Do You Think You Could Teach a Dog to Hunt Morels?

Over many years of hunting morels, The Great Morel, along with many fellow Shroomers have more than likely asked this question – “Do you think you could teach a dog to hunt morels?” At first thought one would entertain the notion and believe as though one most certainly could – right? Think about it for a moment, there are drug sniffing dogs, truffle dogs, bird dogs, search and rescue dogs, and game specific hunting dogs. So why not morel hunting dogs? One would think this makes perfect sense.

Chocolate Lab

Photo Courtesy of @welcerfarms

Years ago three well-renowned Shroomers in West Central Ohio asked this one question often. All of these seasoned Shroomers had various breeds of Labrador Retrievers – a yellow named Jake, Max was the chocolate, and Duke the black. For years the three furry companions went on every foraging expedition taken throughout the morel season. Historical references confirm that not a one of those three ever led anyone to a single morel. However, let us not sell them short. If the goal were to find the deer dung, the mud pits, the creek beds and roll in any decaying animal in the woods then the three of them were feeling as though they were successful – morels or no morels. Which leads us back to the questions – “do you think you could teach a dog to hunt morels?”

Surely there are many morel hunters out there with their best four legged friend at their side, seeking out the ever-elusive morel and asking or wondering the same thing. Although at this point, it is as if you are looking for someone to confirm or validate what you believe to be possible. Almost going from a question to an affirmation because you think it would be conceivable. The conversation would probably begin to sound a little more like this…. “You would think you could teach a dog to hunt morels.”

The Great Morel sought out experts in their respective fields who agreed to offer up their knowledge and help get this question answered for once and for all. Before we dive into the expert’s thoughts, let’s start with the Hand held morelnon-scientific perspective – the morel hunter’s perspective. Many morel hunters know the morel has a distinct aroma. We can lift a fresh picked morel up close to our nose and smell the fruit’s scent. There are many seasoned morel hunters who will tell you they have a unique smell and the scent is easily identifiable. Some may also admit they can smell them in the woods. Although there are many scents in the woods – other fungus, moss, decaying forest floor, fruit trees and dogwoods blooming, along with the other smells of spring. So are we actually smelling the aroma of the morel or other scents in the woods while searching for the ever-elusive fungi? Which again, brings us back to the question at hand – “do you think you could teach a dog to hunt morels?”

From the Shroomer’s non-scientific perspective and analysis, at this point it is sounding rather promising…right?

The first thing we all have to understand or establish for certain is the aroma of the morel. Are we imagining it? Do morels truly have a distinct aroma while fruiting and is it actually the scent of the morel? There are mycology studies available on the aroma of Edible Mushrooms1 (link at the bottom of this article) but we need to try to understand the specifics. The Great Morel reached out to the mycology folks to ask a couple key questions relating to the morel, its fruiting cycle, its aroma, and their thoughts to the underlying question at hand. You’ll find their feedback to be invaluable in answering some of the more scientific factors about the great morel.

Matt Hall, has been studying the growth of mushrooms and has several on-going studies on morel growth cycles, was kind enough to give his thoughts. Matt’s site Midnight-Harvest.com clearly depicts his true interest in understanding the biological makeup of the morel. His fascination of this complex fungi is detailed in his blog post  where he describes in detail more information about the morel than most of us knew existed. The Great Morel encourages you to read his blog. All that said, if the morel has an aroma or an unambiguous scent then “do you think you could teach a dog to hunt morels?”

When asked this question, Matt’s response was “I don’t see why not…

Bam! Alright! We have the answer we were hoping to hear!  Hold on though….if it were that easy this article would be over and done with, so not so fast.

Understanding the reasoning why becomes a little more complex and naturally so. We are now dealing with scientific reasoning and facts – not “shroomer’s facts” and not a hypothesis from fellow morel hunting buddies.  The Great Morel has never claimed to be a mycologist – The Great Morel is about hunting and foraging, and celebrating the spring past-time of morels. That said, it is important we take our basic morel hunting understanding to a new level – to that of a mycologist. Before everyone quits reading and leaves – we are taking it to the most simplistic yet concise manor as possible so relax.  In other words this is an attempt to give everyone a basic understanding of the complexity of this fungi we so love to hunt. In the end if this makes no sense what-so-ever, then do not feel alone. As it starts to get a little bit more complicated think of it as if we are all about to embark on an educational journey. For the professional mycologists reading this  – please have mercy on The Great Morel’s attempt uncover some of the mystery of science.

