Adorning plates at some of the finest restaurants, truffles are a prized accompaniment to dishes despite their high price tag. Dogs are trained to sniff out the black gold, which grows on tree roots buried beneath the soil. They’ve become sought-after hunters for the earthy nuggets, with the North American Truffle Dog Championships, part of the Oregon Truffle Festival, taking place in the United States every August. Truffles sell for upwards of $200USD, and one breed particularly well known for their truffle-hunting ability is the lagotto romagnolo, a water retriever of Italian heritage. Although truffle hunting conjures images of pigs, the animal is rarely used due to their tendency to devour the truffles – not exactly ideal for truffle harvesters.
In the North American Championships, dogs of any breed or size can win. Last year a chihuahua cross called Gustave took out the competition. “He will do anything that you want him to that will get him something to eat,” said owner Marci Tippmann in an interview with CBS. Dogs are rewarded with treats, of course, while their owners are rewarded with a championship win.
The rules for the Championships are simple: 24 four-legged contestants sniff their way between rows of boxes with hidden truffle-scented targets to uncover. The top five fastest dogs in the first and second rounds make it into the finale – a forest hunt in Eugene, Oregon, known as the top place in the USA for truffle hunting. The winning dog is the one that sniffs out the most truffles during the allocated time period.
The Championships also coincides with a two-day seminar for dogs that are just starting their truffle-hunting careers, similar to puppy school. The training is surprisingly easy: smell the truffle, get a treat, repeat. Eventually the dog associates the treat with the truffle, before the owners turn to real-life truffle hunting. The second day of training is a little more daunting for the novice pups and involves a forest hunt.
The official photographer for the event, David Williams, spoke to National Geographic regarding the importance of dogs in truffle hunting and about how the industry is changing for the future. “Any dog can hunt truffles. I was mostly interested in the dogs and what they do and how they’re utilized in this because they’re kind of the key ingredient to this industry,” Williams said. “Once the dog picked up on the scent of the truffle, there’s not much that can distract it, but I did try to keep my distance because it was a competition and I didn’t want to get in the way of the action.”
Think your best friend is beyond playing fetch? Perhaps they have a future in truffle hunting.