On a 65-acre farm in Smithville, appropriately named Antler Ridge, Labrador retriever puppies are scouring fields, woods and water.
Trainer Roger Sigler, who runs the farm with his wife, Sharon Sigler, and their daughter, Amy Sigler-Muehlebach, likens the process to a sports team scouting a prospect before a draft. They look for dogs with good social skills, scent discrimination and hunting drive.
And puppies that are slightly selfish. Because when they find their trophies — discarded antlers, or “sheds” — they’d better hang on to them.
“The more they want that thing, the better they’re going to be,” Roger says.
In the lucrative and fun world of antler hunting, these well-trained pups are worth their cost. Over the last 11 years, the Siglers have sold 25 to 40 dogs a year to people in 34 states and four Canadian provinces, Sharon says.
Demand has grown, but the Siglers train the same number of dogs. Roger says they could take 200 to 300 orders a year but prefer to limit themselves, valuing quality over quantity.
“We don’t want to shuck ’em through just for the money,” he says.
The investment for an owner is significant, too. The Siglers offer dogs in three stages: puppies, intermediate and finished, which cost about $2,000, $3,500 and $6,500, respectively. They require buyers to travel and spend a night at Antler Ridge so they can learn how to care for and further train the dogs. They’ve even published “Antler Dog Tales,” a collection of advice and memories related to antler dog training.
For many, the hunt is about the thrill of the find. But the market for antlers is so strong that one Montana hunter says he sold enough in the 1980s to help put his daughters through college.
“It’s kind of a competitive thing, a macho thing, to find more horns than anybody else,” Roger says. “Men are gonna hunt something, no matter what it is.”
The Siglers’ dogs are trained to find horns discarded by white-tailed bucks, elk, moose and caribou. Antler hunting season peaks in late winter and early spring, when many hunting seasons have ended.
Most of the Siglers’ customers are “big-time hunters,” Amy says. They go out and scout the woods, not only to find the annual crop of antler sheds but to get a look at the quality of herds for next season.
Norman Henderson, who lives in southwest Indiana, has bought five dogs from the Siglers. He says one of his dogs can find five horns on average, but he has collected up to 20 in a day.
Henderson bow hunts and grew up around deer hunting. “I’ve always wanted to horn hunt,” he says. “I’m into it big time now.”
His best dog, a yellow Lab called Foxy, just had a litter, and Henderson went back to Smithville last weekend to give Roger three puppies.
“He waits each year for a litter out of her,” Henderson says, laughing. “He thinks she’s the best thing ever.”
Others hunt antlers as an excuse to spend more time in nature.
“It’s a reason to be outdoors,” says Barbara Keller, a supervisor with the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Competition comes into play, too. Labs and their owners will converge when the North American Shed Hunting Dog Association hosts its world championships in April.
Recently, a Facebook page appeared for the Northwest Missouri Shed Dog Association, which says it aims to register with North American association and host a qualifying event next summer.
And, of course, there’s the money.
Across the country, collectors regularly convene at antler auctions. A recent bone bazaar in Wyoming raised more than $175,000 through selling 11,512 pounds of antlers, with most of the proceeds going to the National Elk Refuge, the Jackson Hole News and Guide reported.
Horns are also sold online through vendors such as ShedOrDead.com, which offers a price list for selling antlers. Mint condition brown mule deer antlers will net you $20 per pound, while older, weatherbeaten “chalk antlers” sell for about 10 percent of that.
Some folks have gone into business selling horns as chew toys for dogs. Others use antlers for decoration — either a rack mounted on a wall or horns crafted to serve as furniture.
There are some serious collectors out there, too, such as James “Antler Man” Phillips of Montana. Phillips, 68, says he found his first sheds when he was 10 and now has more than 16,000 antlers.
“I get the same thrill today as I did almost 60 years ago,” he says.
Though it did help put his daughters through college, he says he doesn’t sell sheds anymore.
Now, in “Jim’s Horn House,” there are racks in the rafters, halls of horns, sheds on shelves and antlers all around. You can take a tour of his collection online.
Phillips prides himself on never buying antlers and on finding and retrieving antlers by himself, without dogs.
Alex Foster of the Quality Deer Management Association, a nonprofit conservation group, considers shed hunting “one of the more enjoyable sports.” Foster hunts in northwest Missouri and started walking the woods when he was 8 years old.
“There’s nothing better to do that time of year, as far as being outdoors,” he says. He finds about 20 sheds each season.
The past two seasons, Foster has brought along Lady Sage, his chocolate Lab. He trained her himself, and the results have been good — Lady Sage has found some antlers he wouldn’t have otherwise.
After he labels his finds with the time and place he found them, Foster uses them to decorate his home.
His fiancee may call him a hoarder, Foster says, but they’re putting his prizes to creative use: His wedding band will be titanium inlaid with antler.
Recently, Roger went through some exercises with Peka, a 3-month-old black Lab, playful and lick-happy.
Roger started Peka with the basics, and she listened and waited as he moved around the room, asking her to perform tasks such as keeping eye contact and retrieving a horn.
Peka was rewarded with deer meat when she got it right.
Outside, Amy brought out her own dog, a 6-year-old yellow Lab named Sir Lawrence Digger Peachy Feet, better known as Larry.
She kept the energetic Larry near her while Sharon went out in a pasture near some hidden horns. When Sharon was ready, Amy swept her arm and said “Search!”
Larry had been waiting for this, and he started bounding around the field, looking for an antler. It didn’t take him long to find what he was looking for, and he eagerly trotted back to Amy with his jaws clamped around his prize.
Roger says it’s key to make antler fetching a game that rewards dogs and humans alike.
“No animal does anything for no reason,” he says. “You gotta figure out why they’re doing it.”