Sometimes called “edible gold,” truffles are likely part of some of your favorite gourmet dishes. But did you know that dogs can be trained to hunt for them? Commonly found from Northern California up throughout Washington and into British Columbia, truffles are fungi that grow at the base of trees. As hard as they are to find, some trained dogs are extremely skilled in detecting them. Truffle hunting is plentiful in the Pacific Northwest, and there’s even a truffle hunting dog competition during the annual two-day Oregon Truffle Festival.
Lisa Brosnan is a dog trainer at The Truffle UnderGround and breeder of Lagotti Romagnoli. She and her two dogs, Gnocchi and Cremini, are regular truffle hunters. The Lagotto Romagnolo is a medium-sized, curly-coated dog from Italy specifically bred in part for truffle hunting. This unique, scent-driven activity can be a lot of fun for dogs and handlers alike.
“Truffle hunting brings together the three loves of my life: working with dogs, being in nature, and eating great food!” explains Brosnan.
Getting Started With Truffle Hunting
Brosnan hasn’t always spent her time in the forest hunting truffles. She first became aware that truffles exist in the Pacific Northwest about eight years ago. She’d been considering a job in a remote part of Washington State and was wondering what to do there on days off. At the same time, Brosnan was considering her next breed after her smart and spunky Puli passed away.
“Through my research on breeds, I found the Lagotto Romagnolo, a dog of similar size and temperament as a Puli, but without the excessive hair,” says Brosnan. “My Lagotto research led to my discovery of truffles in the Pacific Northwest, and everything fell into place.”
Nowadays, Brosnan and her dogs not only search for truffles but also teach others the technique. On a good day, in a good spot, they’ll find about a pound in an hour, estimates Brosnan. A truffle hunt usually involves a few hours of searching out in the field with playtime breaks for the dogs. Brosnan describes a typical truffle search as “rainy and muddy, and the most fun you’ll ever have in the woods.”
Once she pulls her boots out, Brosnan’s dogs are ready to go. They usually drive about 20-30 miles to get to their truffle spots, and only hunt on private land with the permission of the landowners. Many of the truffles that Brosnan’s dogs find get used for teaching other dogs to find truffles. Some truffles get used in her own cooking, while others go to local chefs.
Born To Search
Brosnan’s dogs love the search for truffles. She proudly explains that Gnocchi knows just what to do once the pair gets into the woods.
“She puts her nose down and sniffs so loud, you can hear her a few yards away,” says Brosnan. “When she finds a truffle, she’ll indicate exactly where it is by gently pawing the ground. If I miss it, I’ll ask her to show me, and she’ll paw the ground again with impatience.”
Truffle dogs are usually rewarded for each find with treats. But Brosnan notes that sometimes they’re so eager to keep hunting that they move right on to the next spot without waiting. Brosnan starts her truffle dogs practically from birth. She makes immediate connections for the puppies with the scent of truffles early on.
“I am fortunate to be breeding my own truffle dogs,” she says. “Starting at three days of age, I create positive associations with the scent for my puppies by rubbing truffle oil on mom’s belly.”
As the puppies get older and start moving around, Brosnan incorporates truffles into other enrichment activities. She starts by putting truffles into a container for the puppies to chase. At five weeks old, her puppies begin searching for the truffle container, which Brosnan buries slightly near trees, mimicking how truffles grow.
“The important thing is to keep it fun,” advises Brosnan, who explained that the puppies think of this as a game and have no idea they are learning.
Truffle Hunting Training
Brosnan introduces truffle dogs to the scent using positive reinforcement clicker training. She pairs the scent with a click to mark the find, then rewards. Most dogs catch on to the game quite quickly.
“The sequence is: sniff, click, treat,” explains Brosnan. “You can add a command like ‘truffle’ after they realize that the scent of truffle equals treat.”
As the dogs progress in their training, they will develop an alert, such as barking, sitting down, or gently digging. This is done so the handler knows the dog has found truffles. As dogs gain experience, distractions are introduced to mimic what truffle hunting dogs experience when searching in the woods, like distracting scents, gunshots, and other animals.
Truffle Hunting Breeds
Your dog doesn’t need to have been introduced to the scent of truffles at birth to be a successful truffle hunter. Brosnan notes that in her experience teaching, the best truffle dogs are ones who are curious, independent, biddable, and food motivated. Those traits can be found in a variety of breeds or mixed breed dogs. She offers introductory and advanced truffle searching classes and leads students with their dogs on truffle searches. Although the Lagotto Romagnolo is especially skilled at truffle hunting, many breeds of dogs are able to be trained to do the job well. However, notes Brosnan, some breeds have different challenges than others.
“Terriers are easily distracted,” she affirms. “Hounds often have another agenda (like rabbits). Sighthounds do not ordinarily keep their nose on the ground. Short-snouted dogs have an obvious disadvantage, but still have a sense of smell much greater than ours. Essentially, all can be trained with patience and positive reinforcement.”
While you may not be a Lagotto owner in the truffle-rich Pacific Northwest, truffle hunting can be learned by just about any dog. With a little training, your dog might be on their way to helping put a delicious dinner on the table on your next truffle hunting excursion.