When it comes to truffles — the subterranean mushrooms considered a delicacy in most parts of the world — pigs are most famously associated with hunting the fungi.
But man’s best friend might change that.
The Corvallis-based North American Truffling Society held a truffle-hunting dog class Sunday at which five dogs (and about nine people) learned how to smell out truffles.
The course was led by Jean Rand of Eugene, who has spoken at NATS meetings and led trainings at the Oregon Truffle Festival. Her dog, Gusto, is a Labrador retriever that was first trained as a search-and-rescue dog.
“This dog is just amazing,” said NATS president Marilyn Hinds.
NATS promotes the use of dogs for truffle hunting for several reasons. For one thing, dogs can tell — by scent —when truffles at the right stage of ripeness to be harvested.
“That’s frankly why the Oregon white truffle got a bad name,” Hinds said. “There were so many immature ones being sold.”
When those truffles made it to restaurant plates, the result wasn’t good. Not surprisingly, consumers weren’t eager to pay high prices for a truffle that didn’t have much of a taste.
Another benefit to hunting with dogs is forest stewardship. Without a dog, people dig into the ground. Increasingly, NATS members have noticed irresponsible mushroom hunters who don’t replace the soil, even after digging down a foot or more.
“The more people we can get to use the dog, the less raking there’s going to be, and the more ripe truffles we’re going to be harvesting,” Hind said.
During the class, novices got to experience first-hand how amazing Gusto is as they worked to “imprint” their dogs with truffle scent. Using plastic film containers scented with truffle oil, the humans practiced rewarding the dogs for smelling the container.
“Shove that away real quick and tell him how great he is!” Rand told class member Steve Haynack as he presented his dog, Pullgus, with the scented object.
Haynack and Pullgus (which is Spanish for “fleas”), a border collie mix, came down from the Seattle area to attend the class.
“Truffles are new to us,” Haynack said. “We have some experience, but not very much.”
Pullgus has done training to find morel mushrooms.
“He will find them in the house, as well as cookies,” Haynack said.
Rand said any breed of dog can be trained to scent mushrooms.
“It’s better if they have a higher hunt drive and the ability to (be trained),” she said.
Matt Sipes of Portland took the class with Boletus, a mixed-breed dog Sipes found at a humane society.
Sipes has been a mushroom hunter for 13 years. Boletus has been doing it his entire life, but that’s only been about a year and a half.
“I was hoping this class would help get him on the scent of truffles and he could make a game of it,” Sipes said.
NATS, which has been around for more than 30 years and has more than 300 members, sponsored the class, but didn’t make any money off of it. Membership coordinator Mysti Weber said the organization wants to promote education and good community relations.
“This is part of our mission,” she said.
The group also hosts monthly mushroom hunting forays.
But for some participants, Sunday’s class was as much about quality time with Fido as the opportunity to find truffles.
“I’m mostly doing this for him,” said Nicole Tursich of Portland, who attended with her Lab, Gus. “It gives him something to do that he feels good about.”