Sniff­ing out the gems

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Feature -

The small bumps and in­den­ta­tions on a dog’s nose look re­mark­ably like the out­side of the truf­fle, and us­ing a nose like that is the eas­i­est way to find th­ese un­der­ground trea­sures. It’s only in the last five years that more trained dogs have started to find truf­fle in ever-larger num­bers in NZ, a com­bi­na­tion of bet­ter train­ing regimes, bet­ter breed­ing and, in a lot of cases, truf­fles be­ing ripe and ready to be found.

When you work with a dog this closely, they be­come your best friend and clos­est work col­league which is one of the best parts of the job, and po­ten­tially the most heart-break­ing. That’s what hap­pened to Jax Lee this past win­ter.

“Dig­ger had to put down this sea­son, he got can­cer… I was dis­traught be­cause I work by my­self and I’m a wee bit of a crazy dog lady, I’ll ad­mit.”

That big loss meant young Freddy had to step up in just her sec­ond sea­son. She was a six month old pup dur­ing her ini­tial train­ing in 2014, fol­low­ing around af­ter the ex­pe­ri­enced and trusted Dig­ger.

“I’m very much that if it’s a dog that’s train­able, if it searches with its nose, and wants to please its owner it can find truf­fles,” says Jax. “Freddy picked it up really quickly last year but just couldn’t work for that long, her at­ten­tion span wasn’t quite de­vel­oped. This year, when we had Digs for about the first three weeks, then had to put him down, she had a crash course.”

Jax and Freddy fol­low a fairly es­tab­lished pat­tern of truf­fle dog and truf­fle hunter, work­ing for 30 min­utes or so sniff­ing out the truf­fles.

“I mark the truf­fles, then sit her down with some wa­ter and tie her up and she’s forced to rest while I dig out the ones she’s marked. De­pend­ing on the day, we’ll do that for about half a day.

“With her I’m pretty con­fi­dent that she’s find­ing them all be­cause she finds the most ridicu­lously lit­tle ones. It’s some­thing I had to learn quite quickly, you’ve got to really trust your dog.”

But no mat­ter how good the train­ing, there are times when the drive for a treat over­whelms even the best dog.

“You know when they’re just try­ing to get a treat, they’ll mark some­thing and look at you, and you’re like ‘really?’ and carry on walk­ing and they think ‘bum­mer, that didn’t work’. They’re quite funny, they’re cool to work with.”

Nel­son grower Re­becca Hamid con­fesses she is not a dog per­son, so get­ting their dog Meg was a big step.

“It prob­a­bly took me at least a year to get my head around the fact that we really would have to have a dog. There’s some­thing about the smell of dogs I don’t like and I can smell them from a long way away. Pete’s al­ways liked dogs, so he’s the chief dog owner, but I think I’ve warmed up to it and Meg is a good dog.”

The chocolate spaniel is from good truf­fle dog lines and uses a dab of her paw to mark a truf­fle says Peter.

“She will get onto a truf­fle and it be­comes really ob­vi­ous that if she’s in­ter­ested, her tail goes mad, and the sniff­ing in­ten­si­fies very no­tice­ably and she’ll ac­tu­ally mark it for you. That makes a huge dif­fer­ence be­cause it’s a more pre­cise in­di­ca­tion of where the truf­fle is.

“It’s quite im­por­tant to re­ward the dog only when you’ve found it, and out of in­ter­est, Meg gets a piece of cheese – she doesn’t get cheese for any other thing.”

Work­ing out which puppy is go­ing to be a great truf­fle dog starts at birth. Train­ers dab truf­fle oil onto the belly of moth­ers feed­ing pups so they im­me­di­ately equate food with the aroma of truf­fle.

Grower Ta­nia Billingsley is lucky enough to have a top truf­fle dog trainer in the fam­ily – her brother-in-law Andy – and one of the tops dogs in the coun­try, a spaniel named Ozzy. Her ob­ser­va­tions about truf­fle dogs and truf­fières lead her to be­lieve the short­age of good truf­fle dogs has been hold­ing the in­dus­try back.

“Now there’s some really good dogs in the coun­try. I think half the prob­lem be­fore was we didn’t have any pro­fes­sional dogs and now there’s quite a few around. If you google it, the com­pa­nies will come up, and they do drug dogs and they do truf­fle dogs.

“Truf­fles have prob­a­bly been in New Zealand pro­duc­ing longer than peo­ple re­alise but no-one had good enough dogs to find them.”

Fa­cial eczema (FE) is a nasty dis­ease. You can’t see the cause (fun­gal spores in pas­ture) and more of­ten than not, you can’t see symp­toms of it ei­ther (sub-clin­i­cal) un­til a lot of dam­age has been done to the liv­ers of af­fected an­i­mals, of­ten a large per­cent­age of a herd or flock.

The re­sult is an­i­mals that will die, or if they sur­vive they will strug­gle for a long time, not pro­duc­ing as much meat or milk, los­ing preg­nan­cies, or they die later on when their body comes un­der stress, eg dur­ing preg­nancy.

If you live in the North Is­land or the top of the South Is­land, you’ll know about spore counts – talk to your vet, it’s easy to do and the test­ing is cheap – and that zinc sup­ple­men­ta­tion helps to pre­vent tox­ins build­ing up in the liver.

But re­cent re­search has shown some alarm­ing sta­tis­tics. A sur­vey of 106 North Is­land dairy farms treat­ing their herds with zinc found onethird had cows with dam­age caused by sub­clin­i­cal FE, de­spite farm­ers not find­ing a sin­gle case of an­i­mals with clin­i­cal signs of peel­ing red skin on the face and ud­der, shade-seek­ing be­hav­iour, shak­ing of the head, loss of con­di­tion, rest­less­ness etc.

The Dairynz and Sus­tain­able Farming Fund re­search also found only 29% of cat­tle were ac­tu­ally achiev­ing the serum zinc lev­els in the rec­om­mended pro­tec­tive range, de­spite 70% of the farm­ers be­liev­ing they were run­ning an ef­fec­tive pro­gramme. - farm­ers as­sumed an­i­mals weren’t af­fected be­cause they couldn’t see clin­i­cal signs; - not dos­ing an­i­mals with the right amount of zinc, ac­cord­ing to their weight; - not keep­ing up spore counts through the sea­son, or if they were, not tak­ing sam­ples from the same area of the farm each time so they were get­ting re­li­able data.

The only true way to know if your fa­cial eczema preven­tion pro­gramme is ef­fec­tive is to do blood tests on sam­ple an­i­mals in au­tumn, to look for signs of liver dam­age.

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