After a long day sniffing about in the woods, truffle hunting dogs want what all dogs do: to sleep on the bed with their humans. “They’re pets, first and foremost,” says Alana McGee, the co-founder of Truffle Dog Company in Seattle, Washington. “They demand the pillows be rearranged, they're members of our family.”
McGee, along with an eight-year-old golden retriever named Ruby and a nine-year-old Lagotto Romagnolo, Lolo, forages for truffles to supply local restaurants and teaches people how to train their own dogs to find the coveted ingredient. She champions dog-found truffles for their superior quality – and blames the alternative, raking, for Washington’s non-existent reputation for the delicacy. “Any dog can do this, if you're willing to put in the time,” she says, and that time drives up the costs for the Pacific Northwest’s best local truffles, while the cheaper ones earn derision for the region’s entire crop.
“Truffles don’t grow in Washington,” scientists told McGee when she first started out 15 years ago. With an educational background in biology and animal behaviour, a love for food, and experience living in truffle-loving Italy, she figured training truffle dogs hit the intersection of her expertise. But at the time, there was no truffle industry in Washington and only a nascent one in neighbouring Oregon. “We have the same habitat as Oregon,” she thought in response. “My guess is there just haven’t been people looking.”
Her hunch proved correct, and she moved onto convincing people of the quality of local versions. “Our black truffles are very sweet and have aromas of pineapple and fruit, chocolate,” she says, and the white ones smell like the more familiar European truffles, and a little of gasoline, but – she reassures – not in a bad way.
Photo credit: Truffle Dog Co.
“When you rake, you get a bunch of truffles that are unripe, and a few that are ripe, and you can’t really ripen them,” McGee explains. “So, chefs have this idea that our native Pacific Northwest truffles have no aroma and no flavour.” To this day, she estimates raked truffles make up about 80% of the local supply. Raking also causes environmental damage when it tears up the topsoil, which then sometimes runs off into salmon habitat streams.
Dog-hunted truffles cost more because of the time and labour involved, but Ruby and Lolo and their peers sniff out only the ripe truffles, meaning a lower total yield, but a perfect record for quality. On a good day, in a choice spot, they can find multiple pounds of truffles in an hour, but that belies the years it takes to find such a reliable location and hone the dogs’ noses.
The most important thing for training a truffle hunting dog, according to McGee, is patience. “You can teach the basics of truffle hunting in a day or two. To get them to be a really proficient truffle dog takes a few years.” The training process – which can start with any dog, from puppy to senior, starts with younger dogs learning hunting drive and not to rely on their owner for cues. Older dogs can move straight into nose-work – giving them a sample to sniff and then rewarding them with a high-value treat for finding or interacting with the item in increasingly difficult environments. McGee starts dogs inside, then in a yard, before moving onto the mock truffle forest to practice skills. They keep sessions short because dogs have a short attention span. “It’s a game,” she says. “It has to be fun.”
Much of the training focuses on building a relationship between the dog and the person, McGee explains. “You can’t make them do it, you have to teach them that they want to do it.” Ruby and Lolo have that part down pat. “They get super excited when we start getting all the gear together, they know what’s going on,” says McGee. If she takes too long getting everything ready, Lolo starts yelling. But it’s not a quick process.
Photo credit: Truffle Dog Co.
Lolo, the smaller dog with a curly coat, gets a bright orange, high-visibility protective bodysuit to keep off ticks and burrs. Then she wears a specific truffle-hunting harness that won’t catch on loose sticks, with a bell to keep animals away and let McGee know where she is among the big ferns. A smooth 15-foot bright yellow line drags behind her, another tool allowing McGee to keep a good eye on her. “If it stops moving, I know she’s found something.”
McGee harvests only to order, fulfilling the requests from top Seattle restaurants like Canlis and smaller neighbourhood bistros like Sand Point Grill and Epulo. She sometimes supplies further afield, like sending product to MoMa for an event, or the time one of her white truffles ended up in the hands of Heston Blumenthal. But the delicate Pacific Northwest Truffles don’t travel as well as the hardier European ones, which can last up to a few weeks. “Our native ones can’t,” McGee says. They aim to get any truffles to their destination within a day of harvesting, or two at most, giving the chef a week or so to use them. The more fragile versions also give an advantage, though – they work better for infusing into food.
Photo credit: Gabriel Rodriguez, Kitchen Unnecessary.
As this season ramps up, McGee feels optimistic – she already found a few by the second week of October and the six-month season doesn’t start in earnest until mid-November. Ruby and Lolo hunt about three times a week, just a few hours at a time – they get tired if they do much more, and thus sloppier. “Not only are they searching and using their nose, they’re having to sift through all of the smells. It’s really mentally taxing on them,” says McGee.
When the dogs finish for the day, the gear comes off and they put on their cosy car coats. The big blankets signal the end of the job and start of play and keep them warm for the drive home. “They’re little athletes,” she says. “We want to take care of them.” Somewhere in that ride home, the working dogs revert to pet mode and when they get home, exhausted, they “sack-out like potatoes” for at least 24 hours. “They’re the perfect housemates for a couple of days,” McGee says. “Then we do it again.”