Dogs aren’t just great companions. They can also be amazing self-defense sidekicks, alerting us to danger or scaring off unwanted visitors. For most of us, this means our dogs bark when our neighbours walk down the street or when something goes bump in the flat upstairs. But for one breed—the Karelian Bear Dog—that sort of behaviour is pure playground antics.
Rather than intimidating squirrels and cats, Karelian Bear Dogs dogs keep bears—yes, as in brown, black, and grizzly—on their toes.
While here in the UK we never have to worry about surprise bear encounters, for the folk living near the Rocky Mountains, where human populations are expanding into wildlife territory, bears are a more menacing problem.
The Wind River Bear Institute in Montana, has stepped in to help protect both bears and humans, and the key to their success is the Karelian Bear Dog.
This black-and-white breed is native to Finland, where the breed is considered a national treasure. These dogs have inhabited northeastern Europe and Scandinavia since Neolithic times.
Karelian Bear Dogs are quick on their toes and don’t scare easily; these traits made them useful to hunters of large game, like moose, boars, and of course bears.
Carrie Hunt is a bear biologist for the Wind River Bear Institute, and she noticed several unfortunate gaps in the way bears are managed and treated in zones where the two species intersect.
Several years ago, bears that came in contact with humans were put down, even if no one was harmed in the encounter. That meant that human error or ignorance—a camper failing to properly secure his provisions, for example—could result in a bear casualty.
At the same time, bears were becoming more comfortable venturing into human space, putting themselves (and humans!) in harm’s way.
Hunt realised that bears can be taught, just as we teach ourselves and our dogs new tricks all the time. She began training Karelian Bear Dogs not to hunt bears, but to ward them off.
How? The dogs create obnoxious, threatening noise, and quiet down again when bears go back to minding their own business. Often, humans help join in the ruckus. What bear would want to raid a picnic hamper while having to listen to screams and barks and noise-makers? (Not fun.)
The idea was to teach the bears that the predators are better off doing their own thing and letting humans do theirs.
The results have been promising. Not one human, bear, or dog has been injured in the twelve years Hunt’s been working and training her dogs. And the work helps fund the institute. One day of “bear intimidation” tactics can cost £400 to £700, and Hunt charges as much as £1800 for a trained Karelian.
A number of parks and wildlife teams use Karelians for the very same reason—to discourage bears from wandering into residential and park areas. In some cases, wildlife officers will trap a bear that’s sniffing too close to a human home. When it’s time to release the bear, a team of Karelians and humans stage a nerve-wracking goodbye party, firing rubber bullets as the bear is released and bringing out the dogs to bark and chase the animal.
It sounds harsh, but it’s meant to protect the bear’s life by discouraging repeat home invasions.
This video from Animal Planet shows one bear’s harrowing release:
Karelian Bear Dogs are more than 50cm (20 inches) tall and weigh between 20 and 23kg (45 and 50 pounds). They’re not large dogs (compared to a mastiff, say), but they’re stocky, powerful, and stay low to the ground. Karelians almost look like a blend of bear and wolf, but they’re warm, curious, and friendly with humans.
Certainly, for some humans living near bear populations, the Karelians truly are man’s best friend.