Training Your Dog for Shed Hunting: Similarities to Your Bird Dog Program

By Ryan Eder

I wanted to continue on the article I submitted last month regarding shed hunting and what it brings to the table for sporting dog owners seeking new activities to do with their dog. Shed hunting is a great sport to enjoy with your dog in the spring and summer season, and also gives us more options in the way of hunt test or trial events to participate in as well. This month, I’d like to touch more specifically on training your dog for shed hunting. There are several aspects to consider when training a dog to search for, locate and retrieve sheds, most of which are very consistent and similar to principles you should follow when training and upland bird dog.

Of course the principal of shed hunting is very consistent with upland bird hunting. We want our dog to hunt in a specific range, which may vary based on your preferences, terrain, etc. Here in the Midwest where most of our shed hunting is done in wooded areas, I typically like my dogs to hunt within a closer range so that I can keep a close eye on where they are at all times. I think heavy wooded areas pose potential risks, such as steep drop offs, and limbs sticking out all over the place, as well as reduced visibility in thick wooded areas. I believe most of you already know the importance of keeping your dog in a reasonable range (flushing breed owners you are already ahead of the game as you require your dogs to hunt within closer range to avoid premature flushes and birds out of shooting range), but the best way to train your dog how to stay in range is quality obedience work (“Here”, “Heel”, “Sit” and “Stay” for example are four commands that if taught correctly, you should be able to re-call your dog at any time and keep proper control of their range.

You may start on a check chord to initially teach the commands and expose the dog to hunting scenarios. Over time, as the dog shows compliance and understanding of the commands you are teaching, it would be OK to transfer from check chord control to the e-collar (provided your dog has been properly introduced to the e-collar).

While you are working on obedience and range, it is a good idea to work with the dog on exposing them to sheds early. By doing this, we are accomplishing a few things: 1) You can immediately begin associating a term with the shed – this may be “shed”, “bone”, “rack”, or any term you prefer. Keep in mind this is the word you will use to identify WHAT you want your dog to search for. I prefer “shed” as the term to “bone” because my dogs are bird dogs as well. “Bone” can sound a lot like “bird” to a dog and I’d rather avoid confusion. 2) You can also expose them to playing with the shed and getting comfortable around them, putting them in their mouth, carrying them around, etc. This is no different than bird exposure at a young age. The pups will mouth them, chew them, and run around everywhere except back to you, and at the earliest stages this is perfectly fine. The most important thing is allowing the dog to have fun, associate the shed with fun and positive consequences. We are sending the message of “Good Dog! You Found the Shed! Every time you pick this thing up I am happy!”

Anytime you train a dog, it is crucial to incorporate each of their senses in their learning process. The fact that they can actually see the shed is obviously using their visual sense. Being able to play with the shed, and have fun is their sense of touch or feel, and to accommodate that we pet them and praise them both physically and verbally. All the while every time we play with the shed we are repeating the term “shed” or “bone” or whatever cue word you choose with the shed which is also utilizing their hearing (audio) sense. There is then of course the scent of the shed.

Apply lots of shed scent in the beginning; maximize all the possible senses to help the dog learn. It will not take long before you have a young dog learning obedience, and getting awfully excited and “pumped up” when that shed comes out in the yard. They will hear your cue word, then see the shed, and hopefully be incredibly enthusiastic to play the shed game. At this point, you are ready to take training one step further.

When you can tell your dog understands what your cue word means, and shows great enthusiasm, you can begin to put the shed out in the yard somewhere prior to bringing the pup out. Put the shed out in the open in the beginning. Give your dog every possible advantage and set them up for success. The shed is white, and in the green grass will stand out visually. Make sure to keep applying training scent to the sheds as well. When the dog comes out into the yard they will more than likely find the shed very easily, and that of course is the idea. Make sure you are giving your command; incorporate your cue word and give the command frequently – this will allow the dog to not only find the shed easily, but also associate the behavior of finding the shed with your command (e.g.: “find the shed”). When the pup finds the shed, gets excited and begins to mouth it or possibly retrieve it celebrate with excitement in your voice and give excessive verbal and physical praise! Do not take the shed out of their mouth, rather, give lots of praise, pet them and get excited but let them “own the shed” by keeping it in their mouth.

Our goal is to drive home the fact that them finding this shed is exactly what we want, and that it is fun for them as well. As this little game progresses, you can begin putting the sheds. Again, always use scent, particularly when the locations become tougher to see visually, in higher grasses, maybe behind a bush or anywhere that is somewhat hidden. Again, this is a gradual transition. Some pups will learn faster than others, but by building up to a hidden shed, we are teaching the dog what we want them to search for, and that it requires them to use their eyes, ears and of course nose. It is amazing how quick you find yourself playing “hide and seek” with the sheds and how much fun you and your dog will have during training.

Do not rush this process. Young dogs in particular will need consistent training not only with the sheds, but also with basic obedience and commands, so be patient and be consistent. If you take a step back and think about this process, it is exactly the same as how we train a hunting dog to quarter and search for birds. The only difference is that we have a separate “cue” or command for finding a shed.

Like all bird dogs, some dogs will naturally retrieve the sheds and some may struggle. I truly believe that proper exposure at a young age, as well as a lot of play to get the pup excited about the shed, use a small piece of a shed that they can fit in their mouth and just play fetch with them. Initially do very short tosses just to get them running to it, and picking it up. The more the dog retrieves and plays with the sheds in the beginning, the more comfortable they will be retrieving such an awkward, hard object. Force fetch at the right age, and proper stage of training of course is always an option! Many of us do force fetch with our dogs anyway, so incorporating sheds into that training regimen is not a bad idea.

These are just a few simple guidelines and suggestions from one hunting dog owner to another. I hope you enjoy your time in the field with your dog and good luck training!