(Originally posted May 1 2017)
Many of our country’s most innovative trends originated or were perfected in the Pacific Northwest, including grunge, microbrews, recycling, good coffee (I mean REALLY good coffee), Gore-Tex, casual Friday every day of the week, utilikilts, lumberjack beards, and truffle-hunting dogs.
Truffle hunting dogs?
Anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of truffles (that would be me) knows that truffle hunters have used pigs to detect the delectable delicacy.
Not anymore. Pacific Northwest truffle hunters almost exclusively use dogs to find their quarry. Dogs are also quickly becoming the most popular animal for finding truffles worldwide.
Truffles are mushrooms that grow underground. They look like small potatoes, and often between the size of a marble and a golf ball.
Truffles grow on the roots of Douglas firs, hazelnut trees, and oak trees in the Pacific Northwest. They can be found from southern British Columbia to northern California.
Oregon is the leading truffle producing state in the US, and Washington is second.
Truffles can be as small as a golf ball or as large as a tennis ball and are either white or black. Photo from Seattle DogSpot.
What do Truffles Taste Like?
Not everyone likes truffles, but the people that do are fanatical about them.
Gothamist.com described their taste as “slightly garlicky with a deep musky aroma. It’s a very earthy, pungent and deliciously funky.
Chef Lidia Bastianich from Eataly, points out truffles’ “animal musk,” which is said to cause amorous feelings. So…do with that what you will.”
Truffle Hunting Dogs Gaining Popularity
Truffle hunting in the Pacific Northwest used to be an inexact science. Since we don’t have many truffle hunting pigs, people used heavy rakes to dig for them.
This technique had 2 problems: raking ripped up the tree’s roots and sometimes the truffles, and many times the truffles weren’t ripe.
Using dogs to hunt for truffles has become all the rage both in Europe and the US because their keen sense of smell helps them find the ones that are ripe. And unlike pigs, when dogs find truffles they don’t try to eat them.
This is critically important since truffles are extremely expensive because they are so scarce. Northwest truffles sell for $300-$600 per pound.
Teach Your Dog to Find Truffles
Alana McGee and Kristin Rosenbach didn’t plan to be on the cutting edge of training truffle hunting dogs, but after they traveled to Italy, they both fell in love with the delectable fungus and co-funded the Truffle Dog Company in Seattle.
They started out offering online truffle hunting classes and private instruction. Recently, they added hybrid truffle dog training courses to the mix. They created it to “integrate face-to-face and online activities so that they reinforce, complement, and elaborate one another.”
Here’s their completelist of truffle hunting classes for dogs.
What to Expect During a Truffle Hunting Class
Before writing this post I sat in on an Introduction to Truffle Hunting class.
The class was taught by Erica Wells, who I first met at Dog’s Day Out Seattle when we took our dog there for daycare.
Erica is a Certified Nose Works Instructor (CNWI) through the National Association of Canine Scent Work. Recently she expanding her work to include instructing people how to teach their dogs to find truffles.
Before the class started Erica explained some of the basics of teaching dogs to hunt for truffles.
She said truffle hunting is a form of another activity for dogs that is gaining popularity for dogs – K9 Nose Work.
In K9 Nose Work, “dogs learn how to search for a specific odor or odors and find the source.” They start by searching for their favorite food or toy reward hidden in a variety of environments, increasing the challenges and adding new search skills as the dog progresses.”
The big difference between training a dog to hunt for truffles vs. K9 Nose Work is that with truffle hunting, you teach the dog to search for a find a specific scent while in nose work you teach dogs to find a different scents in a variety of places.
Shaping the Dog’s Truffle Response
Truffle dog training also includes shaping the dog’s response to let you know when it finds a truffle and where the truffle is located.
Some of these responses include putting its nose on the spot, barking or scratching the ground where the truffle is located.
Erica used oil from the black and white truffles found in the Pacific Northwest to get dogs familiar with the scent.
She starts with one container that has a truffle scent inside to give the dog something to focus on.
Gradually, she increases the number and type of containers to increase the level of difficulty.
When a dog first learns to find truffles it’s critical to reward it when it does anything to indicate it smells the truffle oil.
This trains the dog to understand what it is supposed to find and know it will be rewarded upon finding it. Using a clicker when the dog finds the scent helps to reinforce it as well.
“The truffle, per se, is not something a dog would naturally search for on its own,” says dog trainer Glynn Martyn. “The truffle has to have some association with something. For most dogs, that positive association is food, and once a dog learns the truffle smell means food, they’ll do whatever it takes to find that truffle smell.”
What are the Best Truffle Hunting Dog Breeds?
I sat in on the Introduction to Truffle Hunting class. The dogs came in a variety of ages and breeds: Brittany Spaniel’s Duncan and Banner, Mingus the Rat Terrier, Boudreaux, a poodle with a stylish mohawk haircut, and a young German Shepherd mix named Beowulf.
Duncan is 12-years-old and the oldest dog there. Beowulf, the youngest is only 6 months old.
(If you watch his video at the end of this post you’ll see he’s doing great in the class.)
“It’s all personality-based, for the most part,” McGee told Quirksee.org, adding she’s successfully trained Chihuahuas, Great Danes and even flat-nosed pugs. “And you can teach them at any age. There’s no rule that says you have to get the dog when it’s a puppy and start it. You can have a 13-year-old dog start doing it.”
Some of the dogs were better at tracking down the truffle scent than others. All of them looked like they were having a ball.
It’s About You and Your Dog, Not Truffles
The primary focus of the training is not to find truffles. It’s about building the relationship between people and their dogs.
“The truffle itself doesn’t matter,” Rosenbach told Seattle Refined.“The dog does. The minute it becomes about the truffle, a relationship component is lost.”
Truffle dog training can also boost your dog’s confidence, help it develop problem solving skills, and provide exercise and mental stimulation.
Even the best truffle hunting dogs are exhausted after 1-2 of searching for the elusive fungus.
So if you’re looking for a new activity to do with your dog, try taking a truffle hunting class.
Even if you don’t plan to hunt truffles it’s a great way to give your dog mental stimulation and exercise while strengthening your bond with it.
Here are videos of some of the dogs in the truffle hunting class in action.: