Missouri man breeds dogs to hunt deer antlers

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Shed hunting is a popular pastime for many outdoors enthusiasts, and an assist from man’s best friend can help take that hobby to the next level.

Roger Sigler, of Smithville, Missouri, breeds and trains dogs that are specialized in finding deer antler sheds. He will be one of the featured speakers during the 2019 Topeka Boat and Outdoor Show, which runs Jan. 31 through Feb. 2 at the Kansas Expocentre.

“We invented the sport of hunting horns with the dogs 13 years ago and we’ve trained almost 500 of these dogs, and we have them all over the United States and Canada and in Europe,” Sigler told the Topeka Capital-Journal . “Today, it’s the fastest-growing dog sport in the country, growing by leaps and bounds.”

He said the shed-hunting season usually begins in January after the deer’s antlers fall off and runs through April. The chance to find big antlers is one of the main draws of the sport, but Sigler said an added benefit people get out of it is a chance to get outside and be active with their families and possibly even lose some weight as they walk around hunting for the sheds. He said the antlers themselves can be used in a variety of different ways.

“We use all of ours for training, but the average guy will do a lot of different things with them,” Sigler said. “I’ll put it in perspective: I lecture all over the country on this. Rarely as I’m lecturing to these guys, these hunters, do I run into one of them who’s crazy about the taste of deer meat.

“So why are they out there? It’s about the big horns. And it’s just as valuable to these guys to find them on the ground as it is on the head of the deer. In fact, they use those horns they find on the ground to prospect. For example, if they saw their big buck this fall but they didn’t get it and they’re wondering if someone else did, if they go back out in the spring and they find his horns, then they know he’s still there. They’ve got a way to determine what their hunting trips will be like the next year.”

A large part of Sigler’s job is breeding the best dogs for the job, a process that he takes quite seriously.

“During that 13 years of these 500 (dogs) we’ve trained, we’ve taken the top five males and we pull semen on them, we save it at K-State,” Sigler said. “When we have a first-class female, we sell her with a breeding agreement, and wherever she goes in the country, we ship semen to that family and they raise the puppies until they’re 8 weeks of age and then we buy them all back. Right now, we have litters in here from West Virginia, New Jersey and Iowa.

“This is selective breeding, the very best of the very best, and this is really critical because we’re involved with a government program to develop our own detection dogs for the government over here. When you’re doing that, the quality of the dogs that you’re raising has to be absolutely pristine genetically, health-wise, everything.”

When they get the puppies from owners at 8 weeks of age, they begin evaluating the dogs to see what characteristics they have for the jobs they will be asked to perform.

“They’re all little and cute, but that doesn’t really tell us anything at all about their skills,” Sigler said. “These are all what we call performance dogs, dogs that have a job.

“We call our program ‘drafting your antler dog.’ In the world of human sports, you would never draft a player until you knew what their skill sets were. Well, people buy dogs all the time and want to turn them into, let’s say a cancer-detection dog or a seizure dog or therapy dog, I don’t care what. But there’s specific skill sets and breeds that lend themselves to a much higher ability to perform these high-level jobs.”

An example he used was that you wouldn’t use a German shepherd to hunt rabbits, you’d use a beagle. The same with an attack dog — you wouldn’t use a poodle, you’d use a German shepherd.

Sigler charges $900 per month to train the dogs, and it usually takes two months to determine what skill sets they have.

“If they meet all the standards, then the new owners actually have to come and spend a couple of days with us, so we can kind of take their dog to the next level,” Sigler said. “It doesn’t make any difference if they’re a politician, sports figure, whether they’re coming from Europe, Canada, United States, they not only have to buy the dog but they have to come and stay with us so we can show them how to get the dog to the next level.

“Our job is to train dogs and train other people how to train their dogs.”

Sigler has had a long history of training dogs for different uses, beginning during his career in the dental industry. Sigler and his wife Sharon, who also worked in dentistry, didn’t play golf or tennis, so they would train bird dogs all summer long in their free time and then would take their dental customers to Canada during the fall to hunt birds on the prairie. They did that for about 30 years and trained just about every kind of pointing breed in the process. After that, the couple got involved with a German dog-training discipline called Schutzhund, which focuses on guarding, obedience and bite work. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, they trained dogs for the FEMA search and rescue program, and Roger also was the head dog trainer at the federal prison in Lansing, Kansas, where he oversaw 100 dogs and 35 inmates.

“What these dogs really are, as I’m talking to people all over — they’re antler dogs but what they really are — are hunting drug dogs. These are dogs for cancer or seizures or marijuana or antlers, until they’re taught what it is they’re looking for. Any of these real higher-level horn dogs are actually, I think, higher-quality drug dogs. That’s the reason we’re involved with military detection dogs.”

Sigler said there’s a shortage of detection dogs in the United States, because historically the detection dogs used to come from Germany. As a result, the American Kennel Club and the military decided to start a breeding program to begin breeding and training their own dogs.

All of the dogs Sigler breeds are Labrador retrievers, a breed he said typically has the skill sets necessary to do the job and works perfectly for the government-oriented side of the job.

“For the military, 99 percent of them are going to be Labs because a lot of them are going to be working in airports and places like that. You could probably find maybe some shepherds or some Mals (Malinois) that could do some work, but they’re really too intimidating. They want dogs that can go between the crowds and people pet them and all that stuff, and yet still do the detection work.”

He said that the best way to train a dog is to basically turn the job into a fun game.

“When you’re training one of these high-level dogs, you create a series of games in which the dog loves to play, and you tie the object in which you want them to find in with their toy, so when they’re hunting for the drugs, they’re really hunting for their toy.”

But it’s not just about being able to perform a duty well. Sigler said that the bond the dogs and owners develop is perhaps a much more important part of the equation.

“We sell dogs to lots of really wealthy people, and we sell dogs to lots of everyday people, too, but the changes that these dogs make in these folks’ lives, the letter after letter after letter that we get. When that dog goes into their life, it’s not like they just bought a new car or shotgun, this is something that’s living and breathing and literally becomes part of the family.”

He said one of the letters that hit him the hardest was from a former military veteran who wrote him after his dog died, saying the dog had helped him get through his PTSD and saved his life when he was considering suicide.

The connection between man and dog runs deep.

“I can’t hardly think of a dog that we’ve sold yet — I say to the owner, ‘How long’s it going to be until the dog’s sleeping with you?’ and they say ‘Probably a week.’ And sure enough! Or they say ‘Never’ and then they call me in a week and say, ‘Yeah, the dog made its way into the bed.’

“We sold a dog to a professional baseball player two years ago, and he really liked the dog, but his wife called to order a second dog from us, and his only request of this new dog would be that his dog would cuddle up and sleep in bed with him.”

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