 

THE SCENT

The first thing we need validated is what is up with the morel’s aroma? After researching there are a multitude of questions that seem to arise from this one basic question. Matt tells us the morel mushroom has a scent but to understand the scent is a bit more complex. Studies have shown us that mushrooms give off pheromones much like plants and in the morel’s case this is done for the purpose of spore dispersal and while the morel is producing its fruiting body the morel is emitting a scent. Matt goes on to say that,

“…mushrooms give off pheromones too in order to attract the animals they want around them whether for pollination and or for seed/spore dispersal. So it is the spores? It would be plausible it is the spores but it could also be the mycelium (root structure) of mushrooms because they all secret enzymes to digest the world around them. Even shiitakes and oyster mushroom have a unique scent in mycelial form so in those secretions are likely sexual pheromones. So yes – I would say they do have a scent while producing a ‘fruiting body’. Mind you morels also produce spores on their mycelium like a mold so that could be the reason their mycelium smells good.

 

That all sounds simple enough or so that’s what The Great Morel is thinking.

The morel scent while still underground is not nearly as prominent as that of a truffle which we know dogs can be trained to hunt and will be discussed later. It begins to start to sound like a science experiment to most of us by now but it is important for us to try and understand.

Granted a formation called ‘sclerotia’ which does readily form on indoor cultures may have a scent and according to a few other mycologists the sclerotia is the key to morels. So if by culturing large sclerotia and training a dog to sniff it out – it could be entirely plausible. But not all morels create sclerotia as I’ve personally witnessed from indoor cultures. A single strand of mycelium may not have much scent but a dense formation like sclerotia could have one and could be the key to training.

So let’s pause a moment, take a deep breath and back up a bit. If we were to ask ourselves based on our quick educational journey, are morel hunters everywhere simply imagining they are smelling them, or are we actually smelling the scent of being in the woods and all the other pheromones that the plants are emitting? Without certainty, it might be safe to assume it is a little of both.  Micheal Kuo, of Mushroomexpert.com 2 has a great page on “Determining Oder and Taste” of mushrooms that is worth reading for more information.

 

 

The Dog

Now let’s bring in our four-legged friends who we are asking to do the work for us…

Most of us know the amazing capabilities a dog can be taught. The list goes on to what they are capable of learning but for the intent of this article we are only seeking the answer to one question – are they capable of finding the morels for us?

Most of us have heard of Truffles – that fruiting body of fungal organisms that grow underground in certain geographical regions around the world. Renowned and prized, the truffle brings top dollar and makes its way on the menu of many of the finest restaurants worldwide. For those somewhat familiar with truffle hunting, we know that both the European and American truffle hunters use pigs and dogs to assist in unearthing this prized organism. The Great Morel reached out to a professional dog trainer who specializes in truffle training to see if there might be link or a connection to truffle training and morel training. Most importantly though to ask the question – Do you think you could teach a dog to hunt morels?

Jeannine May (KPA-CTP) of Pacific Truffle Dogs and Good Life Dog Training based in Oregon was openly candid and her feedback was surprising. While her expertise is in training truffle dogs, she offered some very interesting points for anyone thinking of training their dog to hunt morels.

“Yes, if there is an aroma it can be taught.” she states.

Bam! Yes! Again and finally, we have the definitive and official answer right?

Well, not so fast because there are a few factors one needs to take into consideration. Most importantly is the risk factor to your pet. Morels and other fungus have very similar aromas to them and Jeannine points out one of the reasons she does not train dogs in morel and chanterelle hunting.

I have chosen NOT to train my dogs to find any kind of mushroom (chanterelle and morel are the most commonly asked about) for a variety of reasons. When I trained my dogs for truffles I used only the two most common culinary variety to train with-Tuber Oregonense and Leucangium carthusianum or the Oregon White and the Oregon Black truffles. However, my dogs have on their own located and shown me many other types of truffles including the Oregon Brown (another culinary truffle) and a variety of, IMO, stinky truffles that squirrels, voles and other critters like. What this is telling me is that there is a commonality of odor in truffles.

Photo courtesy of @freyatheshepsky

Photo courtesy of @freyatheshepsky Ontario, Canada

If this commonality in aroma exists in morels as in truffles, then can one assume and feel assured that our morel trained hunting dog is only going to go for the good fungus in the woods? Most morel hunters are only foraging for the common variety of morel mushrooms – we as humans know to be aware of the bad morels – the false morel, the verpa, and other fungi in the forest which present a danger to us. The question this raises is – would our dog be able to understand this distinction? Can we train our dogs to only find the morel and not the other mushrooms? The answer may more than likely yes but Jeannine says it will take a lot more effort and talent on the trainer’s part.

