Waikato dog's golden nose for truffles

19:00, Nov 22 2013
 Te Puke truffiere
Maureen Burgess, left, Ollie, and Karen Drummond in the Te Puke truffiere.

Ollie is a quivering bundle of  energy and excitement. A creamy, fluffy floor-mop on four legs, darting this way and that as he heads off among a grove of oak and hazelnut trees in search of truffles.  Ollie Bear (to use his full name) is about three years old, a Sydney silky/maltese cross with an engaging manner and a tail that never stops wagging. Ollie may be good-looking, but he's no empty-headed lad about town. He's not a lapdog or a frequenter of smart cafes and such.  

Ollie's a working dog, with a big dose of smarts, trained to sniff out black gold, the earthy, pungent black truffles that originate in Perigord, France.  Only this afternoon he's on the track of them at a truffiere near Te Puke, in the Bay of Plenty.  

Ollie lives at Whatawhata, near Hamilton, with his human mum and trainer, Karen Drummond, and he's one of the dogs featured in a new book called Dogs in Action, Working Dogs and Their Stories, written by Auckland-based freelance writer and dog trainer Maria Alomajan, who has met 愀and researched the backgrounds of dozens of intelligent animals during this project.

She's observed police dogs and victim recovery dogs, sled dogs, guide dogs, hearing dogs, explosive detection dogs, LandSAR dogs, farm dogs, avalanche rescue dogs (she was buried in a snow cave on Treble Cone during research for this chapter), and more.  

Alomajan is the owner of six-year-old Jet, a mutt who was found beaten and miserable on the streets of South Auckland. ''He was in the middle of the road. My stepfather stopped his car and picked up this terrified little puppy.''  

Jet has failed most of the dog jobs described in Alomajan's book, but he is a happy boy who excels at television commercials and photoshoots.   She has huge respect for working dogs, and respect also for the humans who work alongside them, give them a sense of purpose. Very different she says, from some of the dogs who drink fluffies in Auckland cafes, and suffer from behaviour issues.    

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Alomajan says owners and trainers of working dogs have a great understanding of their animals, they harness their natural talents. ''When you see them fulfilled, they just shine. They are healthy, gorgeous dogs to be around.''  

Just like Ollie. He's the only truffle dog in Alomajan's book, and today he's giving a live demonstration of his talents, leaping off the printed page into the truffiere planted and owned by Maureen Burgess and Colin Binns.  

Their truffiere, a purpose-planted grove, has more than 200 trees - English oaks and hazelnuts in carefully spaced rows - their roots infected with the spores of Perigord truffles before they were dug into  sterilised ground near Te Puke. Accompanied by tonnes of lime to raise the soil's pH to the required 7.8 or higher.  Burgess and Binns have spent about $150,000 on their truffiere so far.   Their trees are five years old, and in excellent condition. Burgess says they thought they might have truffles last year but it's a waiting game. They hope that in time their plantings will produce the strong-smelling, highly priced underground fungus that are found with the aid of trained dogs (and pigs in France) who sniff out these culinary jewels among the tree roots.  

Which is where Ollie comes in. Karen Drummond and Maureen Burgess are friends, and some time back when they were talking about truffle dogs, Drummond said, ''Do you want me to train up Ollie?''  

She'd seen his drive and potential to be a scent dog, and since this conversation the pair have worked hard on truffles. Although Ollie may not have found the real thing, he's spent time in the truffiere, learning and practising. In one mission at Te Puke he nailed 24 truffle samples that had been buried underground for him to find.  ''He was good,'' says Drummond modestly.

The best time for hunting during the truffle season - roughly May, June, July, August - is an early, dewy morning when the air is heavy and the truffle scent more obvious.    

We're observing him on a hot, early summer afternoon, but Ollie is still good.  He runs ahead of his little entourage, as far as his 11m lead will take him. He's followed by Drummond, Burgess, the Waikato Times reporter and photographer, and three Japanese students who are on a farmstay with Burgess and Binns. The students are relentlessly snapping photos of young Ollie, another holiday highlight.  

There are seven Perigord truffle samples hidden among the trees. Ollie's hanging on every word Drummond says. She tells him to sit, she clicks a plastic clicker to mark his correct behaviour, there is a culinary treat/reward, then they're off to find truffles, ''go find, quick, quick''.  

Ollie's gets a whiff of them. He finds one hidden in a tiny plastic pottle, then two more, accompanied by the same precise, no-nonsense routine from Drummond: ''Find it''; click when it's found; Ollie sits; gets a reward.  

Drummond  estimates  that at present Ollie does 80 per cent of the work,  she does about 20 per cent. During off-season training, she will work harder on decreasing her effort and increasing his.  

