Guest Author: Ken Litchfield
[Editor’s note: I have often wondered if dogs could be trained to hunt any kind of mushroom, not just truffles. I saw this interesting outline of how to do it on the Mushroom Talk mailing list on Yahoo, and thought it would be worth sharing with the many dog-lovers who read our blog and forage with us. Thanks very much to Ken Litchfield for granting permission to reprint it here.]
If you would like to train your dog, or any dog, to mushroom hunt with you, the prime human and canine character trait needed is a sympatico bond between the two of you.
Rescue dogs, adopted stray mutts, mutty mixes – no special breed is necessary. Dogs with a strong retriever instinct are good. They like to fetch stuff, and mushrooms are easy to add to balls, sticks, and Barbie dolls.
If your dog is sedentary because you have inadvertently (or advertently) trained him to be that way, then you may need a little patience while he adapts to your new behavior. Sometimes a new canine partner may be a good idea to perk up and stimulate, but not supplant, a regular companion.
We’ll call this mushroom “training”; but in reality you are going to “retrain” yourself and your canine companion to reengage with your ancient endeavors of hunting and foraging together as a team in the wild.
Consider your companion to be as intelligent as you are for the things he is evolved and adapted for. That means he is likely your better when it comes to more sensory sensitivities to the environment. He can likely hear better than you, sees and tastes things differently, and certainly smells way better than you do. (When you spend much of your time eating processed highly chemicalized foods, rolling in plastics and other synthetic hydrocarbons, wallowing in synthetic shampoos, “deodorants”, and clothes detergents, and drooling over electronic devices, instead of catching flies and drinking out of toilets, he likely is thinking, “Damn, I need to go roll in a maggoty raccoon carcass to wake up my doofusy companion and get his attention.”) You should endeavor to defer to him and tune in to his sensitivities when in the wild.
To “train” it is best to rely on affection as the “treat”, because if you carry treats with you on a long outing you may run out, and then you have habituated your companion to treats you can no longer provide. You can always provide affection, and affection aids bonding on another level than food provision.
Let’s say you have a dog that loves to fetch or a dog that is always eager to accompany you on activities you are engaging in. When in the “wilds” (maybe parks or any place that isn’t as permeated with the effects of lots of people or their canine companions for distractions) and you find a mushroom you want to encourage your companion to find and share with you, focus both of your attentions on that mushroom as you find it in its typical situation in the wild. That means not disturbing the mushroom or focusing on a kicked or otherwise disturbed mushroom.
Let’s say you have found a pristine chanterelle covered in oak duff but with enough golden flesh exposed that you can see and identify it correctly, then and there. It should be in an area with at least a few others to discover in this first session also, preferably with at least a few at a little search distance from the first.
Squat and kneel down, face to face, with your canine companion. Introduce the canine to the chanterelle by encouraging it to sit patiently and then giving it some enthusiasm for the cool gem you found. If the canine unsits when picking up on your enthusiasm that is OK as long as his attention is focused on the chanterelle, the gem you are sharing with him. Enthusiasm can be little human squeals of delight, or “OMG”s or “Holy Mackerels”, or whatever exclamations and expletives you usually display in front of the canine when displaying enthusiasm unrehearsed.
But you are not displaying the enthusiasm to the world in general but sharing it with your canine companion specifically. You have found a little special human interest gem that you are secretly sharing with your canine companion. Be prepared as things develop that your canine companion may share certain things of canine interest with you and you should be similarly attentive when he does so. Not reactionary, unless he is making a joke on you, in which case you can be mock reactionary, but affectionate none the less.
As you slowly uncover the duff, call the chanterelle by name and make salivating noises and mmm-mms and sniff it pleasurably. Encourage the canine when he sniffs it calling his name and “Good boy” or whatever positive commentary you share regularly with the canine. When it is uncovered in all its glory, stroke the chanterelle like you are petting it while you pet the canine. Pet the chanterelle while calling it a chanterelle and pet the canine while calling the canine’s name.
Carefully pull up the chanterelle and admire it and ooo and aah over it. “Oooo Chanterrelle” and gently rub its surface on your cheek. While still squatting be sure to offer the chanterelle to the canine to sniff, and gently rub the chanterelle on the canine’s cheek. You can also rub it on your chest or arms and on the canine’s back and legs with “Ooo chanterelle” and “Ooo (canine’s name)” and such like commentary.
(It is generally best to engage in these behaviors while out in the woods, not under public observation, but only with good human companions who are also sympatico and can contribute reinforcement for your canine companions.)
Once you have fully introduced the canine to the chanterelle, and it has been fully immersed with its name and fragrance, then put the chanterelle in your regular chanterelle carrying bag without delay, as normal chanterelle finding behavior.
Then crouch down while looking for more chanterelles, calling their names and the canine’s name with “Get that Chanterelle” or “Chanterelle, chanterelle” with enthusiasm while bent over and while standing up scanning the area for more.
