Fungus Hunters

Roll Over Truffle Hog, Your Job Is Going to the Dogs


Gigi, a white-truffle hunter, delicately holds one in his mouth after finding it in the Piedmont woods of Northern Italy

Photograph by Giuseppe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images

Gigi, a white-truffle hunter, delicately holds one in his mouth after finding it in the Piedmont woods of Northern Italy

Workers everywhere these days worry that they’re replaceable: Expedia (EXPE) has thinned the ranks of the travel agents, Turbotax (INTU) has culled the accountants, computers can perform document searches once left for young corporate lawyers, and Tesla (TSLA) builds cars with a workforce of robots. Who knows what legions IBM’s (IBM) Watson will put out of work?

But it’s not just technology that takes jobs—sometimes it’s another species. Take the case of the truffle hog.

For centuries, pigs had a virtual lock as the hired noses of the truffle-hunting industry. The aromatic subterranean mushroom has been a delicacy since the Roman Empire, and pigs have been used to hunt them for that long. Swine have sensitive noses that they like sticking in the earth—and like (some) people, they have a taste for truffles. There’s some speculation that truffles contain compounds found in porcine sex hormones, though experimental evidence casts doubt on that explanation for the affinity.

Despite their prodigious truffle-hunting talents, however, pigs have begun losing out to dogs in the labor market, according to a recent story in Modern Farmer. The piece lists four reasons for the shift:

“One, [dogs] have more stamina than your average porker. Two, they’re easier to train. Three, dogs are much less likely to try to eat the truffle once they find it. You don’t want to wrestle with a 300-pound hog when it’s interested in chowing down on a truffle. … But the real competitive advantage for canines lies in truffle hunting’s furtive nature. Truffle harvesting grounds are carefully kept secrets, with hunters being wildly protective of their turf. “If you have a pig on a leash, everyone knows what you’re doing,” says [Charles] Lefevre [organizer of the annual Oregon Truffle Festival]. But if you spot someone with a pooch on a leash, they could just be enjoying some fresh country air.”

The shift seems to be pronounced in the U.S., particularly in the damp Pacific Northwest and its fertile truffle grounds. A small industry has grown up there to train truffle hounds. The Italian Lagotto Romagnolo is prized, but other breeds can excel at the hunt. The annual Oregon Truffle Festival holds a seminar where dogs can be out hunting truffles after a day of training.

The Modern Farmer story hints at a further reason dogs are moving into the pigs’ truffle turf, and it has less to do with truffles than the modern American owner-pet relationship. One standout truffle hound, a Belgian Malinois named Ilsa, got into the game because her owner wanted something the two could do together. The dog’s owner, a retired K9 cop named Kris Jacobson, comes off as a bit of a canine dragon mother: First the two tried competitive dog frisbee, but Ilsa hurt her knee, so they turned to something called competitive “nose work,” in which dogs compete to find hidden essential oils. Jacobson thought this wasn’t enough of a challenge and decided Ilsa should be hunting for an actual smelly thing out in the wild. These days Jacobson hires out Ilsa to clients who want to spend a day working with an elite truffle hound.

The national trend might be moving toward smaller, more toy-like indoor dog breeds, and some of the traditional jobs that dogs perform are being fulfilled by other species, but some people still yearn to have dogs that do stuff. If that’s the case, a pig put of work by a truffle hound has a right to be resentful. A dog that doesn’t hunt for truffles is likely to be just a pet, but an unemployed pig is likely to end up as dinner, perhaps with some shaved truffles.

Bennett_190
Bennett is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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