I don't know about you, but it took me ages to teach my dog to sit. And six years later we're still working on stay.
So when I randomly came across the Truffle Dog Company while scrolling Facebook, who claim to be able to teach dogs to hunt truffles, I was incredulous.
Alana McGee and Kristin Rosenbach co-founded the company after separately visiting Italy and falling in love with truffles.
"I lived in Italy, and have a very science-heavy background," said McGee, who not only trains canines (and humans!) but works closely with leading mycologists and scientists on the developing science of truffles: cultivation, sustainability of wild harvests, canine olfaction, and the practical application of trained truffle dogs on commercial truffieres.
But wait - let's take a step back here. If you're like I was several weeks ago - you're probably confused as to where these women and their dogs are hunting the edible underground fungi. Are they taking them over to Europe?
No. Truffles grow in the Pacific Northwest too.
"It's something that not a lot of people know," said McGee. "It's a small industry, smaller here in the U.S."
Pacific Northwest truffles are massively cheaper than the European varieties, averaging about $300-$600 per pound to Europe's $3,600 a pound. Here, three of the commercial culinary varieties grow in association with Douglas Firs.
But enough about truffles - surprisingly they are not the most interesting part of this story. It's the dogs. McGee and Rosenbach let me sit in on a class at their Lynwood facility where three dogs and their owners learned how to become professional truffle-hunting duos.
It's all about teaching dogs the scent of anise, birch and clove, McGee explains to me as we watch Erica, the dog trainer and Certified Nose-work Instructor, hide a toy covered in truffle oil and then use a clicker and treats to reward the dog when they find it.
"You want to associate the smell of truffles with a reward," she said. "They're not doing this for the love of truffles."
Certain dogs were further along in the training process than others, with one poodle madly dashing after the scent, and another rat terrier still terrified of the reward clicker. McGee explained that while any dog can be trained on nose work, the training has to be catered to their personalities. Shy dogs need to be coaxed a little more, aggressive dogs need to be calmed down - you get the picture.
"It's all mind work," McGee says when an owner comments on how exhausted her dog is after just an hour of training. "It gets them thinking in a way that playing with a ball doesn't."
One of the other main teaching points in the class is "alerting" when they smell a truffle. It's basically the dog's way of telling their owner that a truffle is there. Alerting can mean different things for different dogs - pawing, barking, looking at their owner, and digging.
"It's really important for the dog to continue to alert us when they've found a truffle," said McGee. "It helps us be more precise, and find the truffle exactly where it is."
And wow - do I ever see what they mean when I follow Rosenbach, McGee and their dogs Callie and LoLo into the woods to hunt the next day (the company has an agreement with certain landowners in the area where they hunt on their land, and they either get a percentage of the truffle sales or some of the truffles themselves). Within a minute of being let off leash, both dogs were ferociously digging holes; alerting their owners to truffles.
Callie is Rosenbach's border collie - a slender but intensely focused truffle-hunting machine. We were only out for about half an hour, and Callie probably found between 7-10 truffles. She alerts Rosenbach to her finds by sniffing, digging and looking up directly at her owner.
"That's my cue!" said Rosenbach, who has been involved in dog sports since 2005 and whose three dogs are considered some of the very few professional truffle dog handler teams in all of North America. Understandably so, Callie is a true professional, looking for nothing more than Rosenbach's attention, affirmation and a little play time with her ball when she finds a truffle. Then it's back to business.
Lolo is McGee's Lagotto Romagnolo, the breed that are most commonly used as truffle-hunters in Italy.
"This doesn't make her better than any other breeds!" McGee is quick to point out when she tells me this. Lolo is a sweet and cuddly mop of a pup, but - like Callie - it's all business when she's out hunting. The two work really well as a team; Lolo can usually smell out the general area of a truffle, and then Callie goes in to precisely find where it is.
At the end of our half hour we have almost 10 ounces of black and white truffles (that's between $450-$600 retail value), which Rosenbach and McGee will go on sell to their various buyers (local restaurants, students, chefs, etc). And keep some for their dinner!
And while the truffles are an awesome take-away from the afternoon, it's clear to see from both pairs that it is really about the partnership between them and their dogs.
"The truffle itself doesn't matter," said Rosenbach. "The dog does. The minute it becomes about the truffle, a relationship component is lost."
This - we love. So, if you're looking for a fun challenge for you and your pup - consider truffle hunting! Truffle Dog Company offers classes on a variety of levels; or take a shot at teaching them yourself (good luck in advance).