While most of think of truffle-hunting pigs, dogs have actually been found easier to train, care for, and because of the pigs fondness for the truffles, less likely to eat the ones they find. We interviewed Kelly Slochum, K9 Handler/Trainer at Canine Scent Institute and NW Truffle Dogs to find out more about this amazing canine job.
DC: How long does it take to teach a dog to hunt for truffles?
KS: Different trainers have different methods, as you know, thus training times will vary, but it doesn’t take long to train a great truffle dog. In my particular program, the student and dog spend a total of four hours with me, one hour a week for four weeks, and practice learned skills between sessions.
DC: How do you teach them to find but not eat them? A very good leave it?
KS: Actually, when training detection you never want to correct a dog from scent, thus, we would not use “leave it”, rather, during the earliest phases of training we use containers that discourage mouthing. Dependent upon the dog, I may start out with the target inside of a small mason jar, for instance, and gradually reduce the container size once the dog learns to perform a specific behavior that marks the location of the target (called the “alert”) when the dog encounters the scent. Once the dog learns to alert, he is not rewarded until he performs that behavior, thus, if/when he picks the target up in his mouth he gets no reward or response from the handler, but lavish praise when it is dropped and the alert is performed. The dogs pretty quickly learn that there is no value in mouthing the target. By the time the dog completes training and is hunting truffles in the wild, it does not occur to him to eat the truffle.
This is also coupled with the reward being a very high value food treat – typically higher, from the dog’s perspective, than truffle. I usually recommend bacon, because, seriously, who doesn’t love bacon!?!
DC: Are truffles poisonous to the dogs if they do eat them?
KS: No, there are no toxic truffles. We’re safe on that one. Every truffle dog handler, however, should be mindful of mushrooms in their truffle area, as there are many mushroom species toxic to dogs.
DC: Can any breed of dog be trained to do this? Are some breeds better?
KS: I came into truffle scent work by way of K9 search and rescue, which means I came in with a fair amount of ego about working dog breeds, thinking that one needed high-drive working dogs like labs, shepherds, and other established hunting/working breeds to be effective. When a British Columbia woman brought me her Pug-Beagle mix to train, and when that dog turned out to be a truffle hunting phenomenon that took less than an hour to train, and who is as good or better than my own amazing lab, I learned to set my ego aside and recognize that ALL breeds have more than sufficient scenting ability to do the job. I’ve trained everything from Pug mixes to Papillons, and all have the ability to do this job well!
Pug and Boston Terrier mixes, incidentally, seem to make fantastic truffle dogs. Who’d have thought!?!
DC: Are trained truffle dogs worth a lot of money? Do people buy them pre-trained?
KS: Interesting question. I am going to phrase my answer very specifically – trained truffle dogs COST a lot of money, but, as this is a very simple discipline to train, I question whether they are worth some of the prices I’ve seen charged for them.
I’ve seen pre-trained dogs offered for sale, but I hope that no one is buying them. What would be better for both dog and handler would be for the handler to find a dog they like and want as a partner, then train that dog.
DC: Are they better then pigs at finding truffles?
KS: I’ve never trained a pig, nor seen one work, but I can tell you that dogs have been developed through thousands and thousands of generations of selective breeding for close work and association with humans – they evolved to partner with us. There is even evidence that our close relationship with dogs may have influenced human evolutionary development! As such, when we engage in activities with dogs, the needs and desires of the human “matter” to the animal. Pigs? When they hunt truffles they hunt for themselves, not because they recognize mutual benefit. Pigs are smart and they have a great sense of smell, but I can’t help but believe the ability to effectively partner with the animal is an equally relevant factor.
Besides, the “cool factor” with pigs just doesn’t seem to be there – or is that my working canine arrogance showing tot self again?
DC: What is the average number of truffles found by dogs per year? Do people make a living finding truffles with their dogs? How much a year can one make?
KS: The volume of truffles a dog can find is much more matter of the number of truffles present than it is the dog’s ability. When we train dogs, more important than teaching them to start hunting on command, we must train them to STOP on command, or they will continue working until they drop. When well and appropriately trained, dogs LOVE this game, and will find every truffle they can, just for the excitement it brings the handler and for a tiny piece of bacon from his or her hand. The truffles have to be there, however, and that is the real trick – finding a well producing truffle patch.
The four culinary varieties in the forests of the Pacific Northwest seem, in my experience, to be present in most young tree stands, but not every patch of Doug firs has them in significant numbers. Finding a patch that produces sufficient truffles that one can meet the demand of, say, a single restaurant is the real trick.
I know of no one anywhere in North America who supports themselves truffle hunting. I tell all of my students that this is a fun and engaging activity, that they can probably reliably find sufficient truffles to make some lovely dinners and a nice supply of truffle butter, but I see no evidence that wild foraging truffles is a potential career.