Downeast Dog News
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Shed Hunting Adventures

By Susan Spisak | Mar 01, 2018

Growing up, Colin Chase liked hiking through Maine’s woods with his Shepherd mix--in fact, he preferred that to playing with friends after school. He stumbled on his first “shed,” a “dropped” deer antler. He realized that because the males grow and shed their antlers annually, there were more out there, especially in bedding and feeding areas and near their travel routes. While this knowledge fueled his desire to search for these gems, it really served as a great reason to get fresh air, exercise, and spend quality time with his dog. That attitude hasn’t changed as the years have gone by.

As an adult, Chase said he was shed hunting before the Internet was born and likens it to a treasure hunt--each antler is unique and a piece of art. He always had a dog in tow as a companion, and they’d hit the woods in the spring because moose and deer shed their antlers in the winter months--it’s a painless, natural process that occurs when their testosterone levels fall after rutting season, causing a weakening of the tissue and bone at the antler base, and they simply drop off. They’re easier to find once the snow melts--but some shed buffs do brave the winter to search for them.

He prefers to head into northern Maine and search for the much larger (and much heavier) moose antlers rather than looking for deer sheds in the southern part of the state. “Finding a deer antler is like finding a needle in the haystack.” While he had luck finding sheds on his own, he wanted to cover the woods efficiently. He’d read about shed dog trainer Jerry Carlson and thought, “You know, what if I train a dog to find these things?”

He found a small Rat Terrier puppy named Lakota that fit the bill. He had a great nose and could sniff out naturally shed antlers that carry scents. (While humans have roughly six million olfactory or sense of smell receptors, a dog has over 220 million--a great asset for shed hunting.) He trained Lakota, and he accompanied Chase on his outings until he was 8-months-old. Then the little dog decided squirrel chasing was more his thing.

After Lakota retired and became just a family pet,--Chase is married, has three children and (now has) four dogs--he looked for a breed that could really be helpful in his pursuits. He decided on a Lab. “I should have done that from the beginning…they retrieve,” he said with a smile in his voice. Chase searched for a breeder he was comfortable with and in 2008 he adopted a yellow Lab, named him Ruger (pronounced Roo-ger), and got busy training him.

“There’s really no magic formula to training a dog to find a shed,” said Chase. “I kept it simple and consistent, used the same commands, and I did it every day.” After Ruger learned basic obedience commands, he taught him to retrieve a ball. Then he introduced him to the sight and smell of antlers and used commands like “fetch” or “find the shed.” He’d throw antlers or hide fresh sheds in the woods around his property in the town of Gray and command Ruger to find.

He also capitalized on the winds,--it must be in his face--and he relied on Mother Nature’s tool to carry the scent of the antlers to his buddy. If Ruger retrieved, he’d get a treat--usually pieces of chicken chopped up just for rewarding. He’d also hide antlers around the house for indoor fetching--and still does. “Labs are natural, and they want to please. They’re big happy dogs,” Chase said.

Now trained and ready for his “first official shed hunt,” Chase and the 11-month-old “laid-back” Ruger traveled north to the logging woods to search for the larger, heavier scented moose antlers. That trip proved that the Lab was a hunter--Ruger scored 14 sheds. “I knew he was going to be amazing.” He’s had many subsequent “banner” days. “It’s about the dog and his ability to do a job. And a dog with a job is a happy dog. To me, that’s key.”

Because Chase’s free time is limited,--by day he works in the telecommunications/fiber optics industry, is a well-respected fine art landscape and wildlife photographer and is a licensed AKC Beagle Field Trial Judge--they go moose shed hunting a week at a time to make the most of the outing. They’ve stayed in lodges or cabins, but Chase prefers to rough it in remote areas.

Is Ruger a good camper? “Absolutely,” Chase laughed. “He loves it.” He has blankets from an army surplus store for the Lab to sleep on--and wool blankets to cover him if necessary. An old oversized military sleeping bag is Chase’s bed, and Ruger usually ends up in it with him. “He keeps me warm…he’s a cuddle bug.”

When daybreak comes and Ruger begins searching, he stays within Chase’s sight when he’s on the hunt. He’s methodical and uses his nose, and when he gets the scent of an antler, he takes off and alerts his master to its location. During a week-long trip, Ruger would find upwards of 80 to 100 antlers. He didn’t sell them for a long time, but because of the quantity Ruger would find, he began wholesaling them to his best friend’s dog chew company, mainemooseantlers.com, while keeping his favorite sheds for his personal collection.

Chase recalled a trip when he and that best friend, Rich, went on a shed expedition with their dogs. Ruger was 3 and Rich’s dog, Turtle, was 6-months-old (Turtle is Ruger’s brother from another litter). They hit an unseasonable snowfall, but it was expected that temps would warm up for shed hunting. Chase took Ruger out in the snow for the heck of it. The remarkable Lab led him to his largest moose antler find ever--it was buried under the snow, and he scented it from over 300 yards away (a football field is 120 yards).

For Chase, shed hunting is about the bonding experience with his dog. When the season is done, that connection is still there. “Even in the summer, when we’re working in the garden, [Ruger] knows what we did. I love that.” Chase indicated that he may take him hunting this spring, but he’s not going to push the now 10-year-old Lab. “I’m kind of leaving it up to him…if he wants to go, great. If he’s tired, you know what, ‘you don’t have to do it anymore, bud…you’ve done it.’”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that this dog-lover will give up this hobby that he’s so passionate about. He’s training Ruger’s grandson, the “smart and loving” 2-year-old Canon, so he can take over his grandpa’s role when he retires. “Really the story to me is the interaction between the human and the dog, being in the woods…and sharing that one-on-one experience that no one else sees.”

Watch this National Geographic video that captures a moose shedding an antler at youtube.com/watch?v=pKCgWwWk1KY.

To see Colin Chase’s stunning photograpy, visit Appleton Images at facebook.com/appletonimages.