I train truffle hunting dogs at a luxury resort in Tennessee
- Jim Sanford, 67, works as a Lagotto Romagnolo dog trainer at the Blackberry Farm complex in Tennessee.
- He trains the Italian breed to hunt locally grown Perigord black truffles, which can sell for over $ 1,000 a pound.
- This is what her job is like, as freelance writer Rebecca Treon recounted.
This narrated essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Jim Sanford, a truffle dog trainer in Tennessee. It has been edited for length and clarity.
When I was 25 in 1979, I met an elephant trainer at a dinner party and decided I wanted a career with animals. Soon after, I found a job at a place called Lion Country Safari in Florida where I trained elephants for the next 20 years.
I graduated in exotic animal training and management and worked in zoos and wildlife parks across North America and Thailand, and spent two years in Western Australia.
At 33, I married a librarian, who never had much interest in an elephant. When we returned to the United States, I came to Knoxville, Tennessee, to put two African elephants into charming school. In the end my son was in school and I had to find something else to do. So I found Blackberry Farm, a 4,200 acre resort in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.
Above all, Blackberry Farm is synonymous with hospitality.
I had never worked in a place like La Ferme before. I started doing grounds maintenance there in 1999. I quickly started a fly fishing program, followed by an equestrian program, then added sheep and chickens.
In 2007, Sam Beall, the owner, asked me if I could teach a dog to find a truffle. I told him, “I can teach a dog to find anything. We decided to start a Lagotto Romagnolo program and got our first dogs, Tom and Lussi; he was 5 years old and she was a puppy. I started with both from square one and trained them to find truffles.
Training a dog to hunt truffles uses the same technique as any scent job, including search and rescue.
Truffles have a very peculiar smell when they are ripe, and you imprint that smell on the dog and reward him for finding it. It is quite simple and straightforward.
A truffle is a mushroom that grows underground. In order to breed, a truffle gives off distinct smells and a passing animal would think, “Oh, there’s something very interesting out there. They dig it up, eat it and transmit the spores.
We train our dogs to locate the truffle by smell but when they find it we don’t want them to damage the truffle. The truffles grow several inches below the surface, so once the dogs start digging I immediately call them, go over there and carefully dig up the truffle. It works quite well.
Once we trained Tom and Lussi, we raised over 200 pounds in just a few months.
We harvested truffles from a farm about 100 miles from our home that grew Perigord black truffles, which can cost over $ 1,000 a pound. In addition to here in Tennessee, there are truffles growing in other parts of the United States, like Willamette Valley in Oregon and even California.
I receive my dogs from a lagotto romagnolo breeder in Italy. Currently we have two males and six females. We sell the puppies exclusively to Blackberry Farm customers. We now have four litters per year with six to eight puppies per litter. We have had approximately 300 puppies born at Blackberry Farm. He is a hypoallergenic dog of medium size. Most are pets, only about two of the dogs that have gone to foster homes are used for truffle hunting.
Before a puppy leaves Blackberry Farm, I personally train them in house manners.
They learn to remember, to sit, to stay, not to jump on people, to potty practice and to walk gently on a leash. Because the breed itself is very intelligent, it can be difficult.
I made the decision to personally deliver each puppy to their new owner just to give that owner and their puppy the best possible start.
On a typical day, I run the kennel and lead a tasting tour at the farm to show guests the property.
Throughout the day the kennel is the most visited part of the property as everyone loves to see the dogs so I am constantly interacting with the guests. It’s one of my favorite parts of my job.
Another program that I run is called Blackberry Abroad, where I take a small group of guests from Blackberry Farm on truffle hunting in Italy. We have contacts in Italy who have Italian white truffles growing on their property which, unlike the Périgord black truffle, cannot be cultivated. These truffles are only found in the wild, in northern Italy and a small part of Croatia. Location is a pretty well-kept secret, so I am happy to share the experience with Blackberry Farm customers.