E235: Kristin Rosenbach - "Truffle Hunting with Dogs"

What would it be like to forage for wild food with your dog? In this episode Kristin and I talk about truffle hunting — from what it takes, to what truffles actually taste like!


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today I have Kristin Rosenbach here with me to talk about truffle hunting. Hi, Kristen, welcome to the podcast.

Kristin Rosenbach: Hi, Melissa. Thank you for having me.

Melissa Breau: Did I butcher your last name?

Kristin Rosenbach: You did not.

Melissa Breau: Yay! I got it right for once. To start us out, do you just want to give everybody a little bit of background information, a little about you, a little about your dogs?

Kristin Rosenbach: Yeah, absolutely. I am a truffle hunter in the Pacific Northwest. I truffle hunt with my four dogs and I teach other people to truffle hunt with their own dogs. I have two Border Collies, a Belgian Tervuren, and a Sheltie. We live in Washington state, we're just north of Seattle, and all four of those dogs truffle hunt, and we've been doing it for ten years.

Melissa Breau: Wow. Good stuff. What originally got you into dogs and dog training?

Kristen Rosenbach: I think for me, originally, it was the personal investment. It started with my first dog out of college. Of course, your first dog is oftentimes challenging, and couple that with not knowing anything, so it was more just the personal investment at that point and taking classes and things like that.

I think later where the interest happened was, over time, I started to feel like I wanted to feel better about the way we were training the dogs, because keep in mind that dog I had was back in the 1990s, and I'll be the first to tell you it wasn't all positive reinforcement, and I wasn't comfortable with it, but I didn't know the alternatives.

I did get into agility, and I started getting some exposure to positive reinforcement and just better methods, and they were methods that made me feel better about how we were working together. I think that's where the interest started to percolate. And then I started doing my own research and learning as much as I could, and pondering, "I think I want to do something in this world of dogs, but I don't know what it is." And it just grew from there.

Melissa Breau: I want to primarily talk to you about truffle hunting stuff, because you're doing a webinar for us on it next week. How did you go from agility to becoming interested in searching for truffles with your dogs?

Kristin Rosenbach: That is a great question. It all started when we took a vacation to Italy. That is where I had truffles for the first time. Honestly, I didn't know what a truffle was until that trip. But my husband said, "We're supposed to eat this one: we're here," and I really, really liked them.

I had heard that dogs found them, and I had this running joke with my friends and on Facebook that I was like, "I'm going to teach my dogs to hunt truffles." I was totally kidding. I really was. This joke went on for a while, and then later in the fall – which was about the time that we brought home Da Vinci as a puppy, the Belgian Tervuren, and I was competing in agility with Callie and Cash, the Sheltie and the first Border Collie – right around that time I decided, "I really want some truffles." I started Googling where I could buy some so we could eat them, and I discovered in a random search that they grew here. I thought, "Oh, that's interesting," so I started pondering it.

And then Callie had an injury in agility, so she was going to be on restricted activity. We had just brought home this puppy, so now I had a 3-year-old Border Collie who couldn't do agility, on restricted activity, I had a brand new puppy, I think Cash was 3 at the time, none of them were allowed to do anything with each other because of the situation, and I thought, "I have an idea. We're going to give you guys an outlet. We're going to give you something to do, and apparently we're going to learn to find truffles."

Melissa Breau: That is quite not what I expected. I thought for sure the dog piece must have come first and then the truffles came later, but it was like, "Okay, I have the dogs, we have the truffles, and now, well, let's just shove the two together." That's awesome.

For those who are not familiar with truffles at all, can you talk a little bit about what they are and why someone might want to go hunting for them with their dogs?

Kristin Rosenbach: Well, one, they're delicious. Truffles are the fruiting body of what's called the mycelium. The mycelium is an underground fungal network, and those fruiting bodies can be either truffles, which grow underground completely, or mushrooms that push up through the earth. A lot of people will call them underground mushrooms. Obviously that's not quite accurate, but it's good enough to get us through a conversation.

As far as why we would want to find them, well, one, we want to eat them. They're very good. But also some people will sell them. Some people make products with them. Some people really just do it as a recreational activity. There are also some people that will guide tours to take people out. You have a whole bunch of different options, and so it's a lot of fun. It could be just for fun. It could be just for your kitchen, or you could decide to make a few dollars doing it.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned they're delicious. I've never tasted them. What do they taste like? Do they taste like mushrooms? Are they different than mushrooms?

