Stuart Dunbar is the owner and manager of Yarra Valley Truffles, a Truffle orchard with a reputation for high-quality truffles in Victoria, Australia. Stuart’s work involves daily truffle farming with working dogs, Bear and Lani. Bear has been by his side from the start. They planted the trees together in 2006 when Bear was just a pup. Recently they demonstrated truffle hunting at the inaugural Melbourne Truffle festival in August. During the festival, Bear became a celebrity when Stuart talked about his truffle hunting skills on ABC radio.
Bear now has an assistant, a dog called Lani, although currently, she’d rather hunt rabbits all day than truffles. Stuart says he is the boss… but when it comes to the end of a big day of truffle farming with working dogs, Bear and Lani, they have other ideas!
Who’s the Boss? Has truffle farming with working dogs always been a part of your life?
Stuart: I’ve grown up with dogs, so one of the great things about returning to a rural property was once again having a canine companion. Truffles are more recent, we only tasted our first ten years ago, and Bear was a puppy when I planted the truffiere, so we are learning about truffle farming together.
Who’s the Boss? What are Bear and Lani roles in the truffle farming?
Stuart: Bear is an 8yo American Bulldog, and my main truffle hunter. Bear’s job is locating truffle that is ready to harvest and pinpointing some of the deeper truffles which are harder to find. Through varied degrees of response, he even indicates roughly how close the truffle is to being fully ripe. I may know the locations of some truffles earlier in the season from observing surface soil disturbances but Bear provides the first indication they are ripening or insect damaged.
Lani is an 18-month-old Lagotto Romagnolo, (which translates as lake dog from the Romagno region of Italy, where they were originally a water retriever, but are now known as a truffle hunting breed). We got Lani as an older dog, she was too energetic for her previous owner. She’s a strongly driven dog, and we are redirecting some of that energy. Given the opportunity, she would happily hunt rabbits all day and half the night. Some of that drive has switched to finding hazelnuts in the truffiere (which focuses her on trees), and just recently she’s come to understand I’d like her to find truffles. Now she detects and indicates the truffles, another season or two will hopefully develop her pinpointing and grading skills.
Who’s the Boss? What did Bear’s training entail to become a top dog truffle hunter?
Stuart: Both dogs have started with finding food pellets on command, and transferred those skills after being introduced to truffles. Then it’s a learning curve to indicate damaged, rotten truffles and what degree of ripeness. This is double sided as the dog learns the distinction, and I learn the variation in their responses. For example, when I ask Bear to pinpoint, he sniffs the exact location then wants to dig there. In comparison, Lani was simply laying her head on the ground, which I’ve learnt is a canine alternative signal/mark, but I’ve not yet correlated to a more precise location.
Who’s the Boss? You work well together truffle farming with dogs, Bear and Lani, but who really is the boss?
Stuart: I’m the boss, it’s important for that to be quite clear with any dog. However, for Bear, there’s a sliding scale from obedient, loyal companion in the morning, to disinterested reluctance as dinnertime approaches; that is, “I’m following you boss, but I just can’t seem to find any truffles… btw I’m hungry”. Lani, as the junior dog, happily follows orders from both Bear and me. But while hunting truffle, shows a rising inclination to going rabbiting instead (with long glances to known rabbit spots). So I just need to make truffle hunting equally fun for her next season.
Who’s the Boss? How will you reward Bear and Lani if they discover Australia’s next biggest truffle?
Stuart: I guess beyond the usual rewards, the dogs will be rewarded with yet more publicity. I’ve got a kennel of media superstars… In Lani’s case, a side trip to some rabbit warrens has already become a reward for good effort.