden antlers in the fields and woods. At 10 months to a year old, they’re ready for their first wild shed hunt.

    “The more fun they have, the better they’ll be,” Roger says.

    Dogged Search

    Having a horn-fetching hound adds a whole new dimension to the sport of hunting sheds. When deer, elk, and moose drop their horns each year, they’re often in inconvenient places. The horns may be at the bottom of a steep ravine, under a pile of snow, or in a pond. And rarely do the animals shed both sides in the same spot.

    Sniffing out and retrieving those hard-to-reach treasures is pure pleasure for the Siglers’ dogs. On one snowy Canadian trip, the dogs netted 210 sheds over five days. They’ll dive under water, too, and doggedly search until finding the trophies.

    The Siglers have established a national reputation as shed dog experts. Their enthusiastic super sniffers have been placed with outdoorsmen across the United States and Canada.

    As part of the training, buyers stay at Antler Ridge so they can learn firsthand how to care for and further train the dogs. Cost ranges from $2,000 to $6,500, depending on the age of the dog and stage of training. Although they have a huge demand for antler dogs, the Siglers restrict their training to about 30 dogs a year.

    Their shed-hunting customers include people of all ages and backgrounds, who enjoy getting outdoors and close to nature while scouring for the trophies.

    Tim and Michelle Doyle of Franklinville, N.J., bought two white Labs — Birdy and Roxy — to take on family shed-hunting adventures. They have three young daughters.

    “It’s fun. You pick a nice day and go out in the woods,” says Tim. “The dogs just love it.” In their own back yard, the girls play fetch games with Birdy and Roxy.

    Tim is a deer hunter and, like many shed hunters, he likes to scout the trails to get an idea of where the deer congregate for next season’s hunt.

    “It’s just fun finding antlers with the dogs,” Tim says. “They use their eyes and nose. Birdy was digging and digging around a fallen tree. It turns out the tree had fallen on the shed and smashed it into the ground. It’s amazing what her nose can do.”

    The Siglers say the hardest part of training their four-legged friends is graduation day when they leave Antler Ridge.

    “We call our dogs pre-spoiled,” Sharon says. “We love on them and kiss them. The hardest part is when they leave.”