Kristin Rosenbach: They're very different than mushrooms. The flavor really depends on the species. Each species has a completely different aroma profile, which is what you're actually tasting. You're not actually tasting the truffle; it's more about the aroma.

Here in the Pacific Northwest specifically, we are primarily hunting Oregon white truffles and Oregon black truffles. Oregon white truffles are more of a garlicky, punchy flavor or aroma, however you want to call that or refer to that. They're very strong, and they lend a really strong flavor to dishes. When you go to the Oregon black truffles, those tend to be a bit more chocolate, fruity, pineapple-blueberry flavor, so they lend themselves really well to some of the sweeter things.

If you go over to the European species, those are actually very different. When you're talking about the Italian white, which I would consider the cream of the crop when it comes to truffles, it's similar in that flavor profile to our Oregon white, but honestly way better, just way better. But then their black truffles tend to be more musky and earthy. So they all have these very different flavor profiles.

The typical dishes that most people start out with are your risotto and pastas and cheesy dishes, things like that. Obviously we eat a lot of truffles, but during this season we will have truffle mac and cheese, or my husband makes a venison black truffle burger, or we have a lot of risotto. But we'll also make truffle pizza, so many different things. A lot of people really like them with eggs. So there's a lot of opportunity to incorporate them in your food.

Melissa Breau: I don't know, Kristin. I may invite myself over for … that venison burger sounds fantastic.

I'm going to skip around in my questions a little bit here because you mentioned something in there and it spurred a thought. If there are different varieties and we're teaching our dogs to scent them, in traditional types of scentwork you have to teach each scent individually. Do you actually have to teach them to find each type of truffle as its own thing?

Kristin Rosenbach: That is a big question, and it's a pretty big section of the webinar where we go into this. When we're talking about how the dogs are finding the truffles, you're talking about volatile organic compounds. Essentially there are at least 200 volatile organic compounds that have been identified for truffles in general. Each species has 30 to 60, just for its own, and then within those 30 to 60, there is variety in the concentration and the combinations.

What we end up doing is the dog learns that several combinations and concentrations are acceptable. That's why we train with ripe truffles, whole truffles, and that's why we train with multiple over the course of their training, because we want to expose them to all or as many of the acceptable combinations and concentrations of those voc's. Because there's overlap between all of them, it's actually really easy to then go introduce another species. That happens really quickly because there is a little bit of overlap with similar voc's.

Melissa Breau: Super-interesting. In terms of how you actually train it, how is it similar or different than other types of nosework or scent sports that folks might be familiar with?

Kristin Rosenbach: There is some similarity, but I'll be honest with you: there is probably more difference. I used to skirt around this topic because I didn't want to offend anybody, but the reality is I've seen it over and over and over and over again.

The differences are enough to where, to avoid frustration, I usually advise people, "Don't take your current scent sport that you do and just throw truffle odor into that program," because some of the big differences are obviously environment – we're out in the wild, we're in a variety of different forests, we're encountering wildlife, obviously scat and various other things that are out in the forest. So that's the big, big difference.

When we start looking at the training process, when we are working toward truffle hunting – and this is my process: this is not necessarily everybody's – I don't use containers at all, because containers have odor, and you're never going to find a container in the forest. We don't use oils, because carrier oils have odor, and the dogs are never going to find a cotton swab out in the forest. So there's those subtle things that make a difference. We don't use any form of containers, oils, cotton swabs, anything. We're working with the real, raw, whole truffle.

The other really big difference is that we need our dogs to access and physically interact with the truffle, and that's usually not something that happens in dog sports. We actually want the dog to dig and really assess that hole and work through the direction of where to dig and then literally nose-target the truffle, because to me, the truffle is just going to look like a big clump of dirt, and so unless the dog nose-targets it, I don't have a chance of finding it. So that's another difference is that we really need the dog to physically interact with the target. So there is that.

And then it's very interactive, and it ends with you harvesting the truffle. With all the sports, we know that you don't necessarily go take the nosework hide and go, "Okay, I got it," and leave with it. We leave with the odor. So those little differences add up and they make the entire activity quite different.

Lastly I would say that truffle hunting isn't a group activity. There aren't other people and there aren't other dogs around, and that also changes the dynamic of the activity.

