Planting inoculated trees and getting truffles to grow underground is the major focus of truffle cultivation. But those efforts would be meaningless without the ability to locate the truffles once they are produced.
In truffle lore, that task used to fall to trained pigs, which like truffles as much or more than humans do, and are happy to seek them out. But pigs are, well, pigs. They don’t like to share, and once they find a truffle, they aren’t happy parting with it.
So truffle hunters long ago switched to dogs, whose sensitive noses can accurately sniff out truffles buried six inches below the earth. And it’s all a game to them. Once they find a truffle, they are happy to point it out to their handler and collect a (non-truffle) treat.
Five canine truffle hunters showed off their skills at Robert Sinskey Vineyards’ Truffle Orchard Friday in a demonstration that was part of the 2016 Truffle Festival. The five-year-old orchard is not yet producing truffles of its own, so Alana McGee from the Truffle Dog Company instead planted small vials, each containing a very small piece of truffle, at the base of some of the trees.
Gig, a beautiful English shepherd that also works as a search and rescue dog, took off across the plot and was soon indicating the vials’ locations. The other four dogs looked jealously on until they got their chance to play and find the prizes. Rico, Lolo, Tony and Mila were all examples of the Lagotto Romagnolo breed — the adorable hunting dog with big soulful eyes and a tightly curled coat that is the traditional truffle dog in Italy.
In a talk during the Scientific Grower Truffle Cultivation Seminar at the Westin Verasa that continued at Sinskey Vineyards, Alana gave the basics of dog scent training and explained that almost any dog — including your pet — can be trained to hunt truffles. And apparently, you can teach an older dog that particular new trick. It’s not necessary to start with a puppy, though training can take up to a year, so you’ll get more return from a younger dog who can offer you years of happy hunting.
And did you know, a dog’s wet nose is particularly valuable, as the moisture bonds with the volatile organic compounds truffles emit.