By GDB Canine Welfare Training Manager Jeannine May (with contributions by Marilyn Richen and Tammy Jackson)
I would like to share this story of Gucci. A career change lab that is spending a lot of time nosing around….
Gucci, an adorable female yellow lab, was born on June 25, 2012. She was raised in GDB fashion by Marilyn Richen and Tammy Jackson in the Pups With Vision puppy raising club. She was a somewhat challenging pup as she wanted to eat everything she could get her mouth on and always had her nose to the ground. I first met Marilyn and Tammy on September 7th when these first-time puppy raisers anxiously awaited the GDB Puppy Truck for the dog that would change their lives. I happened to be working Isis, my Lagotto Romagnolo puppy, during lunch to recognize the scent of truffle (underground fungus that is considered a culinary delicacy). We got into a conversation about my curly haired little dog being an Italian Truffle dog. It somehow came up that I teach truffle dog classes—training people to train their own dogs how to find truffles. We exchanged some information as they had potential truffle land, and life went on.
I encountered Gucci again when she came to the Oregon campus to board when she was in season and another time for an overnight for her spay surgery (incidentally she was the first laparoscopic spay dog done on the OR campus). What a cutie she was!
At 14 months, Gucci was dropped from the puppy program. Part of her drop notice states:“Gucci is an intelligent and opportunistic dog requiring active handling. She demonstrates above average interest in things on the ground and may grab and ingest an item even when closely monitored.” Tammy and Marilyn decided to keep Gucci, but knew they needed to do something to keep her busy.
They have forested land; forests have truffles. Why not see if she can be a Truffle Dog? After all, she always had her nose to the ground anyway! They started taking Truffle Dog training classes with me at Pacific Truffle Dogs in November 2013 not long after she was career changed.
Gucci was a quick study! She learned to find the odor of truffle and really liked the game of using her nose, finding the correct odor source and getting a treat for it. ‘Wow, how cool’ she must have thought. Being rewarded for what she has always wanted to do…use her nose! Tammy and Marilyn soon decided they wanted to expand her repertoire of odor recognition and we began to teach the odors used in K9 Nose Work competitions.
Gucci was taught three additional odors simultaneously; birch, anise and clove. She passed her Odor Recognition Test (ORT) for all three odors on the first try! She was now ready for Nosework competitions. In the meantime, she was also working in the woods with Marilyn learning by experience how to find the buried treasures. When truffles are ripe they produce an aroma that is very attractive to some species of mammals, including squirrels, voles, dogs, and yes—pigs! Isolating and locating the specific source of fungi that grows underground, out in the middle of a forest, with all the various scents that a forest emits, takes talent and focus!
Throughout 2014 Gucci continued weekly training with Tammy and Marilyn. Tammy and Gucci began competing in K9 Nosework trials. Gucci earned her NW I title on her first try, and it only took two tries to get her NW II Title! At the NWII trial in which she qualified she took a 1st place in Interior searching, 3rd place in Vehicle searching and a 3rd place Overall (for all search areas combined)! Awesome! To get to this level in only three trials is a BIG accomplishment!!
To top off Gucci’s amazing year of competition, Marilyn entered her in the first-ever North American Truffle Dog Competition called the “Joriad.” Gucci continued practicing real life truffle hunting on the family property as well as other locations in preparation for the event. On the day of the Joriad all 26 dogs entered had to pass two qualifying rounds in order to continue to the finals round. Many of the dogs she was competing with were of the famed Lagotto Romagnolo breed—the Italian Truffle Dog. The qualifying runs were held in a horse arena; this offered some special challenges to the dogs as they not only had to sniff out the truffle odor, but also they had to pay no attention to the crowd, the smell and sight of horses, the odd environment, cameras looking down their noses, nor horse manure.
Gucci was one of the 16 dogs that passed the first qualifying run. Woo hoo! And she passed with flying colors; no faults and well under time. Sadly, 10 dogs did not go through to the next round.
