Comparisons and Disappointment
Previous truffle training videos on our channel set out the steps you can follow to teach your dog how to sniff out truffles. To make these steps as clear as possible,, I used a dog, Allan, who had already been taught what to do. As these episodes were simply meant to be a demonstration, I skipped the stage where Allan himself was learning how to find truffles.
These videos seemed to attract a lot of comments along the lines of…’Our dog isn’t doing that’ and ‘I wish my puppy was as well-behaved as Allan’ or ‘ My dog Buster just attacks the truffle/ runs off’ This made me realise that it’s not always that helpful to hold up a pre-trained dog as an example. It can lead to those watching measuring their dog’s performance unfavourably, when it is just that their dog is simply at another stage than the dog in the video. So it’s time to dial it back a bit and look at a rather different picture- the steps to training the dog from scratch. Training an absolute novice can get quite chaotic especially if the trainee is a young puppy. However with repetition and a clear game plan, it will all come together in the end.
The Three Areas of Truffle Training
For simplicity, you can think divide training into three areas – a good truffle dog needs to master
General obedience training
Truffle specific training.
General obedience is the behaviour all dogs need to know and is the foundation for a safe, happy dog. In this area of training dogs learn behaviours such as recall, sitting and letting go of objects.
Situational training is all about familiarization. Truffle dogs have a lifestyle vastly different to that of a family pet or a guard dog. Many excellent truffle dogs cannot work because they become travel sick, they get spooked by loud noises in the forest or they become aggressive with other dogs. In most cases, these animals have not been acclimatized to the various situations that a truffle dog will find itself in. The younger this situational training starts, the better.
The final area is their specialized training. Dogs are taught to sniff out truffles, indicate or dig for truffles – all of the skills a truffle dog needs to master.
Using the 3 Areas to Problem Solve
Keep these three training areas in mind when your dog has a challenge. As the dog’s coach you cannot be vague and complain that your dog just doesn’t get it. Referring back to these three aspects of the training will help you pinpoint what the problem is and which area it belongs to.
At the moment I am training a six-month old lagotto, Jessie. She finds truffles in the house and we have started going outdoors. Here I have been burying truffles for her to find. On the one hand, she is doing really well – she has learnt what to do and finds all the truffles straight away. On the other hand, when she does find them she eats them or attacks them. Now obviously something is not going right as this is a most undesirable behaviour for a truffle dog.
So firstly, I need to step back and analyse which area of the training you need to work on. In Jess’ case her actual truffle training is fine, she is detecting straight away. Her problem is that she won’t hand the truffle over and this falls squarely into the category of obedience training. The dog needs to learn to hand over objects she would like to eat or play with.
Now as this is an obedience training issue, we will need to go back to the drawing room, or in our case, anywhere indoors. Outside, there are too many distractions, too many unpredictables. So better to start in the familiar, more controlled environment of Jessie’s house.
My goal here is to teach my dog that dropping an object, in this case a sock, is preferable to clinging onto it for dear life. I do not start off by using actual truffles, I have to work up to that stage. Instead I begin with I something like a sock, It is long enough for me to get a good grip on and that is all you need to do this training exercise. However as with all my trainee truffle dog’s toys, I won’t miss the chance to introduce the element of truffle to scent to the toy. So this is a sock with a truffle tied and secured inside it. For this lesson, you can use any long-ish toy that your dog likes to hold onto – a rope for example.
Teaching the Dog to Drop
When the dog has the toy in its mouth I am going to grab it and try to take it from her and as you see, she won’t let go. She wants to play a game of tug-of-war. To get her to drop the sock, I have to first show total disinterest, complete indifference. I want Jessie to understand that this game is not one we will play. So, with snacks at the ready, I hold the sock steadily and firmly but don’t tug. Keep this up, the dog will try and engage you in the game. Maintain your grip until you feel the dog loosen her hold. Seize your moment and quickly snatch it from her and immediately give her a treat. Do it again. You will see that there will be a decrease in the amount of time she spends gripping the sock. Your aim is that when you simply show her the snack, she will drop the toy.
