In his fourth time competing in the North American Shed Hunting Dog Association World Championships, Jeff Neal of Brownstown captured the amateur title in 2014 with his male chocolate lab, Hunter.
This year, he made the trip back to the two-day competition in Northfield, Minnesota, and placed 11th in the amateur class, but his wife, Shannon, earned her first trophy in only her second year of competing. She won the junior crown with her female black lab, Remi.
The Neals said there are several couples who participate in the sport, but they don’t know if there are many who both have world titles.
Besides winning the junior class (dogs less than 2 years old) out of 21 competitors, Shannon was fourth in amateur and fifth in the open class. Overall, there were 63 dogs.
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“I was shocked,” Shannon said. “It was overwhelming because I had taken (Remi) from an 8-week-old puppy and trained her and took her all the way through her finishing. When you’re running against people that are professional handlers and hunters, it makes you feel pretty good.”
Last year, Jeff nearly brought home a pair of trophies, finishing second in the open class — one second behind a professional trainer. There were 43 dogs total.
“We were a little bit surprised,” Jeff said. “We went into the final day and we were in fifth place, and I knew we had a couple of good times and runs, and a couple other people just didn’t have good times and runs.
“We were pretty fortunate to be able to slide in there and even get a title. We were really excited because we think it gives us some credibility in that shed hunting world with those trainers, and that’s what we were after.”
Shed hunting competitions involve placing shedded deer antlers in a 100-yard area and having a dog retrieve them and bring them back to the handler. The dog has 15 minutes to retrieve six antlers, and the score is based on time, retrieves and finds.
Shannon said it’s a fast-growing sport. The world competition started five years ago, and when Jeff competed the next year, there were only 18 dogs.
Jeff said his start in the sport stemmed from his love of deer hunting. He always liked finding deer antlers, and he read a magazine article about dogs that were trained to find them.
“It’s hard. It’s like finding a needle in a haystack,” Jeff said. “You could hunt all day and not find an antler. Or you could walk 10 miles to try and find an antler, and you could finally find one, and it makes all those 10 miles go away.”
Having a dog with you improves your chances of finding an antler, he said.
“A dog will cover more ground, and the dogs have an ability to smell (antlers), where we’re hunting on sight and luck for us to find them,” Jeff said. “The dogs have a little bit better ability because they can pick them up on sight and they can smell them.”
Jeff bought Hunter from Idaho, and he was trained to shed hunt. Jeff then began looking for a place to go on a shed hunting trip and came across a website about a hunt test.
“I sent it to Shannon one day, and I said, ‘We’re going to go figure this out,’ and we just took off and went and had no idea what we were getting into or what we were doing,” Jeff said. “It has been something that we’ve really taken a liking to and really have had a lot of fun with it.”
A couple of years ago, after Jeff competed in the world competition, Shannon became interested in the sport.
“We kind of wanted to get a little kennel thing going where we can sell some puppies, and I thought, ‘If we can get two dogs that are proven in the shed world and proven through this association, then maybe that can help us get our name out there a little bit to sell our puppies,’” Jeff said. “Then as the puppies started coming, Shannon was like, ‘I really like this.’”
The Neals started Skyline Drive Kennels at their home and developed a website, shedhuntinglabs.com.
When they advertised that the puppies were for sale, a man contacted Shannon asking if she would be interested in training his dog.
“I took on that task and just started learning about it, and from that point on, I fell in love with it,” she said. “I enjoy being with the dogs when they are young, working with them and stuff.”
Training begins with neurological stimulation, which helps them adjust later on in life to stressors and acclimate to different situations, she said.
“A lot of it is obedience, making sure the dog will listen to you,” Shannon said. “They need to sit and stay, and we collar-condition ours, which are the electronic collars. It helps once they know what sit is, then you can use the collar to help enforce it.”
Once the dog knows the commands, an antler is introduced.
“It’s just building the drive and interest, kind of like a little kid playing basketball or baseball,” Shannon said. “You just take them out and you play with them a bunch with it, you throw the antler. Usually, I’ll start with a tennis ball and put an antler through a tennis ball and just roll it for them, and they’ll go get it, and it’s just a game. You’ve just got to make it fun.”
Shannon said she typically starts the training in the yard, going about 15 minutes at a time. Once the dog gets used to finding antlers, she will take it to a cornfield or grassy or wooded area.
Shannon also went to Minnesota to meet with a trainer so she could become a certified judge through NASHDA. For the past two years, the Neals have hosted a qualifying event on their property, with nearly 20 dogs each time.
Shed hunting also has been a family affair for the Neals. Their children and Jeff’s father all have participated in competitions. They also have a friend, Nathan Cardinal, who purchased one of their puppies and has competed.
This year for spring break, the family went antler hunting in South Dakota.
“It’s a real family deal for us. It’s a lot of fun,” Jeff said. “We spend a lot of free time in January, February and March out walking our properties with our dogs and hunting for the natural sheds and doing that kind of stuff.”
As the sport continues to grow, Jeff said he wouldn’t be surprised to see the world competition expand beyond two days.
“Probably as it grows, it will be tougher and tougher to get titles. They’ve made it a harder sport as we’ve went along,” Jeff said.
“Even this year, it was a lot harder than last year because they hid the antlers a lot more,” Shannon added. “They were hidden in the brush, and they were down with some briars.”
The Neals plan to keep doing shed hunting since it’s a lifelong sport.
“Neither one of us had any idea that we would ever win anything going up there (to the world competition). We just wanted to go and have a good time and compete,” Jeff said. “It’s not really where we thought we would ever be at, and definitely not this quickly. But it’s pretty cool, and we’ve gotten to know so many good people through doing it. It’s really been fun.”
The family used to not have dogs, but it has turned into a hobby for Shannon.
“I see me having dogs around the rest of my life,” she said. “I literally can be having the worst day ever, and I can go out and spend 15 minutes with my dog, and it’s just like … they say the best medicine is just sitting and petting a dog. For me, it’s true.”
Names: Jeff and Shannon Neal
Ages: Jeff is 43, and Shannon is 42
Hometowns: Jeff is from Brownstown, and Shannon is from Madison
Occupations: Jeff is a partner at JA Benefits in Bedford, and Shannon is a stay-at-home mom
Children: Tyler, 16; Braden, 14; and Bryce, 10