It’s wintertime, and the idea of going for a hike in Oregon’s wet or frozen woods might not seem like a very appealing idea. But it’s prime time for Oregon truffle hunting. In winter, when other foraging pursuits like mushrooming have ended, truffle hunting with a dog is a great way to stay active and give your dog something to look forward to doing outside. 

“Getting out into the woods is not just about the truffles,” said Oregon Truffle Festival foray leader Marilyn Richen.”It’s really about having an experience. For many of the people that go out on forays with us, especially people who are not from the Pacific Northwest, it’s also about having a woodland experience, seeing what a woodland looks like and feels like, and understanding what a healthy woodland actually is.”

Marilyn Richen and her yellow lab, Gucci
Marilyn Richen and her yellow lab, Gucci

Marilyn Richen and Tammy Jackson won the Oregon Truffle Festival’s first Joriad in 2015 with their yellow Labrador retriever, Gucci. The couple got Gucci when she was new to truffling, but Richen was not new to Oregon woodlands. 

Her family has owned wooded tree farm acreage since the 1970s. Her father was a career forester, and Richen grew up exploring woodlands. Gucci wasn’t quite up to snuff in her original career as a guide dog for the blind, partly because of her habit of sneaking food. While that habit has added its own challenges to truffling with her, Gucci has excelled as a truffle dog.

Over the years, Richen had taken several classes on woodland enjoyment, forest health, and foraging through the Oregon Woodland Cooperative, so Richen already knew that truffle foraging was a fun activity. Richen and Jackson knew that Gucci had the intellect and curiosity to do some kind of job, even if guiding the blind was not it, so they focused Gucci’s energy on truffle hunting.  

Tammy Jackson and her Lagotto Romagnolo, Blue
Tammy Jackson and her Lagotto Romagnolo, Blue

Last year, the couple took out their new Lagotto Romagnolo, Blue, for the first time. Although Blue is 4 years old, he’s new to truffle hunting.

“He’s still a little bit of a challenge because he gets very amped up and excited,” Richen said. 

Going out truffle hunting with dogs can bring a wild element to the day, because some dogs have a hard time focusing, particularly when they’re out with large groups of people. Other dogs, like Gucci, find truffles just as delicious as people do, so they have to be watched closely.

Leading Truffle Hunting Forays

When Richen and Jackson lead forays, they spend a little time talking about what the dogs are going to do and the behaviors to look for. They talk about forest etiquette and go over some of the basics of being in the woods for people who may be new to it. 

“Then we take the dogs to the designated area that we’re hunting in, and then let the dogs follow their scent,” Richen said. “They have a way of alerting when they think they’ve found truffles. In Gucci’s case, she’s very interested in truffles herself so there’s always somebody watching her closely.”

When Gucci or Blue finds a truffle, Richen and Jackson remove the dog from the spot and give the attendees a chance to dig the truffle up themselves. It can be a bit of a hunt, because sometimes truffles are just two inches under the surface but they might also be as deep as six inches. Another benefit to truffle hunting with a dog, as opposed to using a rake, is that the dogs can help you pinpoint exactly where to dig.

Before an Oregon Truffle Festival truffle foray, someone scopes out the intended destination to be reasonably sure there are truffles. Still, there are no guarantees that truffles will be found on a foray. 

“I am confident that if there are truffles in a woodlot, Gucci will find them,” Richen said. “But other critters eat them too, not just people! So not really knowing the outcome is part of the adventure.”

Even though it might be cold this time of year, Richen says the benefits of taking your dog out truffle hunting in winter far outweigh any negatives. 

“It’s good for your mental health to be out in nature, and especially out in the winter time when it’s really so easy to close yourself in and stay indoors,” she said. “For a lot of people, eating the truffles is the goal, and I like them too. But I’m really more compelled by the chase. It’s just fun to get out there and see the woods.”