How do you train a truffle dog?
There has been a lot of interest in truffling over the last decade with many hobbyists taking up the activity in the hope of uncovering a valuable truffle. Some of this increased interest has lead to raking. It is understandable that people do not want to risk money buying a trained truffle dog when a rake is a lot cheaper and more immediately available. However it really is a terrible idea to use a rake and search indiscriminately in areas where truffles are rumoured to grow.
These truffle spots are few and far between. If you are lucky enough to have found a truffle patch you need take care of it. As a hunter this is easy to do – there are three ways to avoid damaging the growth site.
- Unearth truffles carefully, disturbing the soil around them as little as possible.
- After unearthing a truffle, fill in the hole and leave the site as you found it.
- Rotten truffles should be left in the ground for future generations.
If you treat the growth site with respect, it can provide you and your family with the fruit of its roots for decades. Raking, however, damages truffle patches beyond repair. It may be an easy way to unearth this season’s fruit but it will be at the expense of next season’s truffles. This is why it is essential that hunters only use a dog to find truffles. Dogs are able to
- find the exact location of the truffle which avoids unnecessary soil disturbance
- only sniff out mature specimens which have culinary value.
People who rake for truffles often say that they are forced to do so as dogs are prohibitively expensive. It is true that a rake, even a top quality tool, will cost a lot less than a trained truffle dog. This post aims to show potential truffle hunters that it is relatively easy to train your own dog. It won’t be expensive nor will you need a level of expertise. Anyone can do it provided that they have patience and I would imagine that rakers have this quality in abundance.
What breed of dog should I train to hunt for truffles?
First of all it is a myth that the only good truffle dogs are lagotto romagnolo. Any breed of dog can become a successful truffle dog as all breeds of dog have a good nose. What you need is a smart, trainable dog. If you already have a young dog of your own then you are ready to start. If you have an older dog (18 months+) you might still be ok. This will depend on how bright the dog is and whether he or she has already undergone some form of training. For example does your dog come when called or know how to fetch a ball? This will put him or her in a higher class than the dog who doesn’t respond to you and sits on the sofa all day.
If you don’t have a dog and of course, can look after one, you could try your local rescue shelter. There is no need to go out and buy a particular breed. A smart mongrel can run rings around a pedigree dog. Working dogs or hunting dogs do well in training, labradors being particularly easy but again it is more a question of character. Very timid dogs often don’t do as well and excessively boisterous dogs can be difficult to train. When choosing a dog, the criteria should be
- sociable and enjoy your company
Some dogs are better learners than others, some will take to truffle hunting more quickly than others. Your dog won’t learn overnight but with patience you can train even the slow learners.
As for equipment, you will need some truffle oil (any kind will do), cotton wool, aluminium foil and some snacks. The snacks should be something that your dog really enjoys and keep them exclusively for your training sessions.
The training sessions are split into three stages
- indoor (beginners)
- outdoor (intermediate)
- in the field (advanced)
Make sure your dog has fully mastered each stage before you progress to the next one. You will be using positive reenforcement, no scolding just plenty of warm encouragement, praise and the all-important treats. The sessions should be fun for both you and your dog so choose a time when you are both relaxed and in a playful mood.
Stage One – Indoor training – I have divided the stages into sessions, some dogs might get it after one day, others will need more time.
Day One – The dog learns to make a connection between sniffing the truffle scent and getting a delicious snack
Find a nice, quiet, clear space in your home without too many distractions.
Prepare the ‘truffle’ by dabbing some truffle oil onto a cotton wool ball and wrapping it up in aluminium foil. Get your snacks ready, little bits of sausage or small pieces of chicken – nothing too large.
Introduce your dog to the space and let him or her sniff around and explore the area. It is best to do this before the dog has been fed and so is a little hungry. Pet the dog and talk in a calm way, avoid over-excitement as you want to promote an atmosphere where the animal can focus on the task in hand.
Place the ‘truffle’ on the ground and when the dog approaches to sniff it congratulate the dog with a ‘Good Boy!’ and reward it immediately with a snack and lots of encouragement. You can do this kneeling on the ground and keeping the truffle close by you – in front of you, to your side or behind you. Repeat at least six times, more if the dog is not getting bored.
Day 2 – The dog learns to make a connection between walking up to a truffle, sniffing it and being rewarded with a snack
If the dog has understood that you want it to sniff the truffle, you can start putting the truffle in different, but obvious, locations. You can introduce the search command – something easy like ‘Where is it?’ or ‘Find it’. Follow the dog as it goes towards the truffle and when it sniffs at it, you need to be quick and generous with your praise, snacks and affection. Repeat this for as long as it is fun for both of you. Most dogs love learning new tricks but be patient if your dog takes a while to catch on!
Day 3 – The dog learns to make a connection between finding a hidden truffle and getting a snack.
Once your friend has understood that walking up to and sniffing a truffle will earn him or her a tasty treat, you can advance to the next stage. This third session will last a little longer as you should start very easy and gradually make the game more challenging. First off, hide your truffle somewhere obvious, make sure your dog has not seen the hiding place. Do not give any indications eg. ‘You are getting warmer!’ ‘Nearly there’. It is vital that you stay neutral and let the dog work out the location of the truffle with no interference. You are teaching your dog skills that must be transferrable. The dog will learn to apply these skills out in the field so try not to influence the dog while he is ‘hunting’ and you know where the truffle is. Congratulations, you are well on your way to becoming a truffle hunting team.
Keep up the great work trufflers – the next post will deal with Stage Two and you will be moving outdoors!