What if a hike with your dog through the woods yielded a delicious treasure? Nope, not sticks, though your dog might think that is the ultimate reward. Lately, truffle hunters' best assets are their four-legged pals - their dogs! Yup, that's right, with the appropriate training, dogs are the perfect mushroom hunters.
Truffles are a world-class culinary delicacy that grows underground on tree roots found most commonly in forests throughout Europe, and more recently, in the Pacific Northwest and the Appalachians. Traditionally, female pigs were used to sniff out these buried treasures because they were naturally attracted to the pheromones that truffles release, mirroring testosterone found in male pigs. But, the pigs have been fired: it turns out that they were responsible for eating most of the forage and ruining the environment with their unwavering digging.
Now, the Lagotto Romagnolo is the dog breed known for truffle hunting best. Originally the Lagotto Romagnolo was used for hunting waterfowl throughout Romagna, Italy, where it coined its name, which means Lake Dog from Romagna. But, because of their sharp noses and tendency to dig, the breed made a lucrative career shift as truffle foragers.
Photo of harvested truffles by David Barajas provided by the Oregon Truffle Festival. Truffles are prized by chefs and can be infused into ingredients or shaved raw on top of dishes with fun recipes constantly catching the attention of foodies.
The European truffle scene has been thriving for centuries, and truffles can range anywhere around $4,000 a pound – making them one of the most expensive foods in the world. But here in the US, the truffle hunting industry has been perceived as less desirable, and for years Oregon Truffles were considered “an inexpensive substitute for the real thing.”
That was before an owner, and his dogs set out to redeem the Oregon truffle industry.
Charles Lefevre holding a truffle hunted by his Lagotto, Dante, an offspring of one of the first Lagottos to live in the United States. “There is nothing Dante loves more than hunting truffles,” says owner Lefevre. Photo provided by the Oregon Truffle Festival, photographed by Eric Wolfinger for Eating Well by Rowan Jacobsen.
Meet Dante the dog, and his owner, mycologist, and founder of the Oregon Truffle Festival, Dr. Charles Lefevre. As a graduate student in the 90’s, Lefevre would recreationally hunt truffles and trade them for meals at restaurants, what he called his "entertainment budget." During this time, he also started a successful side-gig cultivating Black French Truffles for farmers. With both types of truffles in the fridge, he realized something, the aroma of the perceived lackluster Oregon truffle overpowered the room, surpassing the industry's beloved French black truffle.
Leaving Charles wondering why Oregon Truffles have such a bad rap, he put his sleuthing hat on and realized that people — unable to sniff out ripe truffles – were harvesting before they were actually ripe. As a result, people assumed the truffles were just not as good as others, but in reality they were harvesting a product that was equivalent to unripe fruit.
According to Lefevre, truffles can’t disperse their spores on their own, so they rely on mammals to eat them and scatter their spores throughout the forest. That's why truffles put off such a strong, unique odor that is best detected by the 300 million olfactory receptors in a dog's nose.
So, where humans were responsible for picking less than quality truffles and destroying the soil biome with rakes, dogs can find only the finest quality truffles with minimal digging. They also leave behind the ones that aren’t yet ready to make their debut on the dinner plate.
"It really struck us that the market was perceiving the truffles badly, and there was an opportunity to redeem their reputation," explains Charles. The industry needed awareness that these truffles were the real deal, but more importantly, they needed more truffle dogs in order to find the highest quality truffles.
So Charles started the Oregon Truffle Festival in 2006 to promote and educate the public about the true quality of these truffles. With the help of his dogs Dante and Mocha (Dante’s mom), the trio shared their skills with other handlers and amateur truffle dogs.
Since the Festival began, the industry started looking to dogs to harvest the highest quality culinary truffles, surpassing the price of human-harvested truffles. "The price for Oregon Truffles that are hunted with dogs crossed a milestone a couple of years ago," says Lefevre. "Oregon Truffles were selling for prices higher than the famous Black French Truffles."
Initially, where there were very few truffle dogs in the Pacific Northwest, the festival ignited a trend of thousands of amateur truffle dogs scattered throughout the west coast, and Dante and Mocha were no longer the only curly-coated Lagottos around.
Alana McGee, a certified personal trainer and owner of Truffle Dog Company, was one of the people who noticed the emerging truffle scene, "I thought if they have truffles in Oregon, then we should have truffles in Washington – it's just a matter of training our dogs to hunt them."
Owner Alana with her Lagotto Lolo as she digs for a Truffle. Photo courtesy of Gabriel Rodrigues in Kitchen Unnecessary.
That's where Lolo comes into the picture, a 10-year-old Lagotto Romagnolo. She spends most of her days with her nose to the ground in search of truffles that will be sold to local restaurants or retrieved for commercial orchards. She's one of the few professional truffle hunting dogs that is a product of the new flourishing truffle scene in the Pacific Northwest.
Alana trained Lolo in the same way she teaches dogs that attend her regular training classes, "It all starts with getting the dog to have a positive association with truffles," she says.
Alana started with truffles and truffle oil from fungi species-specific to her area because all truffles smell different, "If you use a store-bought truffle oil, don't expect your dog to find truffles out in the wild because it's a totally different odor scent." From there, Alana would hide the truffles or truffle oil-scented items from Lolo. First around the house, then the yard, and finally buried underground.
When Lolo would find the treasure, she would tap the truffle with her nose and be rewarded with the one thing she loves just as much – chicken. "It's just like people. You just have to figure out how they learn and how to motivate them," says Alana, "We use a lot of food rewards. It tends to be pretty fast."
Dante was also trained as a puppy, spending much of his time in the backyard, "You have to let the dog know you're really happy with them, and it requires going a little crazy," says Charles. "The rule of thumb is if your neighbors are not embarrassed for you, then you’re not happy enough."
After about four months of training Alana can start to take dogs out to find truffles in the wild. Lolo is trained to dig until she gets to the truffle; then, she will signal she's found a treasure by taping the truffle with her nose. If Alana's not quick enough, sometimes it'll go down the hatch.
Like Indiana Jones needs his trusted hat for his adventures, a pro truffle dog's gear is essential to getting the job done right. "In our environment in the Northwest, it's wet out, so we use waterproof gear because they don't hold moisture, they're easy to clean and durable," says Alana. "The dogs should have a separate set of gear for truffle hunting - when they put their vest on, they’re working, and when it's off, they’re not." (Psst - check out some truffle-dog approved waterproof gear here »)
Owner Alana and her Lagotto Lolo getting geared up before a truffle hunt. Photo courtesy of Gabriel Rodrigues in Kitchen Unnecessary.
Alana notes that Truffle Hunting isn't just for Lagottos, "Some of my favorite students are the ones who own little six-pound chihuahua mixes," says Alana. The Joriad North American Truffle Dog Championship, an amateur event, has become a hit at the Oregon Truffle Festival, and Alana's statement couldn't be any more true. Especially in 2018, when Gustave, a rescued Chihuahua, sniffed his way to the top of the competition taking home the trophy.
Photo of Gustave, the winner of the 2018 Joriad North American Truffle Dog Championship in Eugene, Oregon. Photo provided by Oregon Truffle Festival.
At the end of the day, it's not all about walking away with a pirate’s loot of truffles for these humans, but instead spending time with their best friends, "It's a great bonding experience and an awesome way to grow your relationship with your dog" says Alana.
The truffle industry has come to love and rely on these dogs. "Everybody thinks that their truffle dog is the best truffle dog," says Charles. "That includes me, I think Dante is the best truffle dog there is!"
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