According to Bergin, one-third of a dog’s brain is devoted to its olfactory system. “Even though dogs have this unique scenting capability, they have not been given the scientific study they deserve,” she says. “They are meaningful to so many people.”
Research may be inadequate, but dogs are widely used in work involving scent detection. They help identify cancer in humans, mold in wine barrels, and smoke and other indicators of danger. They detect contraband, find victims at disaster sites and locate land mines.
When it comes to truffle hunting, a keen nose is important, but so is temperament. Breed matters less. I have hunted truffles in Italy with a mixed-breed dog, and in France and Italy with a yellow Lab and several Lagotto Romagnolos (Lagottos are water retrievers whom some claim have a special instinct for truffles). I have also met or heard of a truffle-hunting Dachshund, Sheepdog, Beagle, German Shepherd and Chihuahua.
Closer to home, in Sonoma County, Calif., businessman Henry Trione imported a pair of trained truffle dogs from Italy in the 1980s. Back then, an American truffle industry was only a twinkle in Trione’s eye, and there was no way to maintain the dogs’ skills. Now that there are, by Lefevre’s estimate, several hundred truffières in North America, there exists both a need for dogs and enough work to keep them busy.
Lessons from the Old World
A method for training truffle dogs was set down in print as far back as 1883. The publication Der Hund offered the following guidelines: Begin training in the summer. Start by sewing a truffle into a leather pouch and hiding it from the dog. As his skill progresses, hide the pouch under moss or leaves. After every successful retrieval, reward the dog with a treat and choose a more difficult hiding place. Talk to the dog as little as possible, and use only commands specific to a truffle hunt, such as “find” or “search.”
After an autumn rain, take the dog to a truffle field. The dog should be off-leash and quartered upwind to make scenting easier. Hide a truffle a few inches below ground. When the dog scents it, immediately take the truffle, praise the dog and reward him with a treat. During and after the training stage, if the dog does not find a truffle, no treat should be given. After a hunt (never before), the dog should be fed its normal food.
A similar method is employed today in the Umbria region of Italy. Gabriella Bianconi and her husband, Saverio, sell their truffle products and operate a small cooking school near Citta di Castello. Gabriella described how one hunter they know works.
Training begins at four or five months, or, in the case of a Lagotto, right after weaning. First, the trainer dampens a sponge ball with truffle liquid (infused water or oil), then hides it. When the puppy finds the ball, he is rewarded with a generous piece of meat or cheese. After several days of training, the ball is replaced by a truffle. As soon as the dog shows comprehension that finding the truffle results in getting a reward, training moves to the truffle grounds. At first, the dog is allowed to eat a few truffles. “In this way, he is more motivated to search,” Gabriella explains. “To train a dog requires a good deal of the person’s patience and the dog’s will.”
Developing Homegrown Hunters
North American truffle farmers are using many of the same Old World methods to train hunting dogs for nascent orchards in Oregon, California, Arkansas and Tennessee.