The next test was a bit more challenging. The truffle scented targets were hidden in a large area of the horse arena. There were two such areas and two dogs were competing at the same time adding to the ‘trial nerves’ of the handlers! The teams each had five minutes to search the area and find five truffles. There were trees in pots, large rocks and logs placed in each search area to give it a bit of doggy interest, but it was definitely not the same as a real search in the woods.
Of the first four dogs competing in Round Two—none of them passed the requirements within the amount of time given. It was seemingly a bit more difficult than it sounded! Gucci was up next. I’m not sure who was more nervous; the students, Marilyn and Gucci, or me the teacher? I think it was me!
Team Gucci approached the start line and she saw the dog across the way. From my view point in the bleachers I thought Gucci was looking a bit distracted, which added to MY nerves. Marilyn gave her the search cue to look for truffles and Gucci quickly headed in the direction of the dog! Aaah! Marilyn kept her cool though and did a good job in getting Gucci’s focus back. She quickly put her nose down and went to work. Not long after Gucci found her first truffle! About a minute later her second, and then third, and the fourth followed quickly. We spectators were feeling excited but a bit anxious too. After all, none of the other dogs had found five. The clock was ticking…come on Gucci only one more. At 4 minutes 41 seconds Gucci started pawing and truffle number five was uncovered. She had qualified for the Championship round the following day! Of course she did, I knew she would…whew.
She was the first dog to make it to this point so far. The remaining dogs completed their runs with the result that only one other dog met the original five truffles in five minutes requirements!! The event organizers had a pow-wow and decided to allow all dogs that found at least four truffles within the five minutes to compete as well. This brought the total Championship competitor number up from two to six. It proved to be a tough competition day in which 20 dogs had been eliminated!
Now the world of mushroom hunters and truffle hunters can be a bit on the secretive and unique side. In keeping with this theory, the organizers would not allow any spectators at the event. The only people privy to the sight location was the competitors, judges, organizers and volunteers. No friends, no relatives, no instructors. So Marilyn and Gucci went off on their own to compete for the top honors in the Field Championships of the Joriad. Go Team Gucci!
This round was ‘for real.’ They were in an overgrown Christmas tree parcel of land in the undisclosed location somewhere around Eugene, Oregon. All the dogs and handlers were going to be competing at the same time on the same piece of land. The rules said they had to keep at least 20 feet away from each other. They were given one hour to find as many truffles as they could. Each dog/handler team was assigned a volunteer that would keep the truffles the team found in a bucket with that dog’s name on it. At the end of the competition the truffles in each bucket would be counted only by the officials. Whichever dog found the most truffles would be the winner. If there was a tie for the same number of truffles, they would weigh them (they come in a variety of sizes) and the highest weight would win.
Since I couldn't go and watch, my knowledge of the details of the actual hunt are slim, but I know that Gucci went right to work and quickly started locating the naturally grown truffles deep in the soil. When Gucci locates a truffle she paws at the ground and Marilyn will then kneel down and finish digging it out. The majority of the truffles located this day were Oregon White Truffles – their scientific name is ‘tuber oregonense.’ This is one of about three or four native Pacific Northwest culinary varieties of truffle. The PNW truffle market is in the early stages of developing, but they can sell for anywhere from $30-$80 per ounce at the retail level.
At the end of the hour Marilyn was feeling tired, but good. Gucci had done her job well! They had located and dug up many truffles, but didn’t really know well how all the other dogs had done. Were they better/faster than Gucci? Had they found more than she? No one would know until the award ceremony that night.
The awards dinner was held at Willamette Vineyards just south of Salem, Oregon. There was wine, good food, and lots of interesting conversation. Finally they announced the winners—and YES! Gucci had won the first ever North American Truffle Dog Joriad Championship!! The number of truffles the dogs had found was not announced, but rumor has it that Gucci was double the number of the second place dog.
I was certainly proud of my students and friends; Tammy, Marilyn and Gucci! Gucci won out over several dogs of the infamous Lagotto Romagnolo and has shown everyone what a great career-change dog she is. Her new career is just beginning! Gucci will continue in both Nose Work competitions and will be looking at going pro in the truffle dog world.
GREAT JOB,Team Gucci!