A snapping tail telegraphed Winnie’s joy as she bounded over grassy hills and bulled her way through gnarly jungles of wild plums as she seined the air with her nose.
The Labrador’s entire body went into overdrive the second she scented the object of her search, as she cut right fast enough to spray sand. She jumped over, instead of around, a yucca to pounce on her find.
Rather than a duck or dove, Winnie was proudly carrying a mule deer antler in her mouth.
“Once you get her out she usually really gets going,” Amber Stimatze said of the six or so times she’s taken the Lab afield this spring. “I’ve seen a few (antlers), and walked her up to find it to build her confidence. After that, she’s been finding a lot on her own.”
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Going into Tuesday’s search, woman and dog had teamed to find about 20 antlers that had fallen from bucks in the past few months.
So it’s supposed to be in the world of an antler dog.
Training an addiction
For about the past seven years Roger and Sharon Sigler have been raising and training such canines at their Antler Ridge Antler Dogs facility near Smithville, Mo.
It’s from them that Stimatze’s friend purchased Winnie about two years ago.
The Siglers have trained thousands of dogs in about the past 50 years, including most breeds of canines for chores from detecting drugs and to those that hunt for birds, animals or lost humans..
An avid hunter, Roger Sigler knew what he needed to do when a friend suggested training dogs to find coveted shed antlers.
“In any dog sport, it’s always about the quality of your dog, but that doesn’t mean how much you’ve spent on the dog,” Sigler said. “I’m talking about innate skills. Each dog we work with is tested in a variety of ways.”
The most important requirement, Sigler said, is an inner drive to search and hunt.
“That’s one thing you really can’t train,” he said. “I want a dog that’s out there charging around, actively looking. They’re not just supposed to be antler retrievers, they’re supposed to be antler finders, too.”
The Siglers are on their third generation of dogs they’ve selected to be the foundation for their breeding program.
The dogs are Labs, for one of the main reasons they are America’s most popular breed.
“They’re multi-taskers. You can do horns with them, or bombs with them. You can do blood trails with them or you can do ducks with them, and they make good family dogs.” Sigler said, “There is not much you really can’t get them to do.”
The Siglers use a variety of training techniques that use real antlers and positive reinforcement from the time their dogs are four months of age on.
Clients, currently from about 40 states, are required to stay a few days at Antler Ridge to make sure they’re familiar with the basics of training.
Antler gold mine
Stimatze, of St. John, wasn’t at the orientation with Winnie two years ago; they’re learning together in some especially great areas.
With Winnie along, Stimatze and her boyfriend, Trey Turner, spend a lot of time working on lands they help manage for wildlife.
“I’ll usually help Trey get something started, like filling a feeder,” she said, “and Winnie and I will go walk around in that area.”
They spend a lot of time checking areas where deer may have concentrated to feed, like around feeders or food plots.
Tuesday afternoon, Winnie started searching amid 3,000 acres of sandhills south of Kinsley. Deep and tall wild plum thickets, where bachelor herds of bucks may have bedded through the winter, were primary places for searching.
It took about a half-hour before Winnie fetched the first mule deer antler. Another was found about a half-mile away.
Eventually the crew moved to a long drainage bristling with prickly locust trees, a place known to have held high numbers of whitetails through the winter.
Two years of drought, deep snow and hungry deer had ground cover within the draw down to about putting green height.
The white tine tips of dropped antlers were easy for Stimatze to spot. Winnie, too, spotted some antlers before they were scented.
Other times it took several seconds, and some excited scurrying, for Winnie to find an antler strictly by smell.
There was certainly no shortage antlers to give off Winnie’s favorite scent.
Stimatze eventually had both hands full and several antlers jabbed into the back pockets of her jeans. One area no larger than Turner’s truck had five sheds awaiting.
At that truck, Stimatze and Winnie added 17 more antlers to the pile of what they’ve already found this spring.
“You can just never have too many antlers,” Stimatze said with a smile. “You just can’t.”