Fleka is a black Labrador retriever. Her name comes from the Czech word ‘Fleku,’ which roughly translates into ‘spot.’ Besides the translation coinciding with the classic English name for dogs, Fleka lives up to her title: she’s spot on when it comes to hunting truffles.
Pigs used to be the go-to animal for hunting the lucrative and delicious mushrooms, which grow underground at the root of trees, but recently dogs have become a favoured option.
While Fleka’s owner, Thomas Maler, always liked the taste of truffles, he never thought to hunt for them until a “serendipitous” trip two years ago.
He had a friend who owns a truffle dog that was going to attend the Oregon Truffle Festival. The friend invited Maler to come along to watch her dog work with truffle dog trainer Kelly Slocum. Maler had left Fleka in the car to avoid disrupting the lesson, but that quickly changed.
“She also knew I had a black Lab, and all of her truffle dogs are black Labs,” Maler said. “She said bring Fleka back… After 10 minutes she said, ‘You should train that dog because she has great potential.’”
Maler came home with specific instructions and truffle targets – a small plastic container filled with truffles samples – to practise with. He kept in touch with Slocum and soon saw results.
“It was absolutely amazing, in about a couple months she was working perfectly,” Maler said.
The duo started working within the house before moving to the backyard– where they still train twice per week– and then to local forests.
“She got two wild truffles last year,” Maler said, adding that she also helped local cultivators find truffles at their orchard. “But this year we found what we’re pretty sure is an Oregon white truffle in a park near me.”
The find is a significant discovery because Fleka found the truffle at the roots of a deciduous tree, when Oregon white truffles are known to only grow under Douglas firs.
Maler sent the truffle to retired mycology researcher Shannon Berch for confirmation. She is currently running a DNA analysis on the specimen, but visually they are 99 per cent sure they are right.
In the meantime, whenever Maler finds truffles locally, he opts to give them to a couple of his friends who own upscale restaurants in the Capital Region.
“I would trade, I wouldn’t sell them,” he said with a laugh. “I trade it for credits for food, and eat my way through.”