What Are Truffles?
You may be familiar with the “edible gold” known as the truffle, a rich and earthy type of fungus that is considered to be a culinary delight all around the world. These tasty bulbs are known for their distinct umami and versatility in the kitchen, making them an exquisite addition to any dish. The only problem? Truffles can be hard to come by. They grow in a very specific temperate climate, and can take over a decade to cultivate. This rarity makes them all the more of an exclusive delicacy, hence their hefty price.
On top of all this, truffles need to be specially sought out. But a human cannot do it alone. If they stand any chance in successfully foraging these rare finds, they will need assistance from man’s best friend.
Why Can’t Humans Hunt Truffles On Their Own?
A truffle is one of the most pleasant tasting fungi out there, but you would never guess that from its appearance. These subterranean treats are dark and clumpy, and tend to camouflage in the dirt. The human eye is not trained to see them, nor is the human nose fit to sniff them out. But a good dog will have no problem locating truffles.
When truffles reach their peak of ripeness, they emit an earthy aroma that is both pleasant and pungent, indicating that they are ready to be harvested.
Truffle Hogs Vs. Truffle Hounds
The tradition of using hogs to hunt for truffles dates back centuries. Pigs are born with an inclination to forage, and are already naturally familiar with the musky scent of truffles. This can be a good thing and a bad thing. On the upside, scent training is not necessary, since the pig is already drawn to the truffle. On the downside though, as much as pigs love to hunt for truffles, they also love to eat them. Not only is it difficult to get between a hog and his truffle, but attempts to wrestle it away could also be dangerous.
Unlike hogs, hounds do not have the same natural penchant toward truffles and must be trained to detect the scent. But you can feel secure in knowing that they do not tend to eat their findings, making them a more popular truffle hunting companion in recent decades.
The Best Dog Breeds for Truffle Hunting
Most dogs enjoy a good hunt, and see it as an opportunity for a playful challenge resulting in yummy treats. But there are certain breeds that are better suited for truffle hunting than others.
The Lagotto Romagnolo is an Italian water retriever. They were originally bred in Italy as waterfowl retrievers, but are now bred as the top truffle hunting canine. These curly-coated dogs may be super cute, but don’t let that fool you. They are extremely hard workers. They also have an exceptional sense of smell, making them ideal for picking up the subtle aroma of the truffle.
Golden Retrievers are known for being easily trainable. A perfect mix of playful and intelligent, their good natured attitude is sure to guarantee a delightful truffle hunting experience for the both of you.
The Belgian Malinois is sometimes used as a police dog because he is easy to train and extremely intelligent–two of the most necessary traits for hunting truffles.
The Beagle is a natural-born hunter and forager, making them an ideal truffle hunting companion. Did you know that a beagle’s nose contains over 200 million scent receptors, while humans only have 5 million?
The German Wire-Haired Pointer was originally bred for a wide array of hunting. Today, they continue to live up to their reputation. As their name implies, their wiry coats are durable for all sorts of messy adventures.
The Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen was originally bred for hunting rabbits. Nicknamed the “happy breed”, this French pooch is sure to enjoy the hunt with his best friend as his guide.
Gordon Setters are a breed known for their heightened alertness and fierce loyalty, two very important qualities in a truffle hunting partner. These athletic pups will benefit greatly from a woodsy excursion.
Any Dog Can Be a Truffle Dog
But you don’t have to own one of these specific breeds to go truffle hunting with your pooch. Really, any dog can be trained to hunt truffles, if they have the right disposition. The best truffle dogs are the ones who are active, independent, and excited to learn new things. Does this sound like your dog? If so, he may be a great candidate for truffle training. The secret to success is having a good relationship with your dog. When approached with the right attitude, truffle hunting can be a bonding experience for you and your pup.
Can I Train My Dog to Find Truffles?
There are several companies out there that will train your dog in the art of truffle hunting, though these programs tend to be expensive. Fortunately, truffle training can also be performed at home. If you and your pup have the patience and are up for the challenge, you can train for your very own truffle hunting adventure.
First, you’ll want to start building the association in your pup’s brain between the smell of fresh truffles and a reward.
While it is best to use real truffles in training, they are expensive and may not always be readily available, so truffle oil will do just fine.
Start by covering a ball with truffle oil, and placing it around your yard for your dog to retrieve. Every time he successfully sniffs out the ball, reward him with a treat. Gradually, hide the ball in more difficult spots, and eventually, begin to bury it underground. Once he masters the buried ball, he is ready for the real hunt.
Some pups are bred since birth to hunt for truffles. While it's true that truffle training is easier with puppies than adults, it is possible to teach an old dog new tricks with patience, persistence, and a whole lot of encouragement.
An Important Message on Canine Safety
In Italy, there have been reported cases of truffle dogs ingesting poisonous material while on the hunt. This is the terrifying consequence of the “truffle wars” among territorial truffle hunters who seek to wipe out the competition at the tragic cost of man’s best friend. Even though these occurrences may not be happening where you live, it is your responsibility to ensure your pet’s safety on these excursions. Be attentive to his needs and to your surroundings. Always keep your dog on a retractable leash to prevent him from getting lost or chasing after another animal. And most importantly, ensure that your dog is in proper health and up for the task. The training and hunting process should never be something that is stressful or unpleasant for your furry friend.
Bringing Your Dog on a Truffle Hunt
In the United States, truffles can most commonly be found in Northern California, Oregon, and Washington. Be sure to do your research on designated areas for truffle hunting and the best time to go. With his nose to the ground, your truffle dog will easily be able to sniff out that special scent. When he locates it, he will alert you in whatever way you have trained him. For most dogs, this means pawing at the spot where the truffle is buried, but it could also mean barking or lightly digging.
Keep in mind that while some dogs may be trained to begin digging up the truffle, it is best for you to complete the majority of this step, as truffles are extremely delicate, and aggressive digging can lead to damage for both the truffle and its growing environment.
Once you’ve collected your truffles, you must either use or sell them as soon as possible, since most will spoil in one to two weeks. For recipes and tips on how to get the most out of your truffles, see Cooking with Truffles.
Where Can I Purchase Truffles?
You don’t have to train your own truffle dog to enjoy this exquisite delicacy of a fungus. Fresh truffles are available for purchase online through a number of professional carriers. Kolikof Caviar and Gourmet Foods proudly carries a variety of both black and white truffles that change with the seasons. You can count on Kolikof to ship only the freshest truffles on the market. And yes, our truffles are hunted by dogs!
For more information on truffles, see Truffles: The Ultimate Guide.