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Picking up the scent of 'black diamonds'

Enticing aroma of truffles appeals to dogs and foodies


In this game, the dog always wins by a nose. Literally.

The game is hunting for Oregon truffles, which have a distinct aroma. And it just so happens that many dogs can identify that scent and unearth the fungi, which Elizabeth Kalik calls “black diamonds.”

Kalik, along with partners Allan Kalik and Kelly and Roy Slocum, runs N.W. Truffle Dogs, a truffle-dog-training school in Oregon City.

Elizabeth Kalik and Kelly Slocum used to train and handle search-and-rescue dogs, but Kalik said she grew tired of the long hours and stress, so started looking around for something else to do with her dogs.

She started using her dogs to look for chanterelle mushrooms, and then in 2008 came across an article in “Bark” by Charles Lefevre.

“He did a feasibility study at OSU on Oregon truffles, and there was a large section on the use of dogs. I called and told him I was interested, and he told me there was only one truffle-hunting dog in Oregon. I said, ‘I can fix that,’ ” Kalik said.

“I told him if he can teach us about truffles, we can train dogs. He took us out on a few hunts near Corvallis. It was like taking Truffle 101.”

In 2009, she went to a dog-training seminar in Eugene for the Oregon Truffle Festival, and then she and her partners founded N.W. Truffle Dogs that same year.

by: PHOTO BY ELLEN SPITALERI - Elizabeth Kalik, one of the owners of N.W. Truffle Dogs, shows a very interested Gordie a container of preserved Oregon black truffles. Canines find the scent of truffles to be particularly delectable.

Douglas fir relationship

So what are truffles and why are they so expensive?

The short answer: Truffles are underground fungi and are rare and hard to find. The longer answer is a bit more detailed.

There are four kinds of culinary truffles: the Oregon black truffle, the Oregon winter white, the Oregon spring white and the Oregon brown truffle.

They are mostly found growing underground in proximity to Douglas fir habitat, which happens to be prolific in Oregon, Kalik said.

“You have to find just the right patch of Douglas fir, in the right conditions,” she said. “The planets have to align.”

Truffles have a symbiotic relationship with the tree, with a sort of exchange of nutrients between the two.

The reason that dogs can find them is that the truffle’s luscious smell appeals to a dog’s taste buds, Kalik said.

“The purpose of the aroma is to disperse spores, and to do that, the truffles have to be consumed by animals in order to propagate,” she said, noting that usually they are found and eaten by voles and other rodents.

Part of the reason truffles cost so much is their season is short, generally from October to February, but most hunters have the best luck in January and February, Kalik said. And there is the added cachet associated with the European truffles from France and Italy that can sell for thousands of dollars a pound, and are “highly prized and valued by foodies.”

Oregon truffles aren’t comparable to European truffles in the culinary world yet, Kalik said, but experts say the Oregon white truffle is gaining a good reputation.

In a small bit of canine irony, Kalik said that when they are freshly dug up, ripe Oregon black truffles look shiny and wet, just like a dog’s nose.

‘It just happens’

Of course, Kalik admitted that her interest in truffles is not culinary, but is instead in using them for training the dogs.

“We use basic operative conditioning; the truffle scent is like Pavlov’s bell” to a dog, she noted.

Dogs like to do scent work, she said, and training them to hunt truffles in a controlled environment is relatively easy. The challenge comes when you take the dogs out into the woods, and there are things the dogs would rather find, Kalik said.

“We have to work on distraction-proofing and developing a work ethic. We train the dog to find truffles, but not eat them,” she said.

She and Kelly Slocum have developed an assessment program, where they can test dogs ahead of time to see if they are right for the training program.

If a dog is shy or not engaged from the start, or if the owners seem to want to do this more than the dog, she and Slocum “mitigate expectations. We hate to see people desperate to do this, and not all dogs enjoy the training process.”

As for what breed of dog works best, Kalik said she and Slocum have worked successfully with every kind of dog, from a tiny dog like a Chinese Crested to a Giant Schnauzer.

One of their most successful dogs was a pug-beagle cross, Kalik said, noting that beagles “are the epitome of a scent-detecting dog,” but might not be the best pet.

People interested in this kind of dog training, “should find a dog they love and make the best of that. They will be spending more hours in the company of the pet than they will hunting truffles,” she added.

The best breeds for truffle training should be outgoing and independent and not clingy and cuddly.

“Hounds do great scent work, and golden retrievers can be fantastic. I love to watch them hunt with their noses; it is so great to see them doing something they love,” Kalik said.

She recounted a time last year when she took students and their dogs on a hunt. The adults were standing around talking, and then Sasha, a golden retriever, started snuffling around a fern, and then turned around with a big, black truffle in her mouth.

“That was the first time it clicked with Sasha. You can’t make it happen, it just happens,” Kalik said.

Dogs only, please

Contrary to what some people think, truffles are cultivable, but as far as she knows, the only truffle plantations have been planted with trees inoculated with European truffle spores from Italy and France, Kalik said.

“The spores have to be in before the trees are planted, and after five to seven years, you should start to see some truffles,” she said.

She knows of plantations in the Napa region of California, and in the South. A woman in North Carolina has asked Kalik to come to her plantation with her dogs to help her harvest truffles.

That brings up the issue of ethics. The best way to find truffles is using dogs, who will detect the intensely aromatic ripe fungi. But some people take the easy way out and rake up the truffles.

“If you rake up the truffles, you bring up the unripe as well as the ripe ones, and then you are done for the season. At any one time, few truffles are ripe; maybe two out of 10, she said, adding that the rake method drives the value of the product down if people try to sell an unripe truffle on the market. 

“We ask that plantation owners sign an ethics agreement that they won’t sell non-dog-found truffles,” Kalik said.

As for the future, she and her partners plan to continue training dogs to find native truffles, and they would like to find students interested in working on plantations, Kalik said.

She encourages people who are interested in truffles to learn more about the habitat by joining local mushroom clubs and going out on forays with knowledgeable members.

“People here don’t know what they might have right in their own backyards,” Kalik added.

Fast Facts

To learn more about N.W. Truffle Dogs, visit NWTruffleDogs.com; email the owners at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; or call 503-664-0364.



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