Meet America’s Next Top Truffle Dogs

Charles Lefevre is bragging about his dog. “Dante loves to hump,” he says, “but I think he might like truffles even more.”

Dante is a dog worth bragging about: a professional truffle hunter. He’s a lagotto Romagnolo, an Italian breed known for its soft, tight curls and knack for mushroom-sniffing. He was bred from America’s finest, and trained to sniff out the rife and ripe truffles hiding in Oregon’s forest soil. He is, from all accounts, a Very Good Boy. But he’s not here to corroborate that, because Dante is a professional, and we’re here today to watch amateurs.

We are standing in a large dirt-floored building usually reserved for horse shows, at the second annual Joriad Truffle Dog Championship in Eugene, Oregon. Lefevre and his wife, Leslie Scott, have organized this event as part of the 10th annual Oregon Truffle Festival. Dogs of all breeds and sizes and levels of expertise will compete to see who is best at finding truffles, starting indoors with synthetic scents, on day one. Those who succeed will move on to the finals on day two, which take place in the forest.

It’s all very, very cute — like the Puppy Bowl, but on a larger scale, in real life, and set against the muted tones of the Pacific Northwest. The narrators are not well-trained Animal Planet commentators, but enthusiastic boomers who love dogs and woods and own a lot of rainproof pants.

The majority of Oregon truffles are harvested using rakes, a method that both disturbs the soil (along with the invisible mycorrhizal network that truffles spring from) and often unearths more low-quality, immature truffles than ripe ones. Dogs (or pigs), on the other hand, can smell ripeness and pick out only the truffles that are ready, so their gentle noses are better for Earth and tastebuds alike.

The Joriad, like the rest of the festival, exists to boost the price and reputation of dog-harvested Oregon truffles so that they can better compete with European imports. But what’s actually going on here feels as far removed from big business as you can get. The whole thing has the vibe of a small-town event, all fresh chilly air blowing through the place and everyone chatting at folding craft tables. Outside, the sky switches between pouring rain and sun.

We stand around and watch contestants trickle in, dogs on leashes receiving star-athlete levels of welcome. Stella, a lagotto Romagnolo who placed in second last year, gets what could be considered call a standing ovation if everyone weren’t already standing. The spectators — maybe 60 of them — take their seats, and the emcee announces the first competitor. Oh, right: There’s an emcee.

The first event is the Truffle Odor Recognition Trial, or TORT to those in the know. The dogs inspect a line of bins filled with dirt, and their owners hope that they find the things that have been spritzed with truffle oil. Each dog has its own style: Some trot swiftly, their noses never lifting more than an inch or two from the ground, like a particularly agile vacuum. Some bob their snouts up and down, looking ahead and then at the ground, stopping to sniff at each bin. Some dogs run in efficient straight lines and some twirl in circles. These tendencies don’t seem to determine success.

The first victories are small thrills to watch. When a dog finds a fake truffle — or thinks they have — they wag their tail, looking back up at their owner in both statement and question: “I think I got it? Did I get it? I get a treat?” The owner puts a hand or a fist up in the air and decisively yells: “TRUFFLE!” A judge comes over and decides. If they’re lucky, there’s a similarly loud confirmation: “TRUFFLE!” And the crowd cheers gamely. It’s a very modest form of suspense.

Over the weekend in Eugene and its mossy green environs, I am surrounded by a unique and enthusiastic mixed breed of Dog People and Mushroom People. These are not the high-strung, type-A sort of dog people satirized in Christopher Guest’s Best in Show, but the sort that treat dogs like children, and as such seek out hobbies they can share with their four-legged little ones. Likewise, their interest in truffles is not snobbery, or the kind of secretive obsession you might associate with professional foragers. It’s more just a happy accident of living in Oregon — one of the few places in the United States where cultivated truffles thrive — and wanting something to do outdoors with a beloved pet.

“It’s casual. It’s country,” says Cynde Denny, whose frontrunner Alba — a lagotto Romagnolo — strikes out in the first round.

I’ve never been to Westminster, but I’ve seen it on TV; even for spectators it seems like an environment thick with stress. This is Westminster on legalized recreational marijuana, plus a scenery change and an attitude check. Training a dog to hunt truffles isn’t an act of taming or perfecting; it’s all about encouraging them, and giving them an outlet for their natural talents (sniffing! seeking! getting muddy!). If a truffle comes along, that’s a nice bonus.

You may also like...