Alana McGee witnessed it for the first time while studying abroad in Italy. Every year, as summer transitioned to fall, the countryside became crowded with dog teams hunting for one of the world’s most elusive and expensive fungi—the truffle.
A popular ingredient in Italian and French food, some truffle varieties go for as much as $1,000 per pound. One handler joked to McGee that his dog, a roan-colored Lagotto Romagnolo named Toby, was worth more than his wife.
To McGee, the experience was mysterious. Enchanting. And delicious.
When she returned to the States, she learned her new home near Seattle was also ripe truffle ground, and at the time, no one was harvesting them. Thousands of these subterranean delicacies were just sitting there. Waiting.
The Start of a New Career
McGee got to work. Her dog Duff was her first guinea pig. She trained him to find truffles growing anywhere from a few inches to a few feet underground. She taught him to recognize the nuanced smell of a ripe truffle versus one about to lose its flavor. They spent hours together foraging in the fields and woods around her home.
Duff loved it.
Things snowballed. Now eight years after her first hunt, McGee and co-founder Kristin Rosenbach’s Truffle Dog Company has become a driving force in the harvesting of truffles in the Pacific Northwest.
(Handler Kristin Rosenbach with her dogs Callie, Cash, Da Vinci and MacGyver. Photo by Lisa Kaufman.)
The organization offers online and in-person truffle dog training, truffle sales, and harvesting services. Since she first started working with Duff, who still serves as the company’s “truffle ambassador”, McGee, along with Rosenbach, have trained hundreds of dog teams across the Pacific Northwest, the country, and the world. Truffles grow everywhere from England to Florida, New Zealand to Seattle.
The Art of Truffle Hunting With Dogs
The women say they are awed and humbled to have the opportunity to spend their days working with their pets.
“Everybody has a bond with their pets,” McGee says. “We are fortunate and blessed to get to know facets of their personalities that we wouldn’t see if we weren’t with them 24/7.”
Take Lolo, a Lagotto Romagnolo who always reminds McGee of the velociraptors in Jurassic Park when she thrashes through the ferns. Or Duff, who would inhale dramatically when he knew he was getting close to a prize. Then there’s Callie, who isn’t afraid to throw truffles at Rosenbach if she thinks her owner isn’t moving fast enough.
“I can go to the same site with all four of my dogs and each one will approach it differently,” Rosenbach says.
Teaching the dogs to find truffles is similar to narcotics or explosives training, minus a whole lot of stress.
Some dogs pass with flying colors in a few months. Others take longer to complete the coursework.
“When the dogs and handlers have high confidence and good communication skills, that’s when we start finding the good stuff,” McGee says.
Building the Bond With Their Pets
Even when they’re not on the clock, the dogs have been known to find truffles in parking lots, behind the Home Depot, or at rest stops.
Much of the training focuses on building endurance and concentration in complex environments. Distractions are aplenty while truffle hunting. There are birds and critters to chase. The terrain can be uneven. And the forest is full of scents just as interesting as the smell of truffle gas.
But once handler and dog are in sync, it’s pure magic.
“It goes way beyond teaching a behavior and delivering a reward,” says Rosenbach. “It’s an organic dialogue. It’s a conversation without a common language, but we completely understand each other.”
McGee and Rosenbach’s canine colleagues are pets first and foremost. They sleep in the bed, hog the couch, and beg for treats. According to both human truffle hunters, their experiences with their dogs in the field enhance their home life. They’re more in tune with their dogs’ body language. They’re more compassionate and patient.
They say they’re also better people because of their profession. Keeping another being safe, dry and warm in tough situations teaches you a lot about yourself.
“I have grown so much in so many ways,” McGee says. “I would not have grown as much as a person; I also wouldn’t have so much dog hair lying around.”
Main image: Handler Alana McGee and her dog Lolo. Photo care of Truffle Dog Company.