You might have seen, or more likely, smelled truffles being shaved delicately over pasta at an upscale restaurant. The valuable fungus, which grows underground near the trunks of trees, is prized for its earthy flavor and has become a point of pride on fine dining menus, signaling indulgence and luxury.
The truffle’s road from the ground to your plate is possible thanks to dogs.
Like dogs that sniff out drugs, human remains, and elephant ivory, truffle dogs are trained to find the underground fungi. The most prized truffle-hunting breed is the Lagatto Romagnolo, a curly-haired water retriever originating in Italy and often bred specifically for truffle hunting, but just about any dog can be trained. It’s basic conditioning, experts say: Let the dog smell the truffle, then link that scent to a reward. (Learn more about how sniffer dogs are trained.)
Photographer David Williams chronicled the quest for truffle-hunting glory at this year’s fifth annual Joriad American Truffle Dog Championship in Eugene, Oregon. Part of an annual festival celebrating the state’s abundant supply of truffles, it’s North America’s only truffle dog competition. In three rounds, dogs are tested on their ability to pick up the distinct umami truffle scent by digging through receptacles that contained hidden hides scented with truffle oil. From there, five dogs advance to a round in an enclosed area of Oregon’s dense woods, where they sniff out as many truffles as they can in a set amount of time. When time’s up, the dog who’s found the most truffles wins.
This year, Joey, a 9-year-old Labrador retriever rescue, took the top prize after finding 10 truffles in the final stage. Last year’s victor was a rescue Chihuahua named Gustave, who found 17 truffles in the woods. These dogs aren’t professionals, but getting to this stage took practice and training.
It was this partnership between owner and pet piqued Williams’ interest. One participant told Williams that he’d trained his dog in his backyard using truffle oil. “Any dog can hunt truffles,” Williams says. “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.
"It’s true that most of the people training at this point are hobbyists, but there are more and more professionals and we’re counting on that to lay the groundwork for the industry,” says Charles LeFevre, a mycologist and co-founder of the Oregon Truffle Festival, which hosts the competition.
Possibly as far as the Roman Empire, pigs were the animals of choice for truffle hunting because of their natural digging ability and the similarity of the truffle’s distinct scent to a sex pheromone in boar saliva. Pigs eventually lost favor though because they drew attention to the hunt and tended to consume their prizes. Dogs are more suited to finding the crop because they have no interest in eating them and are more easily controlled. Dogs have as many as 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, to Michael Nappier of the Virginia Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine told PetMD, and dogs with longer noses tend to smell better.
It’s also possible to harvest truffles by raking the ground near where they’re growing, but the lack of precision can lead to a less valuable yield by turning up immature truffles that won’t ripen and can’t be used.
Growing truffles is a tricky business, as the delicate spores depend on highly specific soil conditions to thrive. It can take years to grow them. The most prized varieties from truffle meccas such as Périgord, France, and Alba, Italy, can fetch more than $2,000 per pound. (Learn about where to go truffle hunting in France.)
Oregon’s damp, heavily-forested landscape makes it one of the best places in the U.S. to grow truffles, and four of the state’s most sought-after culinary varieties are the Oregon winter white, Oregon black, Oregon spring white, and the Oregon brown. They can sell for as much as $800 a pound.
Keeping up with the athletic animals was a feat Williams was prepared for. How does a photographer get the shot needed while tracking dogs in a dense, wooded area?
“It was one of the more challenging things I’ve ever photographed,” Williams said. “The one piece of advice I was given by someone is don’t go look for another dog, stay with one person and that dog, until you see another dog or else you’re going to spend another 30 minutes just wandering around in the forest looking for another person and their dog.”
He aimed to cover all five dogs within the hour-long competition. “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.”