I drew the line when Jax brought me the fifth slime-infested, hole-laden pink infant sock. He gently placed my daughter’s mangled garment between my toes on the footrest of the recliner, and then just sat there—smiling and wagging his tail. If I ignored him, he was sure to torture the sock’s mate, and if I sent him outside, he would certainly dig another hole in my lawn.
I was finally at a point in my life where I had attained my long-coveted Labrador, but once I had him, I didn’t know what to do with him. With little interest in bird hunting, it seemed futile to make a gun dog out of Jax. I wanted a cuddly house dog—and that he was—but he was a cuddly, pink-sock-eating house dog. Jax was bored and I was frustrated.
A lunchtime Google search the following day blindly let me to AntlerDogs.com, and light bulbs started going on in my head. Got a dog? Yup. Got a “thing” for antlers? Addicted—real bad. I seemed to be pre-qualified.
I shot a quick e-mail to Roger Sigler, master trainer owner of Antler Ridge dog-training school, inquiring about his antler-retrieval instructional DVDs—and kinda forgot about the issue. A few hours later Roger was calling, and he wanted more than a long-distance phone chat.
Within a week, Jax and I were headed to Smithville, Missouri. I assumed my dog was in for some serious training—but little did I know, I was, too.
A Different Train Of Thought
Bird Hunters and dog training knowledge seem to go hand-in-hand, but as a big game hunter, my dog training toolbox was empty. All I knew about training was check-cords and electronic collars—and I didn’t know how to properly work either one.
Turns out my ignorance wasn’t much of a handicap; Sigler doesn’t use either one because he likes to think and work outside the box. His tool: operant conditioning.
Operant conditioning was pioneered by B.F. Skinner and built on the classical conditioning platform.
Classical conditioning was forged from the work of Ivan Pavlov, and is a technique that pairs a neutral stimulus with a stimulus that causes a response. Over time, the neutral stimulus will begin to cause the response.
Pavlov demonstrated this technique using dogs. The dogs instinctively salivated when meat was placed near them. Every time the meat was presented, Pavlov rang a bell. Eventually, the dogs learned to associate the ringing of the bell with the meat. When the bell chimed, the dogs would salivate, even when no meat was present.
Operant conditioning—the foundation on which Sigler bases his training techniques—is the use of consequences to modify the occurrence and form a desired behavior.
For example, parents often use a form of operant conditioning when rewarding their children for good grades with a positive stimulus, such as ice cream.
With Sigler’s Labradors, he uses operant conditioning—positive reinforcement—to make the dogs crazy about antlers by rewarding them with food when they perform desired actions.
Headgear Hunters: From The Paws, Up
“Bomb dogs and bird dogs have been useful tools to humans for a long time,” explained Sigler. “An antler dog is really just a hybrid of the two—they’re trained to discriminate scent (bomb dog) and find an inanimate object (bird dog). Getting the dog to put everything together in its mind is the difficult part.”
To achieve maximum results from his Labs, Sigler broke his training regimen into pieces and studied with the best trainers and experts in the country in their respective fields: obedience, retrieving and scent discrimination.
“My training revolves around positive reinforcement,” explained Sigler. “Animals seem to learn the best—and the quickest—under the direction of these techniques. I believe it’s possible to ruin a dog with negative reinforcement, but you can’t ruin a dog with positive reinforcement. I simply believe that a fun-fetch is more effective than a force-fetch.”
After years of trial-and-error with various breeds, Sigler discovered that Labs—generally speaking—make the best antlers dogs. “One of my best antler dogs is a pit bull,” admitted Sigler, “But he’s more of an exception than the norm.”
Although Sigler will train just about any dog, he prefers to purchase and choose the pups himself, train them, and then find them a good home.
“In an average litter of 10 Lab pups, 1-2 will be great antler dogs,” Sigler explained. “Another 2-3 will be very good, 2-3 will be OK and the other 1-2 will not be good at all.”
