Image via iStock.com/wanderluster
By Victoria Schade
Truffles, the hidden diamonds of the culinary world, grow beneath the earth in the roots of trees, and were once only found with the help of trained truffle pigs. Female pigs are naturally inclined to hunt for the costly fungi delicacies (which can be worth up to $3,000 per pound), but the challenges of working with these oversized and often aggressive foragers far outweighed the benefits. Plus, the sight of a pig on a dog leash is an obvious signal to other truffle hunters of the riches underground, and could lead to turf wars.
Now, dogs like the Italian Lagotto Romagnolo, a medium-sized dog with curly fur, are considered far superior than their porcine hunting counterparts. Easier to train and transport and not inclined to eat the treasures they uncover, truffle hunting dogs have made this once specialized sport accessible to average dog owners.
What Types of Dogs Make the Best Truffle Hunters?
Although scenting breeds like Beagles and hound dogs might seem like obvious truffle dog hunters, certified professional dog trainer Alana McGee, owner of the Truffle Dog Company in Washington, says that any dog can be trained to find truffles for fun.
McGee, who uses reward-based training to help dogs and their people learn how to find truffles, says, “We've worked with Chihuahuas, Shih Tzus, French Bulldogs, Dachshunds, Great Danes, Pit Bulls, Border Collies and Heelers, Belgian Malinois and every mix in between. If there is a breed of dog you don't think can do this, we've probably helped train them, even Akitas and Alaskan Malamutes.” McGee’s own truffle hunting dogs include a Lagotto, a Labrador mix, an Australian Shepherd and a Golden Retriever.
She adds that professional truffle hunting dogs require certain characteristics, like drive, endurance and friendliness to strangers. These traits serve truffle dogs and their handlers well as they search for the buried treasures in the rugged forests of the Pacific Northwest to the hills of Italy.
The Truffle Dog Training Process
As with all dog training, working with truffle hunting dogs should be fun for both ends of the leash. McGee says that the early stages of training help the dog understand that truffle hunting is a game and not work, even though the stakes might seem high, given the value of what truffle dogs can unearth.
McGee uses operant conditioning, which is training where dogs learn to make an association between their behavior and the related consequence, and shaping, which involves breaking complex behaviors into manageable increments and rewarding each increment until the desired behavior is achieved.
Finding truffles is a series of complex behaviors; the dogs must first learn to identify the truffle scent, as it’s not an aroma that they’re naturally drawn to, then learn to locate it in controlled indoor environments, then eventually graduate to alerting the handler to a truffle growing underground in the wild at peak ripeness.
Early truffle dog training is kept “short and sweet,” and dogs are rewarded with a few dog treats or a dog toy. These simple games of hide-and-seek progress to outdoor blind finds in which the handler doesn’t know where the truffles are hidden, and culminate with working in a real truffle field.
But McGee stresses that it’s not just about the dogs’ abilities. “There are a lot of handler skills involved too. It's similar to training a dog to find explosives or your cell phone, but in a very different, distracting environment, but it is great fun and a great bonding experience, which builds confidence in the dogs and handlers alike.”
Truffle Hunting With Your Dog: How To Get Started
If you’re not lucky enough to live in a region with a suitable truffle climate—primarily the Pacific Northwest, although cultivated truffle farms are popping up across the country—the next best way to turn your dog into a scent-hunting hound is by playing basic nose work games. Teach your dog to find treats or toys hidden around your home, then make it tougher by moving the game to your yard, which increases the level of distractions.
Want to make it official? Consider a nose work class where you and your dog can learn the fundamentals of scenting. Or take your dog on a dream vacation to learn about truffle hunting from an expert like McGee. You might go home with culinary gold in your pocket and a new appreciation for your talented truffle hunting pup!