Updated: Apr 4
One of the most enjoyable parts of truffle farming is working with dogs, in our case Frank and Luna who are both Golden Retrieves. Without their amazing noses there would quite literately be no truffles. But it’s not just their noses that makes them the ideal companion to walk besides during truffle season. Our truffle dogs, for the most part of the year are our family pets which makes them different to other working dogs.
In this post we share our truffle dog training journey including techniques we have learned and some of the industry secrets used to get man’s best friend to find those much loved gourmet diamonds.
What makes dogs so good at finding truffles?
Wolves, from which all dogs descended, are highly adapted predators. They have acute senses, including a nose that can detect prey from miles away, and are agile for chasing. Although dogs no longer live in packs or need to hunt for food, their social instincts make them ideal companions. What about their hunting instincts?! Well, they are still all there and it is these traits that we harness to find truffles: and bombs and drugs!
Truffle dogs, bomb dogs, and drug dogs undergo a highly specialized training process that harnesses their exceptional sense of smell to detect specific scents. This process, known as scent training, is based on the principles of learning theory, which is a branch of psychology that examines how animals (and humans) learn and modify their behavior through experience. A key figure in the development of learning theory is Ivan Pavlov, who discovered classical conditioning theory through his experiments with dogs. This theory has been adapted to form the basis of animal training methods around the world, including scent training for dogs. By using these principles, trainers are able to teach dogs to associate specific scents with rewards or commands, resulting in highly effective scent detection abilities.
Truffle dog training
Scent training is an exciting and rewarding way to engage with your dog on a deeper level. If you're interested in learning more about scent training, check out these helpful videos. The first one, by Steve Austin, provides a great introduction to the principles of scent training, while the second one is a more in-depth look at the techniques involved. By exploring scent training with your dog, you can deepen your bond and enjoy a fun and rewarding activity together.
Our journey to train our truffle dog began with the help of a professional truffle dog trainer named Taneka Preastly. Taneka has extensive experience in scent training and works closely with the renowned scent training expert, Steve Austin. Steve's training methods are highly sought after around the world and he has trained dogs to detect a wide range of scents, from noxious weed to underground water sources. In fact, at one of his workshops, Steve shared a remarkable story about a government department that paid over $55,000 for a dog that could detect a single feather from a particular endangered bird in a football field-sized area. This incredible feat demonstrates the amazing capabilities of scent detection dogs and the power of scent training. Thanks to Taneka and Steve's guidance, our truffle dog has become an expert at detecting the unique scent of truffles, making our truffle hunts a success every time.
As we watched Teneka expertly work her truffle dogs, Leesa and I were inspired to explore whether our pet Golden Retriever Luna could also be trained to find truffles. Teneka was great help, she passed on tips and tricks as we walked up and down the truffle trees with her dogs however it quickly became clear that scent training would be a crucial component of Luna's truffle hunting education. That's when we discovered K9 Nose Time, a remarkable group that specialises in agility training for dogs using scent detection. Their approach allowed Luna to use her natural instincts and sense of smell to find hidden items in unexpected places, honing her skills and preparing her for the challenges of truffle hunting.
The video below shows the exact same room Luna started her scent journey. Its at the Castle Hill Showgrounds in a K9 Nose Time beginner class. In this case the dog is looking for an Anise smelling mark hidden under one of those boxes.
As well as highly informative it was a lot of fun, Luna was a star! Golden Retrieves are very easy to train and she enjoyed the attention as we engaged in her success at finding the scent ‘marks’.
Having a strong base in the theory and process from K9 Nose Time, on the farm we switched the anise and rosemary scents for truffle scent. Bingo! A truffle dog is born. It took almost no time to then train Frank when he came along as a pup. Being a smart Golden Retriever and a pleaser, he just copied what Luna was doing.
Truffle dog work
When truffle farmers get together, one of our favorite discussion topics is always our dogs. As important members of our farming team, they are not only beloved pets but essential tools in the hunt for truffles. Conversations about truffle dogs can cover a range of topics, from training techniques to the unique quirks and habits of each individual dog. There are many theories about truffle dogs, including how to keep them motivated to find truffles and why they sometimes mark a truffle that can't be found. Despite the range of opinions and theories, one topic consistently sparks the most debate: which breed is the best truffle dog?
Some swear by the Logottos, but they're a rare sight on Australian farms. A quick Google search turned up a top ten list of breeds, but let's be real - who knows truffle dogs better than our local experts? Steve Austin raves about springer spaniels, while Teneka prefers rescue dogs with a certain spark in their step. For Teneka, it's all about finding dogs with the right attitude - driven, lively, and ready to play ball (literally!). She uses the ball as an early reward in training, tapping into that natural drive to play as a foundation for truffle-hunting skills. And once those truffle-sniffing talents start to bloom, the ball gets swapped out for a more savory reward - something that's a little more enticing than a chew toy!
Truffle dogs actually come in all shapes and sizes so when it comes to picking the right breed for the job, it's not just about having a good nose. Truffle hunting requires a dog that can keep up a consistent pace over a long period of time, so stamina is key. At our farm, we've found that having at least two dogs is a must, as the scent work can be pretty tiring. Our trusty Golden Retriever, Frank who was bread as a hunting dog, has bursts of energy, but needs frequent breaks, while working dogs like Australian Shepherds can work a bit longer before needing a rest. It's all about finding the right balance and picking a breed that suits your farm's needs.
Then there is the case of the ‘professional’ truffle dog. These services are used on larger industrialised truffle operations where volume and cost requires a highly efficient operation. Those dogs, like drug and explosive dogs are kept in cages for the most part and only come out to do their job when required. It can be said, the fun in their lives is confined to truffle hunting, as a result, boy do they do a good job.
Its amazing to watch, they really are like machines. I don’t know about you however, while I know that those dogs are loved and well kept by their owners, I can’t help but feel a little tinge of sadness for them as they work to keep us safe and find truffle on those mega farms. Perhaps its just me.
It's clear that the best breed for truffle hunting really depends on the situation. For our small-scale truffle farm, we love having Golden Retrievers as pets who can also help us find truffles. But for larger, industrial operations like the police or army or those mega farms, breeds that are driven and can handle being caged might be a better fit.
But enough of the serious talk - if you ever get the chance, you absolutely have to see them in action! Watching them work is truly a sight to behold, and the joy they get from finding truffles is contagious. Plus, seeing the look on our dog Frank's face when he uncovers a truffle is priceless!
We don’t do truffle hunts at Fish River Truffles but there are many many farms that do. We have listed a few below: be quick as places fill very quickly when their lists open.
Truffle Hunting Farms
Truffle hunting with pigs.
There is a story that goes around truffle circles in Europe; you can spot the truffle hunter who uses pigs because they have missing fingers. Yep! Pigs love truffles and if you don't get the truffle out of the ground before the pig has devoured the food reward she is coming for that truffle; even if you have your hand wrapped around it.
And that is it, basically dogs are much easier to work with than pigs. Pigs also need to be moved on once they get to a certain size which means you need to have another one trained and ready to go.
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