In the rarified world of truffles, Oregon is known as the center of research and expertise outside of Europe. The 6th annual Oregon Truffle Festival, held recently in Eugene, gave the public a chance to immerse themselves in the unique world of truffles, and the emerging popularity of training dogs to hunt them.
Pet people turned out in droves for a special component of the event — a truffle dog lecture and demonstration. During the lecture by Jim Sanford, a trainer at Blackberry Farm in Walland, TN, Sanford described the journey that led him to training truffle dogs, which included 20 years as an elephant trainer.
Sanford likes the Italian canine breed Lagotta Romangnolo, which was actually bred to hunt truffles. But, he quickly points out, the superior nose of most any dog is up to the task. Certainly any dog will be a superior truffle hunter over a man with a rake!
Sanford says Oregon, and Portland in particular, have “a tremendous truffle . . . actually several tremendous truffles.” Better still, he says, “truffles native to the Willamette Valley stand up to any in Europe.”
Once of ill repute, Sanford says the Oregon truffle earned that reputation due to the very simple fact that people were picking them at every stage of development — and only ripe truffles are rich in flavor. An unripe truffle may as well be a potato,” he says.
Wonder why have dogs eclipsed pigs as the preferred truffle hunter? It’s partly because those who cultivate truffles like to keep their location secret, and the sight of a man strolling with a pig is much more striking — not to mention suggestive of the mission — than a man walking with a dog.
The three basic steps to training a dog to hunt truffles, says Sanford, are:
1. Imprint the scent (Jim likes Clicker Training). The dog learns ‘I smell the truffle, I hear a sound, I get a treat.’
2. Stand the dog atop a buried truffle (preferably in a tube so the smell ends with the lesson). The dog puts his nose down, gets a treat.
3. The last step is getting the dog to signal a find, such as scratching the ground over it. Because the dog has been treated when detecting the truffle, later if the treat is withheld at that point the dog is likely to paw the ground in frustration. THEN he gets a big reward.
Sanford’s lecture was followed by a demo, part of which was used to prove that you can teach an old dog new tricks. Trainer Kelly Slocum of NW Truffle Dogs introduced her canine companion, Joe, age six. A search and rescue dog, Joe has been hunting truffles for just six months. Still, he found all the buried truffle targets in the designated area — quite an accomplishment considering the field had previously been used as a doggy bathroom.
Slocum uses high-value treats and lots of praise to encourage Joe, and loves to work with all kinds of dogs. She says even brachycephalic dogs, such as Pugs, can learn.
Truffle dog training enhances the human-animal connection, and can enrich the lives of both pets and their people.
“NW Truffle Dogs will come to your farm with truffle dogs in training and turn over all of the finds in exchange for the use of your property for training,” says Slocum.
NW Truffle Dogs is located in Oregon City, OR. For details on private classes or spring training, contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org or 503-516-4236. To learn more about Jim Sanford and Blackberry farm visit www.friendsofblackberryfarm.com.
Megan Mahan lives with visiting foster animals, quite a few fish, and her boyfriend in Eugene, Oregon. She is excited to now be with Spot full time, and devotes much of her free time to fostering pets and creative writing. From her high school gig as Dog Bather to her more recent years working at the Santa Cruz SPCA where she was contributing editor of the newsletter, Megan has always lived, loved and worked with animals.