Josh Miller, 23, of New Richmond and his 9-year-old chocolate Labrador, Easton, share a special bond that has strengthened through the competitive sport of shed hunting.
For the last three years Miller and Easton have been hunting for antler sheds dropped by deer in the winter and spring.
"White-tailed deer shed their antlers in the late winter to early spring so new antlers can grow in," Miller, an avid outdoorsmen and hunter, said. "For deer hunters, during the non-hunting season, shed hunting is something they can do to be active in the woods with their dog."
Miller said he originally started taking Easton with him on shed hunts for exercise. He quickly realized Easton had the potential to be a successful shed hunter.
About four years ago when the two were in Willow River State Park, Miller noticed that Easton was finding tennis balls in the middle of the woods where it seemed no one had been in a while.
"That kind of sparked my interest and I thought I could probably get him to find the shed antlers," he said. "I got a couple sheds and started working with him. He picked it up right away."
Miller says shed hunting is one of the fastest growing sports in the dog industry.
While the sport is very popular in Wisconsin and Minnesota, Miller and Easton have competed against people and dogs from places like North Dakota and Michigan and even Arizona and Florida.
Miller said the rules of the competition are fairly simple.
"There are three different courses with six sheds planted in each course. You release your dog and you get points for each antler that they find, each one they retrieve and if the dog finds and retrieves all six of them, then they get a time (in a 15-minute time limit) and the dogs that run it the fastest place in that order," he said.
Miller says there is something special about Easton.
"Once in a while you'll get a dog that just seems like he's got something special and you can't really put your finger on what it is, but Easton is one of those special dogs. He's always picked up on things very quickly and he seems to excel at whatever we do. It wasn't a surprise to me that he picked this up. But I've still been surprised at how well he's done competitively," he said.
Miller and Easton have done very well in the competitive shed hunting circuit.
"We definitely work together, but it's no doubt that he's the real star," Miller said of Easton's hunting skills.
Last year they earned the North American Shed Hunting Dog Association World Championship title, after competing against 30 other sportsmen and dogs in Northfield, Minn.
This April they took fifth place in the same national competition, which is good considering Easton was fighting Lyme disease.
Miller said the Lyme disease took a major toll on Easton's energy and stamina and he even considered removing him from the competition.
"It was disappointing that Easton was sick and not able to perform as he usually does and defend his title, but it was more important to get him back in good health," Miller said. "Considering the circumstances, the event went well for us."
Through the competitions and shed hunting casually a couple times a week, Miller says his bond with Easton has grown.
"Through (winning various competitions) we've really been able to grow, all credit to Easton. I can honestly say I wouldn't be where I am today without him. Which is kind of neat because as a 15-year-old kid, to get a puppy, you never think they'll have that kind of impact on your life, but he's taught me so much more than I've ever taught him," Miller explained. "He's sparked an interest in not only the hunting side of the sport, but the dog side of it to the point that my living now, sales manager for SportDog and dog trainer, is based around dogs and outdoors. It's kind of neat to have such a connection with an animal like Easton."
Miller says anyone with a dog and a love for the outdoors should try shed hunting.
"It's a great way to be active and out in the field with your dog," he said.