While he will never entirely fly solo, the aim is that she will be quieter, play a lesser part, and eventually when Ollie finds the real thing he'll sit with his nose stuck to the ground, indicating the scent, and where the truffles are located.  

At one point, she commands Ollie, ''find it, find it'' a couple of times. No, that's wrong, she says, like a note to self, she should only say it once.  The little dog trots purposefully through the soldierly ranks of trees. All seven samples are nosed out. His trainer is pleased, so is Burgess, the Japanese students dance in delight, Ollie dances too, his tail in the air. He knows he's done well, he's a happy boy.

DRUMMOND NOTICED OLLIE'S ABILITY EARLY ON

He was a regular visitor to her house and she saw how he kept watching her work with her late english pointer Rupert Bear; he was almost saying to her ''what do you want me to do, Mum?''  

She adopted Ollie, nurturing and extending his obvious intelligence and abilities, taking him from pet to working dog.    

Drummond, originally from Yorkshire in the UK, has a fair amount of experience in this. She got her first dog, Huggy Bear, an airedale terrier, in 1989, followed by Paddington Bear, a tibetan spaniel, then Rupert Bear; Ollie Bear and Fozzie Bear are the latest in the bear-themed names.  Nowadays Drummond runs Learning About Dogs, a business offering education for working dog trainers by bringing  international speakers to New Zealand to conduct seminars.    

Ollie, she says, has got strong drive, and this is a dog's biggest asset for scent work. ''Any breed that has a strong drive and a good nose could complete any scent work (drugs, explosives, truffles etc) that they were trained for.''    

In contrast to Ollie, Drummond's second dog Fozzie, a jack russell/border terrier cross, has very low drive for this and although she's training him there is a high probability that scent work will be his hobby rather than enjoyment, as it is with Ollie. With Ollie, it's always been ''bring it on''.  

When she started Ollie on truffle detection, they began in a small area with the pungent truffles. First in Drummond's office, hiding truffle samples in places like the rubbish bin, then moving into bigger spaces such as the lounge, the kitchen, outdoors to the back garden, then burying samples in light soil. Always working with real truffles, and the same click and reward routine.  

Training is ongoing, and Ollie's expertise is building.   Ollie works for money, although his fee is undisclosed, commercially sensitive. Drummond considers him a business partner, and says most truffieres would typically have several different dogs go through them in a season.  

Burgess has had dogs from Rotorua, as well as Ollie, on the job in Te Puke.  ''There's no guarantee (of finding truffles),'' Burgess says, ''it's a bit like the sharemarket.''

On the patio of her comfortable home, Burgess unwraps an aromatic truffle (not from her own property), and talks about her interest in these dark, rough-skinned, irregularly shaped, expensive, and some may say ugly-looking, fungi. There is also a small jar (25g) of French Perigord truffles bought from a gourmet supplier. The price tag says $94.50.  

The New Zealand Truffle Association estimates the highest price paid for a New Zealand truffle was NZ$9000 per kilo, but a typical price is a more modest NZ$3700 per kilo.  Burgess and her partner have not seen any such returns for their hard work, but they're optimistic.    

Burgess says they wanted to do something productive on their 6.9ha Te Puke block, decided against the more traditional Bay of Plenty  kiwifruit or avocados, and went for truffles. Burgess loves elegant pinot noir wine and says black truffles are ''the closest food to a top class pinot that I've has ever discovered.''  

Everyone else on the patio noses in on the truffle she's showing, inhales the aroma, offers opinions ranging from wet socks, to earthy, intense, and deeply savoury.  Burgess has attended truffle degustation dinners, and among other things has enjoyed the fungus grated on pasta, and also praises the taste of a crisp flake of truffle served in a shot glass of custard.  When truffles start fruiting in their Te Puke grove, she envisages maybe running a B & B cottage on the property, and doing truffle dinners. And perhaps supplying a good restaurant.  

Burgess says truffle-growers are often very ''secret squirrel'' about location, and their results. But she and Binns are happy to have Ollie's story recorded at their place. They're proud of what they've achieved so far.      They haven't yet been to Perigord in France, home of the black truffle. ''We're not going to do that until we're growing our own,'' Burgess says.      

With happy Ollie Bear and his house-mate Fozzie Bear parked nearby, Burgess entertains her guests with more truffle talk, freshly squeezed orange juice and delicious toasted macadamia nuts. The oranges and nuts are grown on their lush property. They pretty much live off the land, she says, enjoying eggs from their own chooks, home-killed meat, vegetables, olives and more.  

Maybe in the years ahead they'll be eating their own truffles as well? ''Hope so.''   Did Ollie just bark, or was that my imagination?    

* Dogs in Action, by Maria Alomajan, Exisle Publishing, RRP $29.99.

Waikato