"Well, has he found any yet?". Hopefully this is a question on many of your minds. "He" referring to Duggy of course and "any" meaning truffles. The simple answer is Yes! Lots, he is a truffle hunting machine. As in, it completely blows our minds. But I'll get to that later. Let me start at the beginning.
Our journey of training our truffle dog
Duggy moves into our home. He looks like a teddy bear; a happy, sweet, innocent ball of puppy fluff. How on Earth do we train him to find Truffles? How do get this little critter to start work? Where do we begin? A quick internet search reveals that one of the first things to do is to set up a positive association in Duggy's mind with truffles. Many sites and videos suggest putting a few drops of Truffle oil on your dog's favourite cuddly toy, or even placing some truffle oil on a tennis ball and playing fetch. So, we open another tab on the computer, order some truffle oil and within a few days, there we are, sat on the sofa with a heavily perfumed, perfectly round, luminous yellow, Slazenger 'truffle'. "Duggy, fetch!" we say. Mixed results. After all, we have not even yet taught him what the command 'fetch' means. It would appear that some basic obedience training is required. Not a bad idea really. After all, we have owned a dog before. So, it's "Sit Duggy", "Duggy, down!" "Stay!"and "Duggy, come!" for the next couple of weeks. We now have a very obedient dog that nearly always does what is asked, especially if there's a tasty treat ready to be gobbled as reward. Time to get back to the truffle training. After all, we will all be a lot happier if Duggy can find some truffles even if it is at the sacrifice of not being able to sit on his back legs and beg. After some further reading, it seems like a good approach would be to place some more truffle oil on some cotton wool, wrap it in foil so as to make an 'artificial' truffle and place it on the floor and wait for the budding student to approach it. He would go near it and so we would reward him. We did this several times and the idea is to practise this activity most days until he is comfortable to move onto the next stage which is when you start to hide the foil 'truffle' around the house for your dog to find. However, this is where we ran into some problems. Duggy wasn't very sure on what he was being rewarded for. After receiving a treat, he would then become more interested in the treats themselves and would just trying doing various tricks in order to earn one. Hmmmm, we though, back to the drawing board. Or perhaps even 'back to the shop!' for Duggy. Only joking, look at his little face! He's here to stay, truffles or no truffles.
A week or so later, after our initial mediocre truffle training results, we had a knock on the door. It was Duggy's breeders who had come to say 'Hello'. They also brought Duggy's mum which he was very pleased about. After a brief chat about how he was getting on, one of them took out of their pocket a number of beautiful truffles. They looked fresh, not previously canned or frozen. This was in September, so far too early for the Black Perigord Truffle to be appearing. It must be the summer truffle, Tuber aestivum. "Wow" we say. "Where did they come from?". The reply? "We were just walking with the dogs up near Saint Robert and we found them, wild". You can imagine our faces. We had never thought about the idea of making use of our Truffle dog's superhuman truffle snootle to find little underground treasure in the Summer and Autumn months as well as the Winter. I blurted out the first question that came into my mind - "Do you find many wild truffles?". "Yes" came the response, "Perhaps 15 - 20kg per year"... cool. Anyway, the reason for their visit was to drop off some truffles for us to help us train Duggy find them. After they left, we found ourselves saying to each other, "Well, what are we going to do with these?". Resisting the temptation to eat them for dinner we headed straight out to the sandpit, a massive mound of left over building sand from our ongoing renovations. Whilst Duggy was distracted, we dug several small holes with a trowel and placed a truffle in each and covered them over. At this point, expecting absolutely nothing, we gave the command "Duggy, find the truffles!" and that was that. Immediately his nose was to the ground and within 30 seconds he found his first truffle. Within two minutes he'd uncovered all of them, and within 15 minutes he repeated the feat so many times over we'd lost count. Duggy the truffling wonderdog had landed! We couldn't believe it. A dog that still wasn't even fully house-trained yet was unearthing truffles like a pro. So, was it Nature, or was it Nurture, or a bit of both?