“Is it worth the extra time and effort and proofing? For me that answer is no and there are a few reasons why. One is risk. Dogs will eat truffles. Mammals are attracted to truffles for a reason-it is one way in which they propagate. The mammal will eat the truffle and then defecate the spoors so they can grow and multiple in new places. No known truffle is poisonous, however, there are poisonous mushrooms. So if there is a commonality among mushrooms, if we teach them that we want a mushroom and they decide to taste it (normal for dogs to do this) will they then try other mushrooms? Many mushrooms are poisonous and can either kill you, make you very ill or mildly ill. I’m not a mushroom person. While I’ve learned a few of them I don’t know them well. Therefore, it is not worth the risk to me to teach my dogs to hunt a mushroom and possibly “wake up the desire” to hunt them and possibly eat the wrong type of mushroom. I don’t know a poisonous mushroom from one that is edible so I choose not to take that risk”.

 

At this point we are all starting to think “maybe, just maybe this is looking pretty promising at this point.”

The Great Morel was fortunate enough to find Roger* who has a morel hunting dog. The Great Morel stumbled on Roger on an Instagram post and wanted to seek out his expertise and reign in his knowledge. Roger has admitted he is by no means an expert but he has hands-on knowledge and is currently working hard with his dog Ginger*. The two are actually having some success. So when I approached him with the most important question “Do you think can you teach a dog to hunt?” he was eager to share his trials and tribulations…

“In regards to your question of whether our dog can hunt morel mushrooms. The answer is twofold. She picks up on many different types of fungus, but has to be brought to the general vicinity. Once we find one we simply dedicate her to that mushroom and she begins to look for more. We have had her since she was a pup and started her on finding antler sheds.”

There are similar concerns that resonate with Roger and Jeannine’s experiences. How to train to only find the morel? If we go back to our mycology training earlier in the article we now know this is key. Training your dog will take time and the techniques are similar to training a dog for other scent related tasks.

Jeannine adds this…

“…There are also a wide variety of scent related tasks that dogs are currently being used for with more in the future I’m certain. Some other scent related work includes: diabetes alert dogs, mold detection dogs, scat detection dogs, truffles, pine beetle detection, invasive plant detection, antler detection, seizure alert, cell phone contraband, search and rescue, bed bug, cancer detection, bomb and drug detection…the list goes on!”

Truffle scent training may be the closest thing as it relates to morel scent training. For many, a professional trainer may be your best option. As with training your dog for any task, it takes repetition, practice and patience, and countless hours. Jeannine and her dogs compete in scent work competitions and she understands the amount of dedication involved. Likewise, Roger states that Ginger is a work in progress and his story highlights the time involved in getting the results.

“We began playing around with some ideas for her (Ginger). By leaving a P sized treat by each Morel we began to motivate her to move to the mushrooms. We then began leaving piles of already harvested mushrooms scattered throughout our vast yard. And gingerly directing her towards the area when she came upon them she was rewarded with a treat after a few seconds of examining the pile. Then came the hard work of getting her out of her comfort zone and alerting us to finding one. Though she never barks she simply sets down and waits for her treat, so we kind of have to keep a constant eye on her while scanning ourselves”

It is rather clear that one can safely assume we could teach our dog to hunt. The success or failure may be more on the owner than on the dog. Professional training or knowledge of professional training techniques is more than likely a must but can it just be any type of dog? Would Max, Jake and Duke the Labradors be the epitome of the perfect morel hunting dog? Not so at all. There may not be one particular breed of dog that makes the perfect search dog. Any dog will do, however, there are other considerations to take in to account. The motivation factor, the coat, the size of the breed, and what is the dog bred for. Certain dogs are bred to be hunters, and may perform better and train a bit easier than others.

Jeannine says, “what type of dog should I get?” is the most often asked question she and other dog trainers are asked, and she brings a very interesting point to view…

“What I tell people is that the best dog for this particular work is the dog that you want to LIVE WITH. Truffle season is short, morel season is short. You have to live with the dog the rest of the year so you better like the dog! “

With the information we all have just learned, we can reasonably make the assumption and say we have our answer. That answer – yes we can teach a dog to hunt morels. Surprisingly though it is the multitude of questions that come out of this answer. It goes without saying there are many concerns for your animal’s safety, the proper training and time involvement to achieve success.

Maybe, just maybe the most the most important question after all of this might just be – do I want to teach my dog to hunt? Would it take away from what we all enjoy so much?

Morel hunting for most is about the celebration of spring time, wondering in the woods with the rejuvenation of life all around us as we seek out the ever-elusive great morel. It is wondering through the woods with family and friends, it is about enjoying a past-time that is often hard to explain to others. That is really what we all love about hunting for morels.

 

*Roger requested he and his dog remain anonymous, therefore their names have been changed for this article. Also, none of the dogs shown in the images  have morel hunting skills and they are not Ginger. So if your neighbor has a dog similar please don’t ask to borrow.

References
1 – Aroma Compounds in Eleven Edible Mushroom Species
2 – Kuo, M. (2006, November). Determining odor and taste. Retrieved from the MushroomExpert.Com Web site: http://www.mushroomexpert.com/odortaste.html

 

 

 

 

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