Arts & Culture

The Hunt Is On — The 2022 Joriad North American Truffle Dog Championship

On Feb. 17,  the Oregon Truffle Festival’s annual Joriad North American Truffle Dog Championship returned to the Lane Events Center’s Livestock Arena. After a hiatus in 2021, the show-runners thought it was time to make a return. However, because of uncertainties surrounding COVID-19, the OTF experience was scaled back to a single day that only focused on furry athletes and their handler’s abilities to sniff out the underground nugget that is the truffle.

Charles Lefevre presents freshly harvested, wild truffles. These prized nuggets carry a strong aroma when they’ve reached peak maturity. The ground underground near the roots of Douglas fir trees, making the Pacific Northwest a prime location for hunters in North America. [John Adair // Double Sided Media]

The teams were diverse both in experience and background. Jim Ford and his partner Reggie, a  Dachshund, had competed years prior and decided to give the competition a second try. Meanwhile, Doug Fry and Max Fry, a Treeing Walker Coonhound, were having their first go at the event. Then there was Yoshiko Watanabe and Vivi, Cairn Terrier, who both originate from Japan and have been together since Vivi’s birth.

Douglas and Max Fry sit with each other as they wait for the event to begin. Prior to the first round teams must wait outside before being called in together to sniff out truffles. [John Adair // Double Sided Media]

Lagotto Romagnolos are, without question, the most popular breed of truffle hunting dogs, and, as a result, are the most common at the annual championship. That being said, any dog has the ability to be a good seeker. This year saw Beagles, Corgis, Labs, a Belgian Malinois, a French Brittany, and others. In total, there were over 30 teams vying for the position of “top dog.” 

Jonathan digs in the dirt where his companion Mia alerted the presence of a truffle. The two would go on into the field hunt and ultimately become the 2022 champions. [John Adair // Double Sided Media]

As for the festival itself, OTF was founded in 2006 by Charles Lefevre as a means of expanding the truffle industry. Another driving factor was to flip the reputation that native Oregon truffles had a weaker aroma than their European counterparts. 

“…I had them both, Oregon and European truffles, in the refrigerator at the same time, side-by-side, and was able to do this comparison. Whenever I opened the fridge it was THAT,” Lefevre said after displaying some freshly picked Oregon truffles. He noted that the reason this reputation came about was due to the raking method for harvesting truffles, which doesn’t distinguish between those that are ripe or unripe. 

In a typical year, OTF spreads all kinds of knowledge about truffles in addition to celebrating every aspect of the industry. In prior years, the event has been held over two weekends where attendees are given the chance to explore the variety of Oregon truffles, expose themselves to the science and educational opportunities behind truffles,  experience the culinary world with their own senses; and celebrate truffle’s—and man’s—furry best friend.

Spectators observe the MCs as they state the rules, procession, and answer questions. The Joriad takes place within the livestock building at the Lane County Fairgrounds each year, with exception to the field hunt, and is normally attended by hundreds. [John Adair // Double Sided Media]
A judge confirms the finding of a truffle vial. The first portion of the championship has teams sniff inside randomized bins that may or may not contain one of these vials. Between each team judges change the positions of the bins. [John Adair // Double Sided Media]

First, dogs go through nose-training sessions in order to learn how to lock-on a particular smell. Then they begin hunting the truffle through a number of methods, such as using oil in a punctured vial or having their favorite toy dabbed with some, finding it after it has been hidden away.

“I didn’t expect it this year. Because…prior to the competition she was a mess. She just gave a lot of false alarms. She just wanted to get the treats. So I decided to not expect too much,”  Watanabe said of Vivi’s performance. “I decided to just let her go by herself and then she was successful.” Watanabe has been training Vivi to hunt truffles since 2018.

Vivi, an 8-year-old Cairn Terrier. This was Vivi’s first time at the Joriad. She and her owner, Yoshiko Watanabe, made to the second round before coming up short on the minimal amount of found truffles. [John Adair // Double Sided Media]
Vivi sits in a bin as a way of telling her owner, Yoshiko Watanabe, that she believes there’s a truffle present. While Watanabe didn’t specifically train her Cairn Terrier to do this many dogs will naturally take on their own methods of alerting their owners. [John Adair // Double Sided Media]

Despite Watanabe and Vivi making it to the second portion of the competition—locating truffles buried in the ground, while still in the animal arena—they, along with Max and Reggie, did not make it to the field hunt. In the end, it was Mia, a 17-month-old Lagotto, and Jonathan Taylor who took first place with a whopping 35 truffles found within the hour time limit. 

Reggie, a 7-year-old Dachshund, waits outside with his handler before the championship begins. The 2022 Joriad was Reggie’s second attempt at the event after a failed first try due to what his owner says was anxious nerves brought on by overstimulation. [John Adair // Double Sided Media]

One thing is for sure though, as Oregon prepares to end its mask mandates in March, it could be assumed that OTF will return to its pre-COVID-19 numbers of hosting about 500 individuals during the championship in 2023 — compared to the 100-or-so this year. With so many interested spectators, it can’t be denied that the efforts of Lefevre and his team are making waves in the world of truffles.

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