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Local Dogs Earn Their Keep Sniffing Out Truffles

TURNER, Ore. - When a dog finds its first truffle -- the fungus, not the chocolate candy -- the sound you hear will most likely be the voice of a very excited dog handler.

And you might be as excited as Mia MacCollin of Bend if your pet showed an aptitude to find buried treasure. And treasure it is. The native Oregon white truffle can fetch several hundred dollars per pound at retail.

Restaurant chefs and gourmands are discovering that you don't have to spend a fortune on French or Italian truffles. Fine truffles to accent a special meal can be foraged in the wild right here in the Northwest. But it takes a good nose to locate a ripe truffle in the ground. For that you need a "truffle dog," which conveniently, are now being trained locally.

MacCollin and her black lab mix named "Boston" are finishing a two day course in truffle foraging at a Douglas fir plantation south of Salem. The course was offered in conjunction with the Oregon Truffle Festival.  MacCollin and 15 other owners have each paid nearly $600 to attend.

In France, truffle hunters historically relied on the keen noses of pigs. Italy is home to a special breed of truffle dog. But in this country, a small cadre of dog trainers and truffle lovers are promoting the use of all sorts of breeds.

"We had poodles. We had a pit bull. We had a labradoodle. We had a papillon (a toy spaniel), couple of labs, a golden retriever, " says Trainer Deb Walker.

She says a dog sure beats a clumsy rake to uncover truffles. But it can take up to a year to fully train a truffle dog. Although as we're seeing here, some can pick up the basics in a matter of days.

"It's easy to teach a dog the truffle scent and to find it," Walker says. "The hard part is teaching the dog to tell you when he's found it, not to eat it when he's found it, to keep working for an hour or two."

Truffle lovers have difficulty describing the earthy allure of the forest fruit. The underground mushrooms can range from the size of a pea to a golf ball. They remind Gold Beach, Oregon chef and tree farm owner Janet Snazuk of the nuances of fine wine.

"The taste is like nothing that you've ever experienced. It's got an oil that permeates and stays with you. It's exotic."

Snazuk says her husband paid the training course tuition as a present to her and her big black guard dog. It sounds like a present that could reap dividends.

"My hopes are that I can take her on my woodlot that is managed like this and has duff like this and go find truffles just for me," Snazuk says. "Not to sell, not to have a business. Just for me and my husband and some select friends."

Most of the dog owners here along with Snazuk say they're trying this for recreation.

Instructor Jim Sanford uses Italian commands, in honor of his Italian truffle dog "Tom." Sanford, of Tennessee's Blackberry Farm, foresees growing demand for trained K-9's.

"The truffle industry -- if you can call it that -- here in the Northwest, we've barely scratched the surface," he says. "There's a huge abundance of truffles and there will be a huge need for truffle dogs. I think it's going to get exponentially more popular."

In fact, growing interest in the culinary delight has spawned a variety of new farm and canine enterprises in the Northwest. Professional harvester Alana McGee of Seattle estimates about 50 landowners have planted "European-style" truffle plantations around the region over the past decade. Her own business to serve them is called Toil & Truffle.

One of the earliest truffle-related businesses to crop up in the region is New World Truffieres in Eugene. It sells orchard seedlings inoculated with European truffle spores. Owner Charles Lefevre describes a conservation and quality motive for wanting to build a tradition of using dogs in the U.S.

"Oregon truffles have developed a poor reputation over the years, mainly because chefs perceive them as 'weak,' but I don’t think anyone will use that word to describe the truffles that the dogs find," writes Lefevre in an email.

"Unfortunately, most truffle harvesters in the Pacific Northwest use rakes to find them, which doesn’t allow the harvester to discriminate between those that are ripe and those that should have been left in the ground for another few weeks."

Unripe truffles that are dug up accidentally don't ripen if they are put back in the ground. So they basically go to waste. Animals ignore immature truffles because they don't emit any aroma.

In the Northwest, truffles grow under young Douglas fir, hazelnut and oak trees where there's little or no groundcover. The native Oregon white truffle occurs from northern California to British Columbia west of the Cascade Range.

On the Web:

5 Recipes From The Oregon Truffle Festival (WBUR -- Here and Now)
Truffle Madness (Jefferson Public Radio)
Oregon Truffle Festival
North American Truffling Society

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.