Learn how to work with your dog to find wild or cultivated truffles in the off-season
As anyone who owns one knows, hunting dogs are at their best when they have a job to do. In the absence of a job, dogs will often create their own entertainment… and chances are, their vision of success doesn’t quite match ours. During the hunting season, hunters and their dogs are singularly focused on the next bird. But in the off-season and in between hunts, hunters sometimes need to get creative when it comes to keeping their dogs sharp, focused, and out of trouble.
Training and conditioning are top priorities for the off-season, but it can be fun to mix up the routine a bit to avoid boredom and to continue developing the working partnership between you and your dog. If you’re fortunate to live in an area where truffles grow wild or are cultivated, learning to truffle hunt with your bird dog can be a fun and rewarding activity.
Most people associate truffles with Europe and truffle hunting with specially-trained pigs, but truffles can actually be found in North America and can be successfully hunted with any dog that has been trained to use its nose and work cooperatively with a handler—in other words, bird dogs can make excellent truffle dogs. In fact, the Lagotto Romagnolo is an Italian water dog that was originally developed as a water retriever, but now is primarily used for truffle hunting.
Professional dog trainer Erica Wells hunts wild truffles in the Pacific Northwest with her two Brittanys. She started her training career with nosework, first falling in love with the sport and then dedicating herself as an instructor. When she discovered truffle hunting with dogs, she knew it was the perfect activity to combine her love of dog scent work with her love of being outdoors and hiking. Before long, she was teaching classes for the Truffle Dog Company based in Washington.
Where can North American truffles be found?
Truffles grow wild in the temperate Douglas-fir forests of the Pacific Northwest. The forest floors are home to the Oregon black truffle (Leucangium carthusianum) and the Oregon white truffle (Tuber oregonense and Tuber gibbosum). The potato-like shape of the truffle is actually just the fruiting body of the fungus, which exists in threadlike filaments that reach throughout the soil and connect to tree root systems.
Besides naturally-occurring truffles in the northwest, truffles are also cultivated in orchards in other areas of North America. While the fungus is always present in the soil, the fruiting bodies have specific seasons that vary by species.
Truffles grow entirely underground, so it’s impossible to know where they are just by walking through the forest or orchard in search of these culinary treasures. That’s why dogs with trusted noses are particularly valuable in searching out their scent and indicating their hidden presence, even in areas where the truffles are intentionally cultivated.
How does truffle hunting with a dog work?
Looking for truffles begins much like a bird hunt. The dog is released to search for scent; upon finding the scent of a truffle, the dog indicates the location to the handler. This isn’t necessarily going to trigger a pointing instinct like bird scent does, since there is no predator-prey relationship in this hunt. The way the dog indicates the location of the truffle depends on the dog and how they’ve been trained on truffle scent. In Erica’s case, her older Brittany carries a tennis ball and drops it upon finding truffle scent. She does this in anticipation of having the ball thrown for her as a play reward for the successful find. Other dogs await food treats or other positive rewards upon finding the truffle.
Some dogs search while on a lead in order to keep them close and to prevent them from digging up the truffles themselves. Digging risks damaging the truffle, which is especially problematic in an orchard with cultivated truffles, as any damage significantly reduces the commercial value of the truffle.
If you’re worried that training your dog to find buried mushrooms might affect your next bird hunt, think again. “Absolutely not!” said Wells, when asked if truffle hunting negatively affects a bird dog’s hunting abilities. “They are using the same skill set—it’s just another type of hunting. Bird finding is so instinctual in our bird dogs, and with truffles, they are still hunting for something.”
How to get started training your dog to find truffles
Training a dog to find truffles has two key components: teaching the scent and training for correct behavior when the scent is found.
Since bird dogs aren’t genetically programmed to seek and react to truffle scent in the same way that they are for prey animals such as birds, there is more upfront work required in acclimating them to the strange scent of the fungus. Wells recommends introducing the scent with a high-quality oil (ensure it is not a synthetic scent which is common in cheaper truffle oils) or, if possible, an actual truffle. Pair the truffle scent with treats to create a positive association with the smell.
As for training the dog to search methodically in the woods, Wells says it depends on the dog and how much work you’re willing to put in. “For dogs who are on overdrive in the woods and chasing down game or just forest smells, it’s going to take longer. For dogs who frequently hike and hunt off leash in high-distraction environments, it is much easier.” Just like hunting birds, this activity requires not only endurance but also focus, which comes from dedicated time spent in the woods.
Once your dog pinpoints truffle scent, there’s a degree of steadiness training that isn’t unlike training for steadiness on birds, though without the extreme temptation that comes from a flushing bird. The dog needs to remain at the truffle location and wait for you to arrive. Running off to find the next one won’t help you very much if you don’t know where the first truffle was located.
Learn more about hunting truffles with a dog
In addition to training your dog to find truffle scent, you’ll need to understand where to go and what typical truffle locations look like in your area. There are a number of training resources available for those just getting started or if you want some more advanced, hands-on help. In the Pacific Northwest, the Truffle Dog Company offers classes (in-person and online), guided outings, and training kits that include the correct truffle scent for your area.
Truffle hunting with your bird dog can be an excellent way to keep those search and focus skills sharp when you can’t be out hunting birds. In addition to strengthening the working relationship between you and your dog, you might even find a culinary prize to take home to your kitchen. It’s just one more way in which our bird dogs can enrich our lives and motivate us to get outside in search of adventure.
Jennifer Wapenski is the managing editor of Hunting Dog Confidential Magazine and co-host of the Hunting Dog Confidential podcast. She has a lifelong passion for the outdoors, dogs, and wildlife; as an adult, she discovered that upland bird and waterfowl hunting were natural extensions of these pursuits. Jennifer lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and their two Deutsch Langhaars.