Truffle Dogs

Wanted: A dog who can keep a secret … and a nose to the ground.
By Jill Hunting, November 2008

If a truffle grows in the forest and no one can smell it, is it really there?

That’s what Charles Lefevre, a professional mycologist and grower of “truffle trees,” has been asking himself lately. Since 2001, his company, New World Truffieres, has been supplying seedlings to aspiring truffle farmers across the United States and Canada. Any time now, the trees Lefevre’s customers have purchased could produce truffles on their roots. But who will unearth the precious fungi? “There is a current demand for 300 or even 400 truffle-hunting dogs,” Lefevre says. “There are that many farms.”

Contrary to common assumptions about truffles—if the word “common” can be applied to something so pricey and elusive—the subterranean delicacies are not harvested solely in the wild. For almost 200 years, truffles have been cultivated in Europe. While they grow unassisted on the roots of oak, hazelnut, poplar and willow trees, truffles also grow in hazelnut and/or oak orchards whose tree roots have been inoculated with truffle spores. Orchards like these, sometimes called plantations or simply farms, have been planted in New Zealand, Australia, Italy, France, Spain, Hungary, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Chile, South Africa and South Korea, as well as in the U.S., in Oregon, California, Texas, Tennessee and North Carolina.

Two kinds of truffles are prized above all others: the so-called Périgord truffle, named for the region in France, and its distant cousin, the white truffle associated with the city of Alba, Italy. The white one, whose Latin name is Tuber magnatum pico, is the more expensive. In a good year, a hefty specimen sells for many thousands of dollars (a three-pound Alba, the size of a small handbag, reportedly sold for $112,000). To date, this species has not yielded up its secrets to the laboratory. Lefevre, who earned a doctorate studying mushrooms at Oregon State University in Corvallis, is among those trying to crack the code.

The other superstar, Tuber melanosporum, has been grown successfully under controlled conditions. Provence has eclipsed Périgord as France’s lead truffle producer, but statistics as to quantities and percentages of truffles coming from any region in the world are hard to come by. In the truffle world, secrecy is not only a tradition, it is part of the allure.

Truffle hunting has always been associated with mystery. The Michael Dibdin whodunit, A Long Finish, centers on a murder in an Italian truffle forest. In real life, although the practice is illegal, some hunters work at night to escape the eyes of poachers who would trespass on their prized plots. In France, one truffle man pointed out to me that it is better to hunt with a dog than a pig—another animal common to the tradition—if only because everyone knows what you’re doing when they see you with a pig in your car.

Too Sublime for Words

I sit in a small room, talking with Bonita Bergin, EdD, president and director of the Santa Rosa (Calif.)-based Assistance Dog Institute. Sprawled on the floor after an initial howdy-do of tail wagging, grinning and licking are six Golden Retrievers. Bergin and I are meeting to discuss how one might teach a dog to hunt truffles. I search for words to describe the taste of a truffle, which Bergin has never eaten or seen: earthy and woodsy like a mushroom, but far more pungent; sexy; unlike any other flavor, I explain. Even a simple dish of scrambled eggs is elevated to sublimity with the addition of fresh truffles.

My effusion of adjectives to describe truffles is a match for Bergin’s about dogs. First, she distinguishes between scent-detecting and service dogs, which she has trained for more than 30 years. A disabled individual’s life may depend on an assistance dog, so its training and temperament are critical. “Service dogs don’t react to stimuli,” she begins. They don’t get excited, and their predatory drive and initiative are low. “They are sweet and gentle and expect to lie around,” she says, aptly describing the dogs at our feet.

She describes a dog’s personality in terms of a grid divided into quadrants: amiable, expressive, analytical and driver. In a mate, she says, you want someone who is your opposite. But in a dog, “you want someone who is like you and in sync with you. The dog should be less dominant than you.” Service dogs are amiable, she continues. They are “askers.” Scent-detection dogs are drivers and “tellers.”

According to Bergin, one-third of a dog’s brain is devoted to its olfactory system. “Even though dogs have this unique scenting capability, they have not been given the scientific study they deserve,” she says. “They are meaningful to so many people.”

Research may be inadequate, but dogs are widely used in work involving scent detection. They help identify cancer in humans, mold in wine barrels, and smoke and other indicators of danger. They detect contraband, find victims at disaster sites and locate land mines.

When it comes to truffle hunting, a keen nose is important, but so is temperament. Breed matters less. I have hunted truffles in Italy with a mixed-breed dog, and in France and Italy with a yellow Lab and several Lagotto Romagnolos (Lagottos are water retrievers whom some claim have a special instinct for truffles). I have also met or heard of a truffle-hunting Dachshund, Sheepdog, Beagle, German Shepherd and Chihuahua.

Closer to home, in Sonoma County, Calif., businessman Henry Trione imported a pair of trained truffle dogs from Italy in the 1980s. Back then, an American truffle industry was only a twinkle in Trione’s eye, and there was no way to maintain the dogs’ skills. Now that there are, by Lefevre’s estimate, several hundred truffières in North America, there exists both a need for dogs and enough work to keep them busy.

Lessons from the Old World

A method for training truffle dogs was set down in print as far back as 1883. The publication Der Hund offered the following guidelines: Begin training in the summer. Start by sewing a truffle into a leather pouch and hiding it from the dog. As his skill progresses, hide the pouch under moss or leaves. After every successful retrieval, reward the dog with a treat and choose a more difficult hiding place. Talk to the dog as little as possible, and use only commands specific to a truffle hunt, such as “find” or “search.”

After an autumn rain, take the dog to a truffle field. The dog should be off-leash and quartered upwind to make scenting easier. Hide a truffle a few inches below ground. When the dog scents it, immediately take the truffle, praise the dog and reward him with a treat. During and after the training stage, if the dog does not find a truffle, no treat should be given. After a hunt (never before), the dog should be fed its normal food.

A similar method is employed today in the Umbria region of Italy. Gabriella Bianconi and her husband, Saverio, sell their truffle products and operate a small cooking school near Citta di Castello. Gabriella described how one hunter they know works.

Training begins at four or five months, or, in the case of a Lagotto, right after weaning. First, the trainer dampens a sponge ball with truffle liquid (infused water or oil), then hides it. When the puppy finds the ball, he is rewarded with a generous piece of meat or cheese. After several days of training, the ball is replaced by a truffle. As soon as the dog shows comprehension that finding the truffle results in getting a reward, training moves to the truffle grounds. At first, the dog is allowed to eat a few truffles. “In this way, he is more motivated to search,” Gabriella explains. “To train a dog requires a good deal of the person’s patience and the dog’s will.”

Developing Homegrown Hunters

North American truffle farmers are using many of the same Old World methods to train hunting dogs for nascent orchards in Oregon, California, Arkansas and Tennessee.

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.”

Jill Hunting, editor of Truffle Secrets newsletter, resides at Truffletopia, her home in Sonoma Valley, California.

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