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Towards the first Thai truffle dog – lesson number one.

June 10, 2010

Astraeus hygrometricus, or hed top or hed por as it is called in Thailand, is an edible subterranean mushroom. It is an earthstar mushroom, whose young fruitbodies have an excellent taste. The price is about 600 Baht /kg, which is a lot in a country where a worker gets 200 Baht for one day’s work. The mushroom is available in the Chiang Mai mountains now, and yesterday we searched for it here in the valley, but here it is still too early – we need more rain. It seems to be connected to Dipterocarpus trees, but whether it is a mutualistic symbiosis or a mere coincidence remains to be found out. Some locals put their land on fire, claiming this would enhance the mushroom production. Although some mushroom species indeed are favoured by fire, these are exceptions. I believe that the fires simply omit the vegetation, making it easier to find the tiny cracks in the ground, created by the growing underground mushrooms.When a truffle hunter sees the cracks, he will dig with a spoon to get the mushrooms. Since the fires are obnoxious, and cause terrible pollution and biodiversity decline, we need to ascertain if fires do enhance production or not.

Today, I thought I should train the Dokmai Garden dog “Ruben”, to find Thai truffles. If this would be possible, then mushroom hunters would have no reason to start fires. Dogs are traditionally used for black truffle (Tuber spp) hunting in France, Italy and even in Sweden. Such truffles are totally different from Thai truffles, but dogs can be taught to find almost anything, such as drugs, oranges, mercury, dead bodies, weapons, lost people etc. Ruben is a three-year old Golden Retriever. He is a master chicken killer, and he loves children, but we wish to explore his other abilities.

Today’s lesson started with me showing and tying a white ribbon to Ruben’s collar. The aim is to do this every time we go truffle hunting, so he knows beforehand what kind of a game we wish to play. We went to a nearby longan orchard, where I tied Ruben to a tree, and then I distributed three heaps of fresh Thai truffles (which I bought at the nearby market). I let him sniff some fresh truffles in my hand, and  then used the command “search”, following him with the leash. He was extremely excited, jumping up and down and barking. As soon as I let him go, he started sniffing around, and soon enough he found the first heap of truffles, which he engulfed in a second. No problem, the real truffles are underground, so he can not just inhale them in a real situation. I told him to sit down, and then I rewarded him for finding the truffles, using some snacks. We searched for the other two heaps, which he found without difficulty, but he kept eating them. I repeated the search a few more times, changing places for the truffle heaps, eventually hiding them under large dipterocarp-leaves, to delay his wish to devour his finding. It is important it stays a funny game, and that we do not put pressure on him. After about 20 minutes I released him from the white ribbon and he was free to mind his business again.

I keep you updated about tomorrow’s lesson.

Eric Danell

 

Astraeus hygrometricus, or Thai truffle, is an earthstar mushroom which develops young fruitbodies underground. Young fruitbodies are tasty and an important cash crop in northern Thailand and Laos. We should like to introduce dogs as a tool to find the mushrooms.

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