Which smells stronger: illegal drugs or ripe truffles? Deputy Sheriff Todd Swendsen in Salem, Ore., uses his background as a narcotics officer to train his own shepherd puppy, Bella, to sniff out the wild Oregon Truffle.
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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
And now the story of a narcotics deputy, a canine sniffer and a fungus practically worth its weight in gold. Out in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, the wild Oregon truffle adorns the roots of Douglas fir trees. But without a discerning snout to detect the most mature specimens, harvesters resort to raking for truffles. That can damage the underground treasure.
Those harvesters and the farmers behind the country's nascent truffle industry might be interested in guys like Deputy Sheriff Todd Swendson.
Deputy Sheriff TODD SWENDSON: Hi. How are you?
ELLIOTT: He's using his background as a narcotics officer to train his own shepherd puppy, Bella, to sniff out truffles. He got the idea from an article in Bark magazine.
Deputy Sheriff SWENDSON: It primarily talked about dogs harvesting truffles out of the earth instead of using pigs, which they do in Italy and other countries.
ELLIOTT: It's been said that dogs make better truffle hunters because they don't eat their bounty. NPR cannot confirm the theory at this time, but Todd Swendson swears by it. Even if little Bella did eat the first truffle she found.
Deputy Sheriff SWENDSON: The first one I gave to her, kind of almost like a food reward for her, too.
ELLIOTT: To train Bella, he put truffles in a pipe and played fetch. As Bella began to recognize the elite fungal scent, he then buried the truffles in film canisters.
Deputy Sheriff SWENDSON: She'll go down. She'll take a big smell, and you can tell that she's changing behavior just on that primary area where the truffle is under the earth, and they will either bark, scratch or bite at the odor, which is called an alert.
(Soundbite of dog barking)
ELLIOTT: I asked Officer Swendson if this was the same technique he used to train his narcotics dog.
Deputy Sheriff SWENDSON: Yeah, very similar. My narcotics dog, he has to learn not only ground level finds, but he's got to learn mid-finds and high finds.
ELLIOTT: Like in a car or rooms of a house.
Deputy Sheriff SWENDSON: Even in a ceiling, he's located stuff, so with her, she's primarily going to be strictly on the ground.
ELLIOTT: Is it easier or more difficult to train a dog to spot a truffle versus illegal drugs?
Deputy Sheriff SWENDSON: I would say narcotics is more work. The only hard part with doing truffles, I think, is that we really want to focus on her finding only the ripe truffles, and that's kind of what certain handlers are running into as a problem, is that they're unearthing these truffles that aren't ripe. That's why I really work on her just using ripe truffles so she only gets that odor down so we're not disturbing the ground and pulling them premature.
ELLIOTT: Which is stronger, we wondered, the odor of ripe truffles or the smell of drugs? Good question, said the law man.
Deputy Sheriff SWENDSON: Truffles are just, you know, you've got a really good garlic smell on the whites and in the blacks you've got a tropical fruit-like smell when they're ripe. So I would honestly rather smell truffles than I would narcotics any day, but if you were to just rate either one, I would say truffles are really probably stronger.
ELLIOTT: Deputy Sheriff Todd Swendson of Salem, Oregon. His shepherd, Bella, will demonstrate her olfactory prowess at the second annual Oregon Truffle Festival next weekend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.