By Steve Felgenhauer
Most hunters I know have a set of antlers hanging around their place, either in their garage or mounted professionally and placed over the mantel in their living room. For some collectors, that is not enough. Man has collected antlers for centuries – whether for decoration or status – to prove hunting prowess or for medicinal purposes.
While some of these gatherers seek out world class antlers, many more spend late winters and early spring days combing the hillsides by foot or ATV looking for any shed antler and some have taken it to the next level; using man’s best friend. Roger Sigler trains dogs to find shed antlers.
Training dogs since 1968, Sigler specialized in upland bird dogs then switched to retrievers. He was also the head dog trainer at the Lansing State Prison in Lansing, Kansas training dogs to find explosives and for search and rescue missions.
“I’ve been blessed to work with some of the best animal trainers in the world,” said Sigler. “There are a lot of misconceptions about antler dogs. Retriever trainers believe they are retrieving; while in reality it’s scent discrimination.”
By teaching the dog scent discrimination, the pup learns what it is they are supposed to be looking for. This is achieved by placing a piece of antler in a piece of denim cloth. Sigler will place or toss the denim cloth with the antler (eliminating human scent) and the dog is instructed to fetch it.
When several cloths are placed out, the dog is rewarded by choosing the right item. Sigler stresses the importance of early obedience training. “Without the early training, it is nearly impossible for a dog to choose the correct item.”
This reward system method is known as participative training with no choke chains or electric collars.
The concept of participative training goes back to Pavlov. I’m sure you recall Pavlov. He would ring a bell then feed the dog. Soon the dog would salivate when he simply rang the bell in anticipation of being fed. Years later, the father of modern psychiatry, B.F. Skinner took Pavlov’s discovery a step farther by rewarding a desired behavior; in Sigler’s case, playing fetch with the found antler and plenty of praise.
Sigler begins introducing and training his antler dogs at eight weeks. He begins with simple commands and obedience to the dogs and builds on previously learned commands as well as social skills.
“The dogs need to be exposed to as many situations as possible including; creeks, trees, and other bodies of water, but also guns, horses and more. For example, if a bomb dog was trained to find a bomb, but was never exposed to the inside of a crowded airport, the best trained dog would be worthless as a bomb dog,” said Sigler.
By 14 weeks, Sigler will determine if the dog is cut out to be an antler dog. “It has to have the hunting instinct,” said Sigler.
One of Sigler’s training exercises is to plant an antler (a controlled antler hunt) in a cut corn field. In this setting everything resembles an antler so the dog must rely on its sense of smell to find the antler. Care is taken to eliminate human scent on the antler.
As the dog “works” the field, he will scent the antler and search until he finds the source of the smell. The dog will then pick up the antler in its mouth and bring it to the handler. Once the dog has fetched the antler a few more times, Sigler puts the antler out of the dog’s sight and gives the command “search” and the dog will once again begin searching for a new shed. Sigler can only train one or two dogs per session as the dogs are very possessive of the antlers once they are found.
Sigler changes up the antler, varying the size or only using a piece of an antler, or providing antlers of various ages, as well as, different species of antlers in the search to present as many variables as possible. Sigler reasoned, “An antler dog can be conditioned to only find a specific item.” In an Auburn University study, a drug dog ignored a truckload of cocaine. It was determined the dog in question had been trained to detect a one ounce bag of cocaine from Vietnam and any other amount or origin would more than likely be ignored.
Sigler also claims that some of his dogs have found shed antlers underwater. During hot weather, one of Sigler’s dogs found a shed antler and instead of bringing it back to Sigler decided to take a dip in a small pond. The dog dropped the antler. Two months later, the same dog jumped into the pond and suddenly disappeared under the water. When the dog surfaced it had the antler it had dropped weeks before. Sigler compares this feat to cadaver dogs trained to search underwater.
“As the body begins decomposing it gives off a gas. A dog can smell the gas even through the water,” explained Sigler. To confirm his suspicions, Sigler cut several pieces of antlers and soaked one overnight in a bowl of water. The next day he put the soaked, antler piece in one hand and in his other hand placed a dry piece of antler. He then asked several of his friends to determine which hand contained an antler. Each of the human guests was able to detect the decomposing antler simply by smelling his hand. The decomposing was jump-started by soaking it overnight. From this experiment, Sigler then concluded that an antler that has been exposed to the elements gives off more scent than a fresh shed would due to the decomposing process which is accelerated due to the chalkiness and porous nature of an antler. “An antler dog is more likely to find a five year old shed than a recent shed.” said Sigler.
Sigler has trained dogs in 42 states finding shed antlers and looks forward to the upcoming shed season. “If you are hunting sheds without a dog, it’s just a walk in the woods,” added Sigler.
For more information about Antler Ridge, DVDs on the subject or talk to Sigler about training an antler dog, check out his website at www.antlerdogs.com
The Union Sportsmen’s Alliance website is designed to provide valuable articles about hunting, fishing and conservation for members of AFL-CIO affiliated labor unions and all sportsmen and sportswomen who appreciate hunting and fishing and want to preserve our outdoor heritage for future generations. If you would like your own story and experience from the outdoors to be considered for our website, please email us at[email protected].