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How to Train a Truffle Dog

Training a truffle dog is not a linear process. It is more of a three steps forward and two steps back undertaking. Come to our truffle dog training class to get more information about the process and have an opportunity to practice and have questions answered. It is far easier to start the journey correctly than backtrack and try to “fix” mistakes made along the way. We begin every class by reviewing the first three steps and then focusing on the details of one or two of the remaining steps. You will only practice on the steps that your dog is ready for and not move forward until your ready.

In a nutshell:2011_01_OTF_HollyFinn2

Step 1 – Select your reward, marker and alert.
Step 2 – Load the Marker
Step 3 – Mark the Target
Step 4 – Lure/Shape the Alert
Step 5 – Generalize the Target
Step 6 – Reduce/Remove Visual Queue
Step 7 – Proof off of Distractions

What this looks like in detail:

Step 1 – Select your reward, marker and alert
In our truffle dog class we usually help determine what the reward and marker will be prior to beginning our training. They can be changed, but it is helpful to have a clear idea of what these are in the beginning and how to use them. We will also discuss when it is appropriate to change them. The alert usually is introduced week two or three if it hasn’t spontaneously developed during training.

Step 2 – Load the Marker
Week one the first three days of training will involve loading the marker. For ground based scent detection training there is a very specific way to do this and optimize your training down the road. We will give a marker and a reward but in a very particular fashion. Come to class and we will demonstrate what this looks like.

Step 3 – Mark the Target
Once we have the marker loaded, usually by day four of the first week, we will introduce a target. In class we will discuss what articles make the best initial targets and why. It might not be the same for every dog and involves factors such as temperament, inclination to paw or mouth a target and more. We may or may not introduce scent at this point, but it will not delay progress if we do not introduce scent until week two.

Week two will involve marking the target in a variety of distraction free environments WITH NO HIDING!!! And by this week we will be using a target scent. It may not be our final scent, but it will be a similar as is practical. Again, using a substitute target scent will not delay progress.

Step 4 – Lure/Shape the Alert
If all prior steps have been completed properly most dogs spontaneously introduce their own alert during week two.  If not, by week three we will discuss how to select an alert that is best for you and your dog, depending on your dogs breed, your hunting goals and your dogs disposition and behaviors.  We will develop a queue for the alert and we will practice the alert independent from other training lessons.

Step 5 – Generalize the Target
By now you will be marking a target in a variety of locations, you will have selected and queued an alert if necessary and you will be using a placebo scent. This week is all about moving that further and further away from your living room. You will begin practicing in wooded parks and locations similar to the truffle hunting habitat. If there are any issues that arise we will step back and sort them out prior to moving forward.

Step 6 – Reduce/Remove Visual Queue
Our visual target will become smaller and smaller as we continue to generalize the environment. At any point the dog falters we will move back a step or two, focus on our timing and environmental control and only move forward when the dog is absolutely reliable.

Step 7 – Proof off of Distractions
This is the final step of training and the most difficult. It involves taking the dog into environments similar to where we will be hunting truffles and creating opportunities that are as realistic as possible. We will use blind hides and buried scent in the field and in a controlled environment we will introduce as many distractions as possible. Distractions used at this stage will be those realistically found in a truffle habitat and include mice, scat, and depending on the dog, sticks. :)



K9 Scent Work – Introduction

K9 Scent work varies in complexity from the mundane to the inordinately complex. From the type or types of scents you would like to imprint your dog on, to the environmental variables you would like to proof him against, it could take days to years to have a fully functional dog.

For the average hobbyist however, in a few weeks you can have your dog up and pointing the way to anything from bee hives to truffles if you carefully follow a few easy steps.

1. Obedience train your dog. This makes everything easier and you will see why later. The dog should be able to sit, down and recall on command as a bare minimum.

2. Select a reward. As I have discussed before this can make or break your training. You may find chicken/liver/cheese irresistible, but some dogs will just die for a tennis ball. Also some rewards are simply too cumbersome for the speed and spontaneity that is required for concise training.

3. Load the marker. Whatever your positive marker, be it a clicker, or verbalization, you need to associate it with the reward. Before you even begin your scent training, load your marker for at least a few days, if not a couple of weeks.

4. Scent imprinting. Assuming you have selected and collected your target scent, you can now begin imprinting your canine on it. Start out working in a very small and bare environment. Using a dog proof scent container with ample scent in it, allow your dog supervised freedom in the room. Begin by marking and rewarding your dog showing even remote interest in the scent container (a glance, a sniff, any movement towards it). Continue shaping the behavior all the way up to the alert you require. Initially reward any interest, enthusiasm or effort, and start withholding the lesser 20% or 30% of the behaviors that are not as vigorous.

5. Select the Alert. Like the reward this should be well thought out. The alert should be a behavior that will be acceptable in the environment you will be eventually working in, and also a behavior you will be able to associate and request upon command. Typically a bark, sit, down or scratch is used, with some favoring mouthing a brindle or other more complex requirement.

6. Proofing. The final step in your scent training involves proofing your dog to distractions, environmental variables, as well as similar but wrong scents. Your dog may need to eventually be comfortable working in rain or snow, with heavy equipment operating nearby and may need to detect ants versus termites. Proofing a dog to the gold standard can take years, but will certainly take months at the very least. A dog that is proofed to a large number of variables and distractions is worth his weight in gold.

With that, I will let you on your way to try your hand at this immensely rewarding canine training discipline. Relax, have fun and watch your relationship grow.