The Key to Transferring Skills
Once Jess has got the general idea that I want her to drop the sock, I am going to introduce the command word. I am going to give the command ‘Drop!’ and the moment she releases I will give her the reward, some high value snack. You have around one second to make the exchange.
Having a command word means you can transfer this behaviour to other socks, to other footwear, to other things she wants to grab and hold onto. And I want her to have the same response wherever we are, in the living room, in the kitchen, in the garden and out in the woods. So as you see I tested it out. This is mastery. She quickly got the hang of this new way to earn herself a treat.
But will she do the same thing with the truffle? or will she attack it and eat it? I will do a few trial runs in the house and see what happens…
The Real World Test
Back out in the woods I have buried some truffles and I am going to see if I can get Jessie to give them to me. First of all I start off by tossing that truffle infused sock and asking her to drop that. Once I see that she is still responding to our drop command in our new outdoor setting, I can move onto the actual truffles. Again I do this incrementally, working our way up to the buried truffles. When I put a truffle nearby, she instinctively picks it up, but when I ask her to drop it, she follows the command. I throw the truffles and she returns them to me in her mouth, on hearing the command, she lays them on the ground every time. When I take her to the spot I have buried the truffles she digs them up and seems to forget what she has learnt, I hear a bit of a crunch but once Jessie catches a whiff of the sausage, she surrenders the truffle,
I was pretty pleased with how Jessie performed today. The truffles did get rather mauled and bitten but we can work on that. I am calling today a success but there is still work to be done. Perfect results will rarely be achieved overnight, but this is definitely one of those days where Jessie and I made a step forward. Now your own dog might be experiencing different difficulties to Jessie but the solution starts off in the same way – with you taking a step back to work out what is going wrong. Then you establish what kind of issue this is – do you think it related to obedience or to actually hunting for the truffle? Or perhaps the dog needs more acclimatisation to the surroundings or the various situations she finds herself in while in truffle hunting mode. Once you have worked out the manner of your problem, you can start to find specific solutions instead of simply feeling overwhelmed and disgruntled,
The Real Reward
I rewarding Jessie with snacks for handing over the toy or the truffle. Other trainers will use a different reward system but I tend to use sausages, I find the exchange with food to be the most convenient and pay the dog one piece of sausage for performing the correct task However for many dogs, snacks are only important in these initial stages. Further on down the line, out in the forest is where the real fun starts and my ultimate goal is that the dog works for the sheer pleasure of finding truffles. It’s not about a process of phasing out snacks. Rather I am set on making the whole truffle experience incredibly pleasurable for the dog. So much so that she will hunt regardless of whether there are any sausages involved. This is the best exchange of all .This is why it is so important to make truffle hunting the most fun your dog has. The fun-oriented dog is ultimately the best truffle dog, the dog who lives to hunt because he simply has a great time. We can learn a lot from our dogs about how to live a less complicated and fulfilling life. You want truffle hunting to be a fun activity for her – a game.
I know that many of the old school hunters discourage their truffle dogs from any kind of play and it can certainly be risky getting too frisky with a dog like Jessie who is already exuberant. However I prefer to lean into Jessie’s playful nature rather than try to curb it. Playfulness a great trait for a truffle dog and I want to work within the parameters of my dog’s personality. You will see hunters who work to break a dog’s will, trying to mould it into a truffle hunting machine. To any rational mind this is not only cruel but ultimately ineffective, time and again you see that these broken dogs never hunt as well as the dogs who hunt for the joy of it.
Training Not to Touch
I am well on my way to solving the problem Jessie and I were having At the same time, you might be questioning my logic. Surely it would be easier to train Jessie not to bite the truffles at all?. That may have been the simplest route . However, if we play our cards right, Jessie’s seemingly destructive habit of grabbing can be fine-tuned into one of the most useful of truffle dog skills. And I have big plans for this dog. I think at 6 months she is really coming into her own, she’s really responding well to training and more importantly she loves it. I too really enjoy spending this time with her and helping her to progress so it all looks promising.
The Final Stage
For the next part of the training I am going to step things up, I will be bringing in the big guns using two new trainers, these are teachers who can wipe the floor with me and in a couple of days help Jessie to progress more than I have been able to achieve in months.