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A competitor and his dog sniffing for truffles.Carole Jobin/The Globe and Mail

As a diehard cat lover, I’ve never considered having a favourite kind of dog. But my attitude toward dogs changed when I got to know an English Shepherd at a premium truffle event in Eugene, Ore.

Named Cinnamon Rose, she has placed in the top five, three years running, at the Joriad North American Truffle Dog Championship, held every January. James Taylor of Cottage Grove, Ore., revealed to me that he started training her to recognize the odour of truffles at an early age. (Truffles in this context refers to the mushroom, not the chocolate.)

“When she was 10 days old, before her eyes were open, I was holding her in the palm of my hand, and put a little drop of truffle oil on my wrist so she could smell it,” he explained. “Then I waited another 10 months before giving her a sniff of the oil again.” She was hooked and was able to find items dipped in the oil in James’s yard.

This part of Oregon, along the Willamette River Valley, is perhaps best known as home to hundreds of wineries. However, the state is one of the biggest commercial producers of truffles in the U.S.

Competition Day

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A prized freshly harvested Oregon truffle used in dishes at the Festival.Carole Jobin/The Globe and Mail

The atmosphere is calm and easy going early in the morning at the Lane Event Center Arena, a field house in Eugene.

Suddenly, things get serious. Dogs and their owners from across the continent start competing to determine the one that has the best nose for finding truffles. Dogs go through a morning-long competition that involves a quarter-final and semi-final indoor trial, where handlers walk them down rows of 17 bins of soil (truffle-oil targets are hidden there).

Italian Lagotto Romagnolos, bred for truffle-finding, could be considered the favourites, although the two previous winners were a rescued Golden Lab named Joey and a Chihuahua named Gustave.

According to Deb and Bob Walker, “You can teach any breed, as long as he has a long nose, to find truffles, and if the dog has already been trained for searching, he can be trained to find truffles.” Both are judges at the competition, and they also give courses in training dogs to truffle hunt.

Dogs do their hunting indoors here, in a controlled environment. Three at a time, competitors enter the horse arena, aiming to search the rather spacious area, which has been outfitted with rows of targets, some of which include vials of truffle oil. But dogs being dogs, they sometimes find each other more interesting than the hidden vials of truffle oil, their true goal.

The seriousness returns, when a judge shouts out, “It’s a truffle!” – a declaration that’s heard clearly throughout the field house.

After the morning competition, the top five dogs go into the forest for the final, which included Cinnamon Rose. At both the indoor and outdoor trials, dogs must merely pinpoint the location of the ripe truffle, forcing the owner to dig it out. This is considered the sustainable way of harvesting, as opposed to “raking,” which destroys the site.

Raking an area in clumps too soon before the truffles have a chance to ripen renders them almost tasteless. This is one reason why dogs are preferred to pigs, since the former can be trained to spot an area rather than dig it apart.

The outdoor field event takes place at a secret location, as a truffle-rich area can be a treasure trove for amateur and professional truffle hunters alike. We were allowed in as reporters, although the finals are not open to the public. That said, all of the freshly harvested truffles are later enjoyed at the various truffle dinners.

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Along with dog trainers and dog lovers, food lovers flock to the Oregon Truffle Festival.Carole Jobin/The Globe and Mail

All that I can reveal about the spot is that it is located in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, famous for its pinot noir. This huge valley was once known for logging and Christmas tree farms, and today, truffles are always found in areas with large stands of Douglas fir.

Needless to say, along with dog trainers and dog lovers, food lovers flock to the Oregon Truffle Festival, which begins on the first day of the Joriad. Every meal will include servings of the exceedingly fresh truffles harvested by the dogs and their owners paired with local wines.

A stand out was the third of the five-course grand truffle dinner, which included pan-roasted Alaskan weather vane scallops and a transparent wedge of Oregon white truffle stained glass potato, paired with a white pinot noir from the Left Coast Cellars of the Willamette Valley.

Shaved truffles can be added to almost any dish, adding a taste somewhere between garlic and gorgonzola cheese. Both black and white truffle oil can be bought at the Festival’s Saturday Market, although black truffles are somewhat rarer.

The Price of Success

How did Taylor and Cinnamon Rose do? They finished third, collecting a whopping 50 truffles in one short afternoon. As this was their third time placing in the top five, the pair decided to go professional. The price of success? They can no longer compete at the Joriad, which is reserved for amateur hunters.

When I spoke to Taylor recently, he confirmed that Oregon offers the best areas for harvesting truffles. He recently bought Cinnamon Rose some boots. A reward? Not exactly. Constant rain has turned the truffle-producing areas into fields of mud. He mentioned that there’s no predicting a good year, but that the year that I met them yielded a bumper crop, unseen since.

If You Go:

In its 18th year, the Oregon Truffle Festival kicks off on Jan. 28 and runs until Feb. 25.

The 2023 Joriad North American Truffle Dog Championship begins on Jan. 28.

Attendees to the OTF often stayed at The Graduate. Special hotel door tags tell staff that there’s a dog in the room, not so much as to warn them as to alert them should an emergency evacuation occur.

Next door is the Hult Center for the Performing Arts. I missed Bill Maher by a day.

Wander down the main street of nearby Springfield, Ore. There are murals to local heroes Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons.

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