Aaron K.—who, like his counterparts in Europe, prefers anonymity, to protect the location of his six-acre farm in Oregon’s Willamette Valley—began training a yellow Labrador Retriever to hunt truffles when the dog was about nine months old. He wanted not only a truffle dog but also a family pet, so he chose a puppy “on the mellow side.” He began by playing fetch with her, using a tennis ball scented with a few drops of black truffle oil. As she caught on, he began tossing the ball where she couldn’t easily find it, then increasing the difficulty by burying the ball or scented wads of paper towel. Aaron introduced the dog to the woods when she was about two years old; that’s when he discovered that she was interested in sniffing squirrel trails and needed some basic obedience training, which she received. Now, she’s well on her way to being a successful truffle hunter. In a recent demonstration for a small group, she found five out of six targets, even with the distraction of a group of observers.
Stuart Davis employs a similar method on his truffle farm in northeastern Arkansas. His five-month-old Blue Heeler mix learned to fetch a truffle-oil-scented cloth buried two or three inches underground. Davis recommends leaving the scented object in the ground for at least an hour so the smell comes up through the dirt, then putting the dog downwind and training it to paw the ground when he has found the truffle scent. “Discourage them from getting on game trails,” he adds. “Keep on redirecting their attention, get them focused again on what you’re trying to do, and tell them ‘no’ when you need to.” Reward the dog with a biscuit, then, “Tell them how good they are. Be patient with your dog.” Davis’s first harvest is three to four years away. “The acid test is going to be when you put the dog in a real truffle orchard,” he says.
Tom Michaels, who earned a doctorate in mycology at Oregon State before moving to Tennessee, has planted about 2,500 truffle trees on four sites in Greene County. He has yet to decide whether he’ll train a potbellied pig or a dog, or what kind of dog he would choose. “The clock is ticking now for real,” he says, having found immature truffles growing on one site. “I was in the process of cleaning out a competitor fungus that grows close to the surface when I found some little developing truffles right next to them.”
Larry Turley, a Napa Valley vintner, is another planter who has yet to choose his truffle dog. Unlike Aaron K., Davis and Michaels, whose farms will be commercial, Turley plans to harvest truffles just to eat them and give them to friends. His first truffles are four years away, so he hasn’t given much thought to the type of dog or how he’ll train it. He has, however, an advantage in being the father of his 11-year-old daughter, Savannah, “the Saint Francis of dogs, cats and horses,” whose ambition is to be both a vintner and a veterinarian.
What breed of truffle hunter would Turley consider? “Not a little yapper,” he says. “Probably something short-haired, because it gets hot down there,” referring to the Paso Robles, Calif., area where his orchard is planted.
And what gender? “I’m surrounded by women,” Turley answers elliptically. And therefore? “And therefore I’m not saying.”