Then seek out the next chanterelle in the patch with mushroom seeking human behavior and repeat the sequence with enthusiasm and sharing each gem with your canine companion. Repeat each time with several chanterelles.
Usually it doesn’t take too many repeats, sometimes only one, before the canine catches on that you are looking for more gems and he wants to help. Reward any goal-oriented behavior with positive affection verbally and physically. If he catches on quickly and starts finding each chanterelle in the area on his own then be very affectionate and rewarding and get into “quick cleaning” mode enthusiastically so you can keep up with him without delay as he finds more.
It is a good idea at the beginning to teach him, very gently, how to very gently carry any chanterelle that he noses up by picking it up by the stem very gently in his teeth. This can be done by very gently handing him a chanterelle and very gently accepting it a few times over and over. He can understand and follow that they are to be picked up and carried gently. Then you’ll have less likelihood of play slobber on his finds.
If he doesn’t get that he should be finding them too, just keep repeating your initial behavior with each chanterelle until he displays any sort of rewardable behavior.
For fetch canines, you let it sniff the chanterelle and rub it on the canine’s cheek and toss it a short obvious distance away and say “Get the chanterelle” similar to “Get the ball”. When he fetches the chanterelle then reward him. Then toss it again further away. Then toss it again into the woods where there are other chanterelles growing. Then toss it again to the same area, then mock toss it again to the same area and see if he brings back one of the chanterelles growing in the vicinity.
If, when seeking chanterelles, you or he finds a blewit or a candy cap then pause in chanterelle training and switch to blewit or candy cap training. Which is exactly the same as chanterelle training, but with the names of the blewitt or the candy cap used instead. Each of those should go into a separate bag so it is olfactorily obvious to the canine that there are different sorts of gems that you are hunting.
If you or the canine should find a death cap, switch to death cap training mode. That means not being overly reactionary, but being clear that that is a “bad death cap, bad death cap” with plenty of “no”s. Don’t pet it, but do call it by name, but not in association with the canine’s name. You can sniff it but make repulsive face reactions. Don’t kick the death caps, and don’t collect them as they aren’t gems that you want or you want your canine companion to hunt or collect. To reinforce your repulsion you can growl it’s name “bad death cap” and even growl and bare your teeth at each one you or the canine finds. If the canine growls toward the death cap or shows any avoidance behavior then give affection and reward the negative behavior.
When you get back to the car and/or home from the first few mushroom hunts, then reward your canine companion with some sort of extra affection and food treat to show you enjoyed the trek with him. If he did show any positive behavior to chanterelles or any other mushroom that you may have found, then reward him while saying his name and the names of the mushrooms he interacted properly with, except death caps or other dangerous mushrooms. Even if his interactive behavior consisted of sniffing the mushrooms you found, that reinforces his association with identifying those mushrooms with something good.
If you have a canine “hat rack” where you keep the leash, vest, or other canine accoutrements, you can hang your various unwashed and odoriferous mushroom collecting bags there. When you are ready to go out mushroom hunting, by picking up your mushroom bags, your canine companion will know to get into mushroom hunting mode with you. Be sure to have more bags than just the ones you usually find so new species can get their own bag. Your canine companion can notice that other new mushrooms receive the same treatment as those already learned. You might even be able to lay out your finds for the day and have a review of the names of each bag pile, or perhaps even lay them all out and request which mushroom you would like the canine to select.
As his skills and your relationship develops, you may be able to lay out the mushroom bags near each other in the woods and he will bring in chanterelles or blewits for the appropriate bags while you are doing the same.
For truffles, there are a few more complications to finding them, but they require that you dig around in likely or known habitat until you find one and then share the truffle and its fragrance with your canine companion and then continue digging for others with his assistance. If you can find one or two fresh of the same species in a local market that may help in the search for more, by burying one in loose soil under the appropriate type of tree and offering the other to the canine to sniff and identify. Or if you have planted a truffiere and are seeking to harvest from it then you may be able to buy fresh ones of the same species whose trees you originally planted. If you know the “avec le mouche” techniques then your canine companion can accompany you seeking truffles until he can sniff the ripe ones out for you.
Never use the name “mushroom”; with your canine companion. He can more easily distinguish between different species than you can so there is no point in looking like a doofus to him by mushing up their names. Teach him the reliable common names for chanterelle (“shantrel”), candy cap, blewitt, porcini, man on horseback (or “horseback”), Santa, slippery jack (“slipry jack” or “jack”), dermocybe, big gym, shaggy mane, parasol, silly, etc. for whatever mushroom you are hunting for. You may find that as your canine companion gets better at mushroom identification he will start to hesitate in his communications about what you are looking for, as there are different kinds of chanterelles or porcinis or parasols with different chemical traces. You can come up with distinguishing names for “white shantrel” or “gold shantrel” or “bulb parasol”, etc.
Never, ever, teach him the scientific names of the mushrooms as he will only get confused and frustrated when they get changed. And he will look at you disappointed that he is associating with an insane person.