Melissa Breau: That brings up something I hadn't thought about before, which is if you are harvesting truffles, presumably you're hoping to find more than one, so you may actively be carrying some on your person and asking the dog to ignore that scent to find new ones. Is that …

Kristin Rosenbach: Yes.

Melissa Breau: That does add a whole other component, doesn't it?

Kristin Rosenbach: Yes. Your dogs over time will learn that the truffle in your pocket doesn't count, the truffle on the kitchen counter doesn't count. But yeah, you're walking through a forest that is going to have more truffles than you end up harvesting. There's going to be the ones that you harvest, there's going to be the ones that you have to pass by because it's time to be done, there's going to be the ones in your backpack. There's truffle smell everywhere.

Melissa Breau: What tools would somebody need if they want to teach their dog this?

Kristin Rosenbach: Good question. Also, first and foremost, I highly recommend use real truffles. That's not a tool, but it kind of falls into that supplies and equipment category. Like I said before, it's a more direct path, you're going to get there faster, it's going to be more efficient if you use real, whole truffles. We want to practice on the thing that we actually want the dog to find. And so there's that to begin with.

Honestly, and I will dispel this little myth, people think they're going to save money by buying an oil. They're not, because they're going to end up spending more money in some sort of private lesson or something to get them over or past the barriers they ran into because they were using an oil.

As far as equipment goes, and tools, you pretty much need anything that you would be hiking with, and typically on a rainy day, because truffle hunting is almost always cold and wet. You start with that basic equipment that is for you and your dog, so that's going to be everything from your backpack to your rain gear to your first aid equipment to your navigation things. Safety equipment that is going to be specific to your area. For example, I carry bear spray. Those are some examples of what you're going to carry just for the being out in the woods piece.

Your dog is going to have very specific gear that means, "We're going truffle hunting." Usually that is a harness unlike one that they wear for other activities. Everybody usually ends up with a long line. Whether or not they use it, they still end up needing to carry it, and sometimes some dogs will drag that long line.

You definitely want to make sure that you have a beacon that will help you see your dog in those darker forests, because some of the truffle forests are really, really dark. I'll use a little beacon light that I get from Ruffwear; it's a red light. And obviously you need lots and lots and lots of treats.

But your dog is going to have that very specific gear that is going to be that context cue that tells them we're truffle hunting, and that gear is only going to come out when you're either practicing with truffles or you're actually going truffle hunting.

The other thing to consider is how far you want to go with tracking devices and things like that. For example, I carry a tracking device for myself. One of my four dogs has a tracking device attached to the harness. I also have a couple apps that are helpful for me in knowing which direction I've gone and being able to backtrack my way out, because you can get really disoriented in the forest.

So you can think about things like that, but essentially we're looking at your hiking gear for you and your dog, safety equipment, navigation tools, and then making sure that your dog's gear is very specific and used only for truffle hunting, because that becomes a massive cue.

Melissa Breau: I noticed you did not mention a shovel to help your dog dig. I don't know if that was intentional or not. I would have expected a shovel to be on the list.

Kristin Rosenbach: Yes, there's a shovel and there's also a container, because when you go through the process, when you harvest, you're going to want a container with solid walls that are going to protect the truffles, because they are rather fragile. I use a thermos, not for the quality of the thermos, just because of the shape, and then obviously a shovel. I usually carry a towel and things like that that that are going to help us not get filthy-filthy, although you're going to be filthy.

Melissa Breau: You are? The dog is?

Kristin Rosenbach: Yeah, we come home very dirty.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned that they grow in the Pacific Northwest. Where else do truffles grow? Where are folks likely to find them, at least here in North America? Are there parts of the country or parts of the U.S., Canada, North America, whatever, that they don't grow at all?

Kristin Rosenbach: Typically, when we're talking about just North America, you're going to find them in the Pacific Northwest, which we define as Northern California up to B.C., and that's going to be your Oregon white truffles and your Oregon black truffles. There's also an Oregon brown, but it's not very common. Down in Texas, the South, the Southeast, and the East Coast, you'll find something that's called a pecan truffle that surprisingly is named after being found on pecan orchards. But it does grow in relationship with several other types of trees, and so it can be found not just with pecan orchards. That covers mostly where you're going to find them. You're not going to find them really in the heart of the Midwest, or at least not yet.