For a prospective pup, the training begins at 8 weeks of age, when Sigler and his wife, Sharon, and their daughter, Amy, begin introducing antlers. For the first few weeks, training is synonymous with play time, and the pups learn to incorporate everything good in their life with the presence of the antler. During this period, Sigler is looking for “play” and “prey” drive in each pup—or, enthusiasm and desire.
Each pup is taught the respect of a clicker, which is used as a mark when a desired action is performed. For example, a “sit” command is given, and as soon as the pup’s rear touches the floor, Sigler simultaneously hits the clicker and immediately rewards the dog with food—generally a bit of hotdog or cheese. Once that’s mastered, “Down,” “Touch” (nose to hand contact) and “Eyes” (eye contact) commands are taught.
“Once the basics are in place,” Sigler explained, “I begin working a dog on a training table where, through fun fetching, it learns to first hold—then pick up and retrieve—an antler.”
Sigler changes his training regimen each day to fit the dog’s learning pace—and mood. As he explained it, no dog ever wakes up in the morning and wonders, how can I ruin Roger’s day today? But, like people, dogs have good days and bad days, too.
Making It Real
When a dog has shown great enthusiasm toward an antler and is readily retrieving to hand on the training table, Sigler begins to create semi-lifelike conditions while making it as easy as possible for the dog to succeed.
In his training arena, Sigler places three piles of hay on the dirt floor, and in one of them he hides an antler. The dog is then brought into the arena and given the “search” command.
Because the three small hay piles are easy to see, the dog naturally gravitates toward them for inspection and, ideally, smells the antler and delivers it to Sigler. Once the dog understands its job, Sigler begins to hide the antlers—usually incorporating more than one—in various spots throughout the arena to make the hide-and-seek game more challenging.
It’s here that most antler dogs develop such a strong desire for the antler that food reward is no longer necessary in the training process. The antler becomes the dog’s reward.
“The best-case scenario is that a dog comes to love an antler so much that it would choose it over a steak,” said Sigler. “That’s rare, but it’s what I’m striving for.”
Throughout the training process, Sigler is continually looking for each dog to crave antlers more and more—in essence, making it their addiction. And because he demands near perfection from his dogs and wants his customers to be extremely satisfied, Sigler will cut a dog from the antler training program at any time if it fails to develop a strong drive and connection with antlers.
Once a dog is providing desirable results in a semi-controlled environment, they begin work outside, first in a “baited” field and then onto the real thing. The tasks become more and more difficult—while leaving room for the dog to readily succeed—until the dog is ready for “real-life” shed hunting.
From Socks To Sheds
Jax and I sat in Roger’s training room and waited. Jax was excited; I was nervous. Roger grabbed a rubber ball with an antler tine stuck through the middle, got Jax’s attention and tossed it across the room. Jax went after the ball, picked it up and returned it to Roger’s feet. Roger picked up the ball and tossed it to a different corner of the room. And much to my surprise, my sock-loving, clumsy Jax went for the ball again, and again, then again. It seemed Jax was pre-qualified, too.
As difficult as it was, I left my best friend in the care of Roger and Sharon for the next 2 months—with multiple calls per week to keep track of his progress. I suddenly wanted Jax to be an antler dog more than anything, and I was an emotional wreck waiting for Roger’s phone call as Jax labored two states away.
Jax proved to be an interesting candidate. He wasn’t likely to become a top-notch antler dog, but he stuck with the program—at his own pace—in a two steps forward, one step back, fashion.
Thankfully, Jax brought his “antler enthusiasm” home with him. And although he isn’t crazy for antlers, he chews pink socks and digs holes in my lawn when he doesn’t get his daily fix.
But I’ve seen what Sigler can do with the right dog, and although I don’t really have the room—and maybe not the patience, either—for another antler dog, I’ve got a feeling Lab No. 2 is in my near future.