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Champion truffle dog got her nose for the hunt in Columbia County



SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - Marilyn Richen holds up an Oregon black truffle that her dog Gucci, also pictured, found Monday, April 13, in the woodlands near Rainier that she manages with her brothers.In the life originally planned for her, Gucci’s boundless energy was a hindrance, not an asset.

Marilyn Richen, the yellow labrador retriever’s owner, says she originally took in Gucci for guide dog training. Her dog had recently died, she explains, and she and her partner didn’t feel ready to bond with another puppy just yet.

But to hear Richen tell it, Gucci was no good at being a guide dog.

“They need a dog that a blind person can trust, and that means that they don’t scavenge, they don’t steal food, they don’t do a lot of things that dogs often do. And Gucci, in spite of the training we gave her and everything we tried to do, she never became the kind of dog that a blind person could trust,” Richen says.

But since washing out of guide dog training, and being adopted into Richen’s home, Gucci has taken well to another kind of training: learning how to follow her nose.

On Jan. 22, Gucci took home first place in the inaugural Joriad North American Truffle Dog Championship in Eugene, beating out nearly 30 other amateur truffle-sniffing dogs from across the West Coast.

“Who can imagine a $500 check for something that you’re doing for just fun?” Richen asks rhetorically.

For the past year or so, Gucci’s prime training ground has been in the woods of Columbia County. Richen and her two brothers manage five woodland parcels in northwest Oregon, four of which are in Columbia County. Richen says she takes Gucci with her to hunt for truffles — a fungus similar to mushrooms, but which grows underground and usually must be dug up to be found — once or twice per week, when the season is right.

“It is a Columbia County story, because this is where Gucci really did her truffle work and learned to truffle,” she says.

An hour in the woods with Gucci

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - Gucci and her owner, Marilyn Richen, dig in a spot marked out by the truffle-sniffing labrador retriever. Even on an April morning, well after the peak season for truffles in Oregon, Gucci was able to come up with two black truffles in the woods near Rainier in less than an hour's work.Gucci leads the way on a cloudy Monday morning, trotting down the path deeper into one of the Richen properties off Deer Hill Road, in between Rainier and Clatskanie.

“She’s still a youngster, and very energetic,” Richen says; the dog will be 3 years old in June.

Within minutes, Gucci has found a truffle. She sniffs it out from yards away — Richen says she wonders just how far away the yellow lab can pick up the scent — and leads her owner through a rugged patch of Douglas fir and undergrowth to find it.

“Good girl!” Richen exclaims, ruffling her fur. “Excellent dog!”

It’s an Oregon black truffle, a little more than an inch and a half long. Gucci finds it just below the surface, shallower than many truffles grow in the loamy soil around fir trees. Aside from the smell — surprisingly fruity, almost like pineapple, as Richen describes it — it looks, for all the world, like a clod of dirt.

Truffles are highly prized in the culinary world. They often sell for hundreds of dollars per pound.

While commercial truffling can be very lucrative, for Richen and Gucci, truffle-hunting is a hobby. This year’s Joriad was only open to amateurs, although Richen says many of the dogs who competed were Lagotto Romagnolos, a breed of retriever sometimes known as the “Italian truffle dog” for its prominent role in Italy’s truffle industry.

“We like Lagottos, but we are proud that she wasn’t,” Richen says. “She got to kind of stand up for the other dog breeds.”

Although Gucci is an amateur, and the truffles she finds typically end up being used in Richen’s kitchen or given away to family or friends, the truffle hunt has become a passion for Richen.

“It’s like discovering gold,” she enthuses.

Gucci finds another truffle about 15 minutes after her first discovery of the day. April is not considered peak truffle season, and Richen had expressed doubt before setting out that she would dig up any at all.

This second truffle Richen has to pull from her dog’s mouth. Gucci likes the taste of truffles, and will eat the ones she finds if they are not taken away from her, Richen says.

Since the truffles grow underground anyway and are food for any number of woodland creatures and insects, Richen adds, a little bit of “dog spit” doesn’t make much of a difference.

Gucci.During the hour or so Gucci is on the truffle trail Monday, she has a couple of false starts, digging in spots that don’t yield a truffle — Richen says she thinks when this happens, Gucci smells a truffle that another animal has gotten to first — or becoming distracted by an animal bone or another fascinating scent.

Remarkably, Gucci has only been a truffle dog for about a year. Richen says she has been getting training from Jeannine Mays, who runs Pacific Truffle Dogs in Oregon City. More recently, she has also been learning “nose work,” being trained to sniff out other scents.

In the colder months, ripe truffles are often more plentiful than they are at other times of the year, and Gucci is more prolific than she was Monday, April 13, when she and Richen were truffle-hunting.

“If we go home with five or six, we feel like we’ve had a good day,” Richen says.

Truffles eyed as next wine industry’

According to the Joriad’s organizers, during the competition, Gucci found a truffle every one minute, 35 seconds, on average over the course of an hour.

“It’s hard to see how a dog could find truffles any faster than that,” Charles Lefevre says. “She was finding them very, very quickly.”

To Lefevre and Leslie Scott, the Eugene residents behind the Oregon Truffle Festival — which marked its 10th year in January — and the Joriad competition, Richen and Gucci make an impressive pair.

“Gucci and Marilyn are both amazing, and they’re an amazing team — and that’s what it takes,” Scott says.

Lefevre says he thinks Gucci is “just as good” as many of the professional truffle dogs.

A second Joriad has already been scheduled for January 2016. Either next year or sometime after that, Lefevre and Scott say, they intend to create a category for professional truffle dogs as well as amateurs, and possibly a category for puppies as well. They want to encourage newcomers to truffle-hunting and hobbyists to get involved.

“We actually had the Joriad in mind ... from the very beginning, from the time that we launched the festival. But at that time, there were no truffle dogs in the Western United States,” Lefevre explains. They began offering training seminars and information about truffle-hunting, hoping to get people and their dogs into the activity, and they decided it was time to hold their first competition this year.

“We want amateurs, and we want people to get excited and just dive in and see what happens,” Scott says, adding, “We found someone like Marilyn, who we never would have found otherwise.”

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - The larger of the two Oregon black truffles discovered by Gucci and her owner, Marilyn Richen, on Monday, April 13, came in at a bit more than 1.5 inches in length.Lefevre and Scott have big dreams for Oregon’s nascent truffle industry.

Several years ago, they commissioned a feasibility study into how the industry could develop in Oregon.

“It was conservatively estimated then that the retail market seasonally would compete with the kind of economic profile of the wine industry,” Scott recounts. “The vision for us is to place our truffles in that group of world-class truffles that people come to Oregon to enjoy seasonally.”

Lefevre and Scott see truffle dogs as central to this vision.

Lefevre remarks, “The Joriad ultimately is about promoting these truffle dogs, because we feel that truffle dogs are what it requires, and what our industry will require, to elevate our truffles up into the world class.”

Many truffles are commercially harvested with rakes — a controversial practice in the truffling community, and one which Lefevre and Scott say often yields lower-quality truffles than dogs will find.

“As we like to say, a rake doesn’t have a nose,” Scott says. “And without getting too complex, truffle spores have to mature, and they do that in the ground.”

Black truffles have a shelf life of just a few days. According to Scott, white truffles are smaller, but they have a longer shelf life and a more consistent flavor.

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