It used to be that pigs would roam the fields, nose to the ground, sniffing for the musk of a buried truffle. Once hot on the trail, the hog would rout down and down for the crest of the hidden truffle.
At Seattle-based Truffle Dog Company, it’s dogs, not hogs, that do the legwork. Between them, owners Alana McGee and Kristin Rosenbach have seven dogs of various ages and breeds all trained to hunt. The company offers guided foraging expeditions as well as a training program for aspiring canine hunters and their handlers.
Any dog — even old dogs — can learn to hunt
The Italians are known to rely on the Lagotto Romagnolo breed to hunt for truffles, but you can teach any dog — even an old dog — the tricks of the trade, says McGee.
“It’s all personality-based, for the most part,” McGee says, adding she’s successfully trained Chihuahuas, Great Danes and even flat-nosed pugs. “And you can teach them at any age. There’s no rule that says you have to get the dog when it’s a puppy and start it. You can have a 13-year-old dog start doing it.”
McGee herself likes to work with hunting dogs who tend to have a “certain work ethic.”
“It’s easier and sometimes faster to teach food-motivated dogs, because it’s a really strong drive. But you just have to find out what your dog likes and what makes them tick, and apply that to truffle hunting,” McGee says.
On the hunt with Callie, the border collie
The thing that makes Callie tick is her squeaky tennis ball. Each time the border collie alerts her owner to a hidden truffle, she earns a brief reunion with her treasured toy before the hunt resumes.
Then the energetic pooch races down the field before suddenly stopping and homing in on a dirt spot. Using her paw, she digs down a bit, smells, then digs again until she hits gold. Owner Rosenbach Callie with praise, carefully digs up the found truffle and hands over the prize.
Callie’s ability to zigzag down the soil with amazing precision makes her exceptional, says Rosenbach.
“Teaching a dog to find an odor really isn’t the hard part. A lot of dogs can learn to detect an odor in one session,” Rosenbach says. “But once they go underground, the scent moves differently through the soil. So that’s a difficult transition for the dogs to learn.”
Rosenbach and Callie repeat this ritual numerous times throughout the truffle season, which peaks in the winter and early spring in the Northwest.
“The general rule is: The more miserable it is outside, the better the truffles,” McGee says, adding it’s not unusual to find pounds of truffles in just an hour during peak season.
The truffles that grow in the Northwest
The truffles we eat are the fruiting bodies of the truffle fungus, which thrives on the roots of a host tree, maybe a Douglas fir or an oak. The fungus gets sugar and water from the tree. The tree, in turn, gets micronutrients that help it outperform its neighbors.
Truffles are mostly accidental fruits, though some people do try to cultivate them in orchards. To do so, they inoculate their tree roots in truffle spores before planting. But inoculation offers no guarantee; after five to 12 years of high-maintenance soil care, the tree might yield edible truffles. Or not.
Local excursions unearth two native varieties of truffles: the Oregon black truffle and the Oregon white truffle. Though both named “Oregon,” the varieties can be found all over the Northwest, says McGee.
The white truffle has an earthy, “umami” smell more typical of truffles, says McGee. The black truffle, on the other hand, has an unusual, fragrant scent that borders on fruity.
The natives sell for about $40 to $60 per ounce — not as expensive as the Italian varieties that run as high as $150 per ounce, but not cheap, either. The black truffles, which tend to be bigger, can be as large as 2 ounces per piece.
For years, the native varieties were harvested by raking the soil, without the help of sharp-nosed critters. But the practice can not only damage the delicate tuber, but also yield unripe truffles that aren’t quite at their pungent prime.
“Truffles are only valuable at their peak ripeness,” McGee says. “And after you pick it, they don’t really ripen. You can’t really artificially create the same aromas.”
Not all dogs learn the same way
McGee and Rosenbach offer a training program for dog owners who want to teach their dogs to hunt for truffles. Their online course attracts students as far away as Tanzania and Australia. Some dogs are ready to hit the forest for a trial run in about 20 weeks, says McGee, though highly precise hunters like Callie take about a year to train.
And there is no cookie-cutter curriculum. The dogs are always taught to signal on a reward-based system, but how they signal and how they’re rewarded depends on the dog.
You can train any dog to do anything, says McGee, but it’s a good idea to build on their natural tendencies. One of McGee’s dogs taps its paw on the soil above the truffle instead of digging down. Rosenbach’s sheltie, Cash, will first bark, then lie down and nose the target. Then, if his owner asks him to, he’ll dig down a bit.
“Herding dogs generally have a lot of eye, so they won’t interact much with the truffle, but they’ll stare at it for like five minutes until you get them,” McGee says. “I have one dog who gets bacon only when he truffle-hunts, because that’s like his favorite thing in the entire world. It doesn’t have to be that way, but for some dogs, it’s a good idea.”
Another rule: It should always be fun, which means a dog should never be overworked — never more than a couple hours, and less on tough terrain — and a hunt should always end on a good note.
“Just ‘cause a dog can do something doesn’t mean you should ask that of’em,” McGee says. “It should never be like actual work. It should always be a game.”
McGee and Rosenbach use real truffles to train dogs, never mind the price. They say it’s the only way to train them to hunt for all available truffles. Even truffle oil won’t do, says McGee, as most are synthetically produced and contain just one chemical compound.
“One truffle can have 20 to 30 volatile organic compounds, and if you train them on just the one from the truffle oil, a bunch of truffles may not have that compound in enough concentration. So they won’t necessarily alert on them, and we want the dogs to find everything,” she says,
Part of training involves the occasional truffle lost down a dog’s gullet, though not often and usually because the dog’s excitement brims over.
“We’ve built such amazing value into having them go out and do this that when they find one, they’re really pumped up and excited, and it just goes down the hatch,” McGee says.
There’s only one thing to do when that happens, says McGee: “Don’t freak out.”
“You never want to create a scenario that’s a negative association, basically. So if they eat one, OK. They just self-rewarded. You move on,” she says.
‘It’s not about the truffles’
But perhaps the most difficult parts of truffle hunting has to deal with the handler, not the dog, say the trainers.
“There’s a working dynamic involved in truffle hunting, and it’s often really hard for us to teach it and explain it. Most people end up getting it, but you can’t just lecture about it,” Rosenbach says.
The human involvement goes beyond asking for a behavior, rewarding and repeating mechanically. For one, the handler must be calm and totally in the moment; any distraction or tension will prove unproductive. The required focus is a big reason why most handlers hunt with just one dog at a time.
“It’s very personal. If you’re not connected with your dog when you’re out there, it doesn’t necessarily go well,” McGee says. “I take a lot of deep breaths. I try and be very conscious of what’s going on. And if I’m really stressed out, then I don’t go hunting.”
If the handler becomes even a slight bit stressed, says Rosenbach, the dog immediately absorbs the tension and mirrors it.
“You can then all of a sudden see the dog come up and start zipping around. And they start pinging off of each other,” she says. “And it takes something as simple as reminding her [the handler] to ground herself, and all of a sudden, you see both of’em shift. They come down.”
The other crucial element is being fully focused on the dog.
“We tell all of our students: Once you get your dog out of the car, give it 100 percent. Your dog’s going to give you 100 percent. Nothing else is important at that point,” she says.
Over time, the handler begins to have an ongoing “dialogue” with the dog, says Rosenbach: “It’s the ability to connect, read them, respond to them, provide what they need and have that dynamic, that conversation.”
For McGee and Rosenbach, this — the relationship, not the harvest — is the most rewarding part of the hunt.
“That’s the part I love about truffle hunting,” Rosenbach says. “It’s not about the truffles.”