Truffles are incredibly aromatic balls of fungus, similar to mushrooms, that grow underground throughout the world. Their prized scent and elusive nature makes them the world’s most expensive food, with prices that can run from hundreds to thousands of dollars per pound. For centuries, people have used trained dogs to sniff out the delicacies. Pigs were once used, but pigs are too insistent on eating the truffles they find; dogs work for treats. Most famous of all are Lagotto Romagnolos, Italian dogs bred especially for truffle hunting. Although the most famous truffles are found in Europe, North America has excellent truffles of its own, but we never had the truffle dogs to find them. Now that is changing, and a truffle-dog craze has begun. Much credit goes to the Oregon Truffle Festival, held each winter since 2006, which celebrates the native truffles of the Pacific Northwest.

In 2015 the festival launched the Joriad North American Truffle Dog Championship, in which amateur pooches from far and wide compete to sniff out the most truffles over three rounds of increasing difficulty. The first few years of competition were dominated by Lagotto Romagnolos and other breeds known for their tracking prowess, but in 2018 a surprise underdog stunned the competition and made national headlines, proving that America is indeed the land of opportunity. This is his story

You are not the kind of dog who should be at a place like this at this time of year. In January, Oregon’s Willamette Valley is a desolation of drizzly skies, short days, and bone-chilling fog. But that is when the truffles are at their peak, and that is when the Joriad Truffle Dog Championship takes place.

So here you are, scrambling over fallen branches and mossy hummocks in a Douglas fir forest as a chilling rain soaks the ground, racing the four other finalists to find as many truffles as possible in one hour. The conditions don’t seem to be fazing the other dogs in the final round — like Ciaran, the chunky black Lab, and Autumn, the fancy Lagotto Romagnolo descended from generations of truffle hunters. But when you are a short-haired Chihuahua, it’s another matter.

You’ve aced the first two rounds of the Joriad, where dogs search for buried plastic tubes holding truffle-scented cotton balls in the sheltered (and flat!) confines of the Lane County Fairgrounds horse arena, but here in these dark, dense woods, you’re finding it very difficult to concentrate. So many distractions. Strange smells. Big dogs (never your favorite). Judges. A film crew from CBS. Squirrels!



You weigh eight pounds dripping wet. Your batlike ears are frozen. You haven’t found a single truffle in 30 minutes of hunting, and it’s all starting to feel like too much. Despite the hot-pink coat you’re wearing, you begin shaking so badly that your human, Marcy Tippmann, has to pick you up and carry you.

The film crew finds this pretty cute, but you’re not here to be cute. When you finished in the middle of the pack at last year’s Joriad, that was cute. Not bad for a Chihuahua, they said. A typical backhanded compliment. But you’re used to such things. The underdog jokes. The insinuation that you have an advantage because your nose is lower to the ground. You took it in stride — okay, short strides — and now you’re back to win.

Yet here you are, shaking like a leaf and being carried while the big dogs race through the woods like wolves. Humiliating, honestly. Marcy tries to hide her disappointment, but you can tell. “It’s okay, Gustave,” she says, raking water off your fur with her hand. “It was a fun day.”

At that point, a lesser Chihuahua might pack it in. But you’ve been through worse. Much worse.

As a rescue dog, your origins are shrouded in mystery. When Marcy, a graphic illustrator from Eugene, found you online a year and a half ago, you were about nine months old. She’d been searching for the right dog for months, and as soon as she saw your photo, she knew. With that wiry tricolor coat that makes you look part jackal, you represent the more rustic end of the Chihuahua spectrum.

What else might be in the mix? Who knows. Your puppyhood is a haze. All you really remember is that at some point you were very, very, very hungry, and you are never going to let that happen again. No piece of food will ever pass you by, including things that might serve as food in a pinch. Kibble, chocolate bars, newspaper, plastic, it all helps quiet the fear.

In October, just two months after Marcy rescued you, you fell gravely ill with an intestinal obstruction. You needed emergency surgery, but the bill was going to be $4,000 — money Marcy didn’t have. You endured days of crippling agony, and at some point you just lay down and waited for the end to come.

At the last minute, Marcy’s relatives ponied up. The vet removed a mass of hair and toy parts from your gut, and you bounced back as only a Chihuahua can — fast enough to enter the Joriad.

There were no signs of greatness in your maiden performance, but come on, the scars were fresh. Since then, you and Marcy have been training every day. You make a game of it. Marcy drips truffle oil on a toy and hides it in the house. “Zoeky,” she says (her special word for seek), burying it under blankets. It’s a great way to pass the winter evenings when it’s dark at 5:00 p.m. Sometimes she drops truffle oil onto kibble and scatters it in the grass outside. Yum! The truffle oil reminds you of some good part of your puppyhood from before the bad times.

When the weather’s nice, you practice in the park. Marcy fans out her palm across an area of ground where she wants you to look. “Zoeky!”

It took you a while to put it all together, but eventually you learned to find the scent cones rising from the ground like streamers on the breeze. Of course! Just follow them to the point where they all converge in the earth. Then Marcy is so happy. Plus, treats.

It all paid off in the opening elimination round at the indoor horse arena, in which each dog had three minutes to walk past a line of 16 plastic boxes filled with dirt and pick out the two that had the truffle tubes buried in them. Each team was allowed one wrong guess. Two and you were out.