Melissa Breau: I was doing a little bit of reading when writing up the questions and before we hopped on the call, and I read how hard it was and how long it took before they could figure out how to actively intentionally cultivate them and grow them or whatever, and how much went into that.

You mentioned the pecan thing and "surprisingly they grow near pecan trees." It sounds like that's a really common thing that there are certain types of truffles that tend to grow most often or be found most often around to certain types of trees. Am I totally off base?

Kristin Rosenbach: They can form relationships with many different types of trees. Each species has a preference. That said, the information that we pull out of books and off of the Internet and things like that is limited to what has actually been explored.

For example, you'll find, here in the Pacific Northwest, we're typically looking for stands of Douglas fir. There are plenty of truffles in those stands of Douglas fir, but I'll be the first to tell you that I have found truffles in many other habitats. My husband has even found one on the school grounds that he took the dogs for a walk, and I have found them in forests that really looked unlikely. According what we know, they looked unlikely, but we found truffles there. So I usually tell people just keep in mind there's textbook and Internet information, and then there's practical experience, and those don't necessarily match up.

It's interesting, but here in the Pacific Northwest, it's Douglas fir. Obviously the pecan is named after pecan trees, but that also grows on several other species of trees in those regions. And then, when you're talking about some of the European species, you're going to be looking at more like an oak tree or something like that.

Melissa Breau: Interesting. I know the webinar is next week, and it'll be next week when folks are listening to this, so can you share a little bit more about what you'll cover in it, who would be interested, and what level it's really targeted at? Is it appropriate for the total newbie, or is it really for somebody who at least has a little bit of background knowledge?

Kristin Rosenbach: It will be appropriate for anybody, whether you're a complete beginner or you're someone who has some experience in scent detection. We're going to cover what truffles are. We're going to go into more detail about those voc's and things like that. We're going to go into more detail about what the truffle is. We're going to talk about why we want dogs to find them, and we'll also cover how will they find them.

And we will be talking about how you can get started. I'm going to give you the basic beginning exercises to start with and show you an overview of the training process. Obviously we won't have enough time to go through the whole thing, but you will be able to get started after the webinar, and you can see if it's a direction that you want to go in.

Melissa Breau: Cool. Very exciting. To round out the conversation, if you were to drill down everything we talked about into one key piece of information you want folks to walk away with, what would that be?

Kristin Rosenbach: I think because of the experience that I've had, and because of eleven years of seeing some of the pains of my students, I think one of the most important things to take away from today is the understanding that truffle hunting is different enough from the other scent sports that you really have to take a different approach. I think that's important to let people know in advance, because I've seen so many people with those headaches. I don't want you guys to have those headaches, so I just want everybody to know.

If I had to pick my top tips for everybody, I would say always, always train with real, whole truffles. Always. Do all of your training outside, because truffles don't grow inside. There's no point in doing it inside, because we want to take a very direct route with no extra steps. We want to omit all the extra stuff.

And also this idea of recognizing that there are no rules, there are no judges, there are no timers. You get to make it up as you go. So even though we'll go through a training program, there are things that are going to be very specific to you.

Over time you develop a very unique dialogue with your dog, and you end up in this communication with your dog the entire time. After you have some experience, you end up knowing, "My dog is eating grass; that means there are no truffles here," or "My dog found a non-culinary species of truffle; that means there's no truffles here," or "My dog is barking and going in circles around this blackberry bush; that means there's a truffle in the blackberry bush and he can't access it. I need to go help."

That would be probably what I would tell everybody is those top tips, and then just get started in the right direction so that you can avoid a lot of the headaches that I have seen. I even experienced some of those because I did the same thing. I started a couple of my dogs with containers and oils and things like that, and … just don't.

Melissa Breau: Would not do again, would not recommend.

Kristin Rosenbach: Would not recommend. You'll get there. You will get there, but it will just take longer and more steps.

Melissa Breau: Cool. Thank you so much for being here. It's such an interesting aspect of the dog world. It's not something that I think everybody's thought about, so it's neat. Thank you.

Kristin Rosenbach: You're welcome. Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. We will be back again next week, and we'll be talking pulling sports next week with Erin Lynes.

If you haven't already, subscribe to the podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com. The track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in – and happy training.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

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