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Dogs are in the hunt for truffles: Pigs no longer the go-to detector

Norman Byrd's picture

Pigs are legendary truffle detectives, accompanying truffle hunters for centuries and helping them root out what has become the world's most expensive food item. But dogs are being trained to sniff out the desired product and have several advantages over the truffle-detecting porkers, likely putting most pigs out of a job.

Dogs are man's best friends, it's been said ad nauseum. But what if your particular lazy mutt could also be trained to sniff out the world's most expensive food items -- truffles? Not only would your dog be your best friend, the hairy beast would likely become worth several times its weight in gold (and a bag of dog biscuits).

Dog trainers -- especially those skilled in training canines to track and sniff out particular scents -- are branching out from the usually blood and drugs regimens that are the usual detection specialties of dogs. Some, like Glenn Martyn, a man who has trained dogs since 1966, has moved into truffle detection. According to Modern Farmer, Martyn has trained dogs to sniff out things as esoteric as bombs and even smoldering woodchip fires before they break out into actual infernos (of particular use to sawmills). But he's also training dogs now how to hunt for those particular fungi that are in demand by gourmands and gastronomes.

“The truffle, per se, is not something a dog would naturally search for on its own,” Martyn admits. “The truffle has to have some association with something. For most dogs, that positive association is food, and once a dog learns the truffle smell means food, they’ll do whatever it takes to find that truffle smell.”

Of course, rewards for dogs doesn't always have to focus on food. Rewards can be anything from playing with a dog to giving it access to its favorite toy.

Pigs have been the go-to truffle detectives for centuries, though. So why are dogs supplanting them in the hunting business?

Charles Lefevre, president and founder of New World Truffieres and organizer of the annual Oregon Truffle Festival, lists multiple reasons why dogs have surpassed pigs as fungi hunters: One: they have more stamina than most pigs; Two: easier to train; Three: dogs are far less likely to attempt eating the truffle after it is found. And possibly the most important consideration: Four: dogs won't take off your fingers when they're tempted to challenge you for a truffle.

Truffle hunting has become quite the pastime in Oregon. And why not? As noted on CBS' news magazine "60 Minutes," where truffle hunters were featured moving along behind their trained dogs, truffles have been cultivated but with only limited success. So the bulk of the product is found growing in the wild. Reporter Leslie Stahl noted that the hunters acted as if they were "mining for gold."

And they might as well be. European truffles can go for up to as much as $3,600 per pound. But the demand grows as the supply seems to have diminished, not to mention the quality of those truffles on the market. But their rarity can fetch as steep price as well. One two-pound white truffle sold for $330,000 in 2007.

But as people like Martyn train more dogs and more hunters scour the woodlands for the elusive and expensive fungus, they may not worry as much about their hands these days as they do their lives. Night hunters, the greedy, and the inconsiderate have taken to the woods with rakes, leaving their destructive marks over acres of land in search of truffles. They're known as "tweakers," mostly for the obvious reason that many of them are methamphetamine addicts in search of quick money. Legitimate truffle hunters have to be wary of the danger when confronting the desperate, not to mention those moving across land where they are trespassers.

But in that regard, dogs would most likely have a fifth advantage over their porcine rivals: Guardian.

So... truffle hunting may not be without its dangers, but it could prove to be highly lucrative. And perhaps old Fido laying over there in the far corner might be able to learn at least one new trick... you know, to help his best friend pad his retirement account.

(photo credit: K. Korlevic, Wikimedia Commons)