Honestly, you began to shake at the start, just standing next to the other 24 entrants. There were several Lagotto Romagnolos, the Italian truffle-hunting breed. There were Australian shepherds and German shepherds and English shepherds. There was a bloodhound! You were seriously outgunned.

They all had different tells when they found truffles. Yours is to dig fast with both paws and then look up urgently at Marcy for a treat. Marcy calmly walked you down the line of boxes, letting you think it through before making your calls. You tried to block everything out and just stay with the smell. Nose low, tail high, you scanned your snout back and forth. Wait, that box you just passed! Scent cone! You doubled back, sniffed, confirmed, dug fast, stared at Marcy.

She glanced down at you. “You sure, Goose?”
“Truffle,” Marcy said to the judge.
The judge kneeled down and dug through the box, unearthing the plastic tube. “Truffle!” he shouted, arm pointing straight up.
The bleacher of spectators cheered, which startled you momentarily. Never in your life  had such a noise been directed  at you.
You shook it off and returned to the line of boxes. No. No. That one!
“Truffle,” Marcy said.
The judge checked. “Truffle!” Boom, two hits, less than a minute, no errors. As you trotted off the arena dirt, a murmur rolled through the crowd.

Only half the competitors made it through Round One of the Joriad. In Round Two, the truffle tubes are buried scattershot around the horse arena. Dogs must find five as quickly as possible, and the five best times move on to the finals.

You and Marcy received a huge cheer when you entered. Who wasn’t rooting for the Chihuahua? There was also some laughter, which you chose to ignore. All that mattered was making Marcy proud. You got down to work. Calm and focused, you nailed four tubes faster than any of the other dogs, and suddenly the cheers weren’t patronizing any more. “That dog’s got game!” someone shouted. “Go, Gustave!”

But it’s one thing to be hunting scent cones with your human in the park, and another to be doing it when a bunch of strangers are shouting your name. You lost your focus. For a full two minutes you wandered the arena in a daze, following the scents of the other dogs, hearing Marcy’s pleas as if through a fog. The clock ticked toward the five-minute mark. Then—directly beneath you — scent! You scratched, Marcy shouted “Truffle!” as the clock expired, and you grabbed the last spot in the finals. The crowd cheered wildly, but it was clear they thought your luck had run out.

And maybe it had. Here you are, shivering like a Pekingese, truffleless after 30 minutes, and being carried. You are no Lagotto.

Marcy puts a second jacket on you and places you back down on the ground. “Let’s get you warmed up, Goose.”

A little stiffly at first, you start ambling. Fallen branches loom like boulders. All you can smell is duff and squirrel poop. But the second jacket feels good, and soon you are warm again. Now the woods feel different. The other dogs are far ahead, and the film crew got bored with you and headed off in pursuit of Autumn the Lagotto. It’s just you and Marcy, a judge trailing behind.

“It was a fun day,” Marcy says again, smiling down. You glance up at her, your savior, and your little heart floods with love. Snippets of your near-death experiences flash through your mind. You want to make her happy, and you know you can do it. You are a truffle hound.

There in the freezing woods on that bleak January day, with 30 minutes to go, you pull it together. Your mind is calm, your senses open. What’s that over there? Some crazy scent, cutting through the fog of squirrel poop like a knife. So obvious. How could you have missed it before? You dig furiously with your paws, unearth the little white nugget, and gaze bright-eyed at Marcy. Truffle!

“Good boy! Yay!” Marcy cries, kneeling down to slide a treat into your mouth. You wolf it down and suddenly realize you would like some more of those. And, what do you know, there’s a second scent cone around this same tree. Truffle!

It all begins to click. There’s another on a nearby tree. And another! “Zoeky, Zoeky,” Marcy says, keeping you on task. Check this tree. Then this one.

You sniff, dig, and scamper, treats surging through your bloodstream. The rest of the world fades away. You are just a nose sailing through a sea of scent cones. So many truffles. So many treats. Marcy follows behind with her tiny hand rake, scooping up the truffles and handing them to the accompanying judge.

When the hour ends, you have nailed seventeen truffles. That seems pretty great to Marcy, but who knows? The other finalists were out of sight, and the judges keep the results under wraps until the Parade of Dogs awards banquet at the hotel that evening.

You wear your best tartan plaid coat. You’re feeling good in it, but the banquet is a tough scene for you. There are dozens of big dogs in the ballroom, including this year’s Joriad contestants, some from previous years, and others who were at the festival for the training program. Some are on their best behavior. Others, not so much. The elevator was nuts.

Before the winner s are announced, Marcy compares notes with one of the other finalists. How many truffles did she find?

Two, the woman says.
Marcy gives you a wide-eyed stare.

As it turns out, it isn’t even close. Second place goes to Ciaran, the black Lab, with ten truffles. You win in a landslide. Marcy holds up the Oregon-shaped wooden plaque to wild applause. You take a little victory trot around the ballroom while the cameras flash, field a few interviews with the press, then duck out early. Long day. Your brain is fried, and your bed is calling to you.

Not long after that, you and Marcy announce your retirement from competition. The Joriad is open only to amateurs, and like many an Olympian before you, you’ve decided to go pro. If anyone is in need of a very small truffle hound — preference given to flat, dry terrain — just reach out. The world is full of funky nuggets, and they must be found.

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