Gili, a one-year-old Sheepadoodle, knows how to nose out a truffle. Gili and handler Joshua Hinderliter made it to the final round of the 2022 Joriad North American Truffle Dog Championship in Eugene, Ore., Feb. 17, 2022. The event featured 30 dogs of differing breeds who competed to find truffle-scented targets, and the final six dogs went on to compete in a final round of hunting truffles in the field.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

It’s truffle season in Oregon, and the game is afoot (apaw?). The annual Joriad North American Truffle Dog Championship is a Winter Olympics of sorts for amateur truffle hunters and their truffle dogs.

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Robert D. Keys and his dog Sasha, a three-year-old beagle, hunt for truffles in the 2022 Joriad North American Truffle Dog Championship in Eugene, Ore., Feb. 17, 2022. Sasha went on to place second in the competition.

Robert D. Keys and his dog Sasha, a three-year-old beagle, hunt for truffles in the 2022 Joriad North American Truffle Dog Championship in Eugene, Ore., Feb. 17, 2022. Sasha went on to place second in the competition.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

After 2021′s cancellation due to the coronavirus pandemic, furry athletes and their handlers were extra eager to show off their foraging prowess at the only event of its kind in the country dedicated to truffle hunting.

Truffles are fungi that grow underground. When ripe, they emit strong aromas meant to attract animals to dig them up. Those same chemicals make truffles a sought-after ingredient in kitchens around the world. But to get them at peak flavor, humans need help.

Truffle hunters have learned to train dogs to lock in on the scent of ripe truffles and paw the ground at its underground location, leaving immature truffles undisturbed.

Oregon is one of the biggest commercial producers of truffles in the United States, with an abundant supply of four highly-valued, native truffle varieties found all across the Pacific Northwest region. That market is projected to grow, and with it the rising demand for more professional truffle hunters.

“Our mechanism to lift Oregon truffles into the pantheon of delicacies was to introduce truffle dogs,” said Oregon Truffle Festival co-founder Charles Lefevre, the non-profit organization that hosts the Joriad and has been a relentless advocate for truffle dog training.

Related: Truffle dogs sniff out culinary gold in Oregon forests

On this day, 30 teams have the chance to earn widespread recognition and even a shot of “going pro,” if they can succeed at a gauntlet of simulated and real truffle-hunting scenarios in front of hardcore truffle fans. This year Mia, a year-and-a-half old Lagotto Romagnolo owned by Jonathan Taylor, of McMinville, claimed the championship Thursday after finding 35 truffles in 60 minutes.

Related: More about Oregon’s culinary truffle scene in this "Superabundant" short documentary

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Tags: Food, Dogs, Oregon