This morning at the Napa Truffle Festival, Alana McGee, founder of Truffle Dog Company gave a talk on training truffle dogs. But first she explained the pig vs. dog dilemma for truffle hunting. Domestic animals are critical to harvesting truffles. The best way to know a truffle is ripe and ready to harvest is from the aroma that it gives off. Any harvested before or after this aromatic time will have very little value-and dogs and pigs can smell the subterranean fungi.
Pigs have been traditionally used to hunt truffles. This is because they have an excellent sense of smell and are beckoned to the truffle, as they contain androstenol, a sex hormone found in the saliva of male pigs. (Females are used to hunt). It’s also found in human sweat glands, which is perhaps why they are considered an aphrodisiac for humans as well. The problem is that pigs like to eat truffles, and many a French truffle hunter is missing digits from trying to retrieve one from a lusty swine’s mouth. Though, they also like all other food, and can be convinced to give the truffle up. However, pigs can cause a lot of damage to the terrain, and so they have been outlawed in Italy for hunting truffles. Though, according to Alana, there’s a pig truffle hunting competition in France each year, so it’s alive and well there. The other problematic issues around pigs and truffle hunting is that when you’re out in the woods with your pig, everyone knows what you are doing. And all mushroom hunters want secrecy. And final issue is fitting a 400 pound pig in your car. They just aren’t that mobile.
So dogs are the more popular choice for truffle hunting. Alana explained that virtually all dogs can be trained to hunt truffles-they all experience the world through scent. It’s her job to train them to find truffles, and the key to this is scent and positive rewards. They smell a truffle, they get a treat. She even showed a picture of a 13 year-old corgi who had just found its first truffle. Her advice is that the size of the orchard and the conditions should influence the breed. A chihuahua can’t cover a lot of territory, but a golden retriever can. A sheep dog will get distracted if sheep are nearby.
The breed used by Italians for truffle hunting is an Lagotto Romagnolo, a breed of water dog that dates back to Etruscan times. There are three this year at the festival: Rico (short for Enrico Bacio il Tartufaio), Mila and Lolo. Both Rico and Mila were raised in the traditional Italian way-with truffle oil put on their mother’s nipple while they nursed. This afternoon, the festival hosted a visit to Robert Sinskey Vineyards, where the dogs demonstrated their skills. It takes a truffle orchard 5 to 7 years to produce truffles, and these were planted in 2010. Anticipation is growing. It’s not yet ready to be harvested, so truffles were buried for the dogs to find. They zig-zagged the terrain, noses to the ground, and started to dig when they found something. Lots of other dogs were out there, interested in the treats that the truffle dogs were getting as part of their training.