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truffle dog

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truffle dog

Postby admin » Sat Apr 25, 2015 11:33 am


It’s hard to find a crop more valuable than truffles — prices can go as high as $2,000 per pound for ultra-rare white Alba truffles. The problem is that they grow underground, attached to the roots of trees. To find them, truffle hunters traditionally used pigs, whose natural instinct for rooting behavior helped hunters locate the fancy fungi.

But in reality, pigs have long been out of favor for hunting truffles. Replacing them? The truffle dog. And in Oregon, the truffle-hunting dog scene has absolutely exploded.

Charles Lefevre, president and founder of New World Truffieres and organizer of the annual Oregon Truffle Festival, points out multiple reasons why dogs have surpassed pigs. One, they have more stamina than your average porker. Two, they’re easier to train. Three, dogs are much less likely to try to eat the truffle once they find it. You don’t want to wrestle with a 300-pound hog when it’s interested in chowing down on a truffle. “The lore,” says Lefevre, “is that truffle hunters that use pigs don’t tend to have all their fingers.”

But the real competitive advantage for canines lies in truffle hunting’s furtive nature. Truffle harvesting grounds are carefully kept secrets, with hunters being wildly protective of their turf. “If you have a pig on a leash, everyone knows what you’re doing,” says Lefevre. But if you spot someone with a pooch on a leash, they could just be enjoying some fresh country air.

There is, of course, one thing pigs do have over dogs: They don’t need any training to find truffles. Dogs need a little help.

Which is where guys like Glenn Martyn step in. Martyn, who has trained dogs since 1966, has helped mold canines into everything from bomb and drug-sniffing dogs to canines employed by saw mills to detect smoldering woodchip fires before they break out into full-on infernos. It’s only been in recent years that he’s branched out into truffle dog work, but he finds the principles are much the same.

“The truffle, per se, is not something a dog would naturally search for on its own,” says Martyn. “The truffle has to have some association with something. For most dogs, that positive association is food, and once a dog learns the truffle smell means food, they’ll do whatever it takes to find that truffle smell.” (Other reward methods besides food can work too — a game of tug-of-war, a favorite toy, even just the act of digging can be enough to motivate a dog. Marytn’s truffle dog Ghillie, a 5-year-old English Springer Spaniel, is rewarded by a game of fetch.)

In practice, this means first coating an item in truffle oil and having the dog find it. Then the item is buried under leaves, then rocks, and then actual soil. Eventually an actual ripe truffle is introduced. Et voila: You have a truffle-hunting dog.

The work is a natural fit for dogs and handlers who have been trained in another canine art form: search and rescue. Truffle dog owner Deb Walker spent 12 years training and working with search-and-rescue animals. The thrill of finding someone lost in the wilderness was hard to match, but the lifestyle was rough. “Most of the call-outs are 10:00 or 11:00 pm on a Sunday night. You grab your gear and your dog, and you drive a couple of hours,” Walker says. “You search until five in the morning and you’re exhausted and maybe you find someone. Or you don’t.”

As retirement loomed, Walker began to think of ways to spend her time that didn’t involve late nights and very early mornings. A friend’s suggestion led her into truffle hunting, and Deb now spends her days searching for white and black Oregon truffles through 8,000 acres of timberland with her standard poodle, Tucker. (Tucker’s reward for finding a ripe truffle: a favorite blue rubber ball.)

Walker currently keeps the truffles for herself and friends, as well as for training other truffle-hunting dogs. Her husband, meanwhile, has become quite adept at turning her fresh treasures into truffle oil, but they’re waiting to jump through a few more regulatory loopholes before they begin selling to the public. When they do, the planned name is Tucker’s Truffle Oil.
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