It is widely accepted that you can train any dog to become a truffle dog. While this may be true, it is clearly sensible to choose a breed of dog that exhibits certain characteristics. After all, there are reasons that the police use German Shepherds, farmers have Border Collies and 'La Chasse' prefer Beagles. They have been selectively bred for decades for their abilities in certain fields. After so long, these innate characteristics are strong and in the hands of a good trainer, dogs can be employed to do incredible things. So, when searching for truffles, we look for a dog with a good nose, without being distracted by birds etc; a dog who is obedient and will hand over the prize once it is found; a dog that is hardy and tenacious even in the middle of the cold winter. For us, it was also essential that we have a loving family pet who is good with children. Fortunately, it just so happens that the Lagotto Romagnolo embodies all of these attributes. I can't count the number of times we have commented on what a wonderful dog Duggy is - and he is still so young. He is the most loyal and obedient dog I have ever known. He always wants to please us and is delighted to have an important job of finding truffles - perhaps this is key with dog ownership, they want to be useful.
Duggy, like the rest of his litter, have shown an interest in truffles from day one. Instinctively these tiny puppies love to dig. They will dig anywhere, so to harness this inherent digging desire is to simply pop them on a mound of soft soil with truffles hidden within. This video was taken before Duggy came home with us, he was not yet 3 months old.
More advanced hunting
We soon realised that Duggy was becoming faster and faster at finding the truffles, so we turned an area in the ground to hide the truffles. Again, we would hide the truffles in the soil and let him loose with the command 'find'.
One day, by chance, we met upon another Lagotto, a lovely petite 4 year old girl with an excellent nose. Her exceptionally kind owner set up truffles around the Lac de Causse for Duggy to find followed by the two of them sniffing around to find naturally occurring truffles. Success! Duggy would follow her lead snuffling away and they would dig together. Indicating the location of a truffle by digging, the human counterpart can then step in to carefully extract the truffle, avoiding damage.
Duggy learnt his lesson well, because the very next day (at only 4 months old) he found his first wild truffle entirely by himself (we didn't even ask him to find any) and, best of all, it was on our farm close to the truffiere at the base of a large oak tree. It was very small with an incredibly powerful scent! Well done Duggy! It is also very good news for all of our investors as this truffle was found on a tree that hadn't been innoculated with truffle spores. This fussy fungus was found growing all by itself with no help from us. It therefore confirms that the land here truly is the perfect terroir for truffles to thrive. Another great bit of news was the nature pf the truffle itself. It was tiny. Why is that good news you may say? Because Duggy found this truffle which was around 10cm deep in soil that had never been loosened or worked and it was a truffle that gives off around 100 times less scent than it's more expensive cousin, the one we are cultivating. If Duggy can find this truffle at the age of 4 months old, he's not going to have any problems finding 800g truffles of Tuber Melanosporum in the years to come.
Following the haul at the lake, we reserved a few truffles to continue his training and the rest were shaved over freshly made pasta as we toasted the nose of the clever little Lagotto.
For new challenge, we now leave Duggy in the car at the beginning of a walk while we hide truffles along the route. He hasn't missed one yet. Good Boy!
So, how to train a truffle dog:
Choose a good breed, the Lagotto Romagnolo is built for this.
Find a local breeder, they might be keen to help you with your training and even take the dogs out together.
Start as soon as you can - as soon as they are born if possible. Leave truffles around for them to smell.
Hide truffles in a mound of soil. Watch them and as soon as they find them, reward them.
When they are old enough to leave their mother, begin to hide them in different areas, loosen the soil to make it easier. Let them find truffles every day and reward them whenever they come into contact. Let them sniff and lick, but avoid letting them eat truffles.
Go out with a veteran. Just like children, puppies will copy their elders. Take them along on a truffle hunt wherever possible.
Hide truffles on walks and if they need encouragement, you can help to guide them.
Try to use fresh truffles when possible. Frozen truffles are good, but their aroma is not as strong. If you use truffles that are not fresh or have been frozen, consider leaving them in the soil overnight or at least for a few hours so that the scent has chance to permeate the soil. Of course, if you bury the truffle deeper, leave it longer.
It is more expensive to train a dog using real truffles as opposed to truffle oil, however, you are training him to find truffles, not truffle oil - and there is a difference. (99% of commercially bought truffle oil is a petroleum based chemical that has never been near a real truffle). After all, If you get this right, your dog will return your investment a hundred fold - it'll be worth getting it right.