How Karelian Bear Dogs Are Keeping Wildlife Out of Harm's Way
Rooster can’t see the bear, but he knows it’s close. He squirms beneath his collar, cocking his sharp-eared head back to twitch his nostrils toward the Sun, taking in as much mid-summer air as he can. The musky odor polluting the clearing stirs an instinct in him perfected by 12,000 years of selective breeding. When tracking a bear, Rooster can detect that scent from up to three miles away—but tracking isn't the reason he was brought out today.
Suddenly, shouts bounce off the pine trees edging the clearing in the Sierra Nevada mountains. A black bear lumbers out of the box on the flatbed truck parked there and Rooster's handler frees him. The dog shoots forward at the huge bear, barking and lunging, forcing it into the forest.
But then, the bear comes to complete stop. It turns and rises up on its hind legs to face its pursuer. Rooster stands face to face with the menacing predator, barking louder than ever, dodging the bear's swipes.
After less than a minute, the bear collapses to all fours and hurries into the woods, determined to get as far away as possible.
Rooster is a Karelian bear dog, a breed originating in Finland. “They have an innate ability to deal with a bear on the ground,” says Heather Reich, a game biologist and human-bear conflict specialist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife. “The breed has no desire to actually hurt or kill a bear, they just want to nip at it a bit.”
Rooster works with Reich at the NDoW. It's one of a handful of agencies in the U.S. with at least one KBD on its bear management team.
When someone in the state reports a bear that’s getting into trouble—maybe by visiting the same trash cans every night, or sleeping under someone’s front porch—it’s up to NDoW to remove it from the human-populated area and release it somewhere safe. But if the conditions of the release aren’t just right, the animal is likely to return to the same spot, putting people and itself at risk.
That’s where Karelian bear dogs come in. A bear is used to being at the top of the food chain, and when it’s confronted by a barking dog, even one a fraction of its size, it probably won't forget the experience for a while. Instead of associating the location near its release with easy-to-access food, it remembers the scary animal that chased it and finds a new place to hunt and forage.
Many dog breeds can be trained to track and chase big game. What makes KBDs unique is their fearlessness in the face of a predator that’s bold enough to fight back. “When that bear stops and turns on the dogs, most dogs are going to turn tail and run home, with a bear following behind it,” Reich tells Mental Floss. “The Karelians stand their ground and let the bear know they aren’t going anywhere.”
Conflict with bears falls into two categories: bears threatening or hurting humans and human property, and humans disturbing bears in their natural habitat. These clashes go back tens of thousands of years. In the Paleolithic era, both bears and humans sought shelter in caves and ate similar foods, possibly competing for those resources. Chauvet Cave in France, famous for its 32,000-year-old paintings, contains crude depictions of prehistoric bears. Bear fossils, including skeletons, paw prints, and a single skull someone had displayed on a high ledge, have been recovered from the site as well. The skull’s prominent placement could be an indication of an early human perception of bears as powerful, anthropomorphic beings. While revering bears, Paleolithic humans also hunted them for their meat and fur, and saved their bones to make weapons.
Bears disappear each winter for hibernation and reemerge in the spring, and in North America, they became symbols of life, death, and rebirth in Indigenous cultures across the continent. While some Native Americans (very carefully) hunted bears for meat, the practice was avoided by others out of awe and respect. Traditions among the Flathead people of Montana dictate that shamans receive their knowledge from bears, and according to a 1996 paper, members of the Blackfeet tribe, also from Montana, “would rather starve than eat the flesh of a bear.”
In Europe, however, bears were regarded as something to be conquered and exploited. In addition to traps and weapons, dogs were used to capture big game and eventually, people began breeding them for that purpose. Bears had been completely eradicated in some regions by first century CE.
When Europeans started arriving in North America, they brought their attitudes toward bears with them. The bear fur trade was a booming business in the 18th century, and bear meat was a common ingredient in recipes. In the early 19th century, residents of Medina County, Ohio declared a “war of extermination” on wolves, bears, and other predators threatening their livestock. Twenty-one bears were massacred in the span of a single Christmas Eve night in 1818.
While bears were being subjected to unregulated slaughter, humans were chipping away at their territory. Forests were leveled from coast to coast and replaced with settlements, forcing many bears to seek food and shelter in human-occupied land and thus increase their chances of getting shot. By the early 1900s, black bear numbers in North America had dwindled from approximately 2 million before colonization to around 200,000. Grizzly bears were hit hard by the Europeans' westward expansion: Between 1850 and 1920, the bears' distribution—which had once stretched from modern Alaska to the southern tip of Mexico—decreased by 95 percent. That population’s range shrank 52 percent in the next 50 years.
The trend began reversing in the 1970s as evidence mounted that native species were facing extinction due to human activity. President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law in 1973. The ESA defined an endangered species as “any species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range” and a threatened species as “any species which is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future.” Under these definitions, black bears and grizzlies were considered endangered in some states, and federal agencies now had an obligation to protect them.
That didn’t mean the old perception of bears as vicious man-eaters vanished completely. These two schools of thought—one that said every bear that crossed paths with humans was dangerous, and another that said bears should never be harmed or disturbed—grew into equal and opposing forces that only made conservationists’ jobs more difficult.
“When animals come into conflict against humans, it can often create an attitude against the species, and it can reduce the support we have for conservation, especially when it comes to predators,” says Rae Wynn-Grant, a conservation biologist with the American Museum of Natural History who studies black bears in the Lake Tahoe Basin. “Even the mere threat that predators might cause conflict, especially in areas with a lot of ranching or a lot of livestock, can lead to policies that ultimately are put in place to decimate the population.”
There are many situations that prompt nuisance bear complaints: One of the most common is bears rooting through unlocked garbage containers. In parts of Florida—the nation’s leader in bear conflict reports, with an average of 5500 per year—residents are required to lock up their waste in special bear-resistant bins.
In other cases, bears aren’t content with searching for meals outside people’s homes. Last year in the Lake Tahoe Basin, which is home to a black bear population of roughly 500 today, 14 bear break-ins were reported in a single town, according to The Sacramento Bee. The trespassers did thousands of dollars' worth of damage, destroying furniture, raiding refrigerators, even breaking a gas line in one home. And when bears get too comfortable on human property, they pose a threat to people as well. When one Lake Tahoe City resident confronted a bear in his cabin last summer, he came out of the encounter needing 12 staples in his head and 20 in his stomach.
Houses and garbage cans can theoretically be kept safe from bears with better security, but free-range cattle are harder to protect. In 2015, a rancher from Island Park Idaho told the Capital Press that grizzlies had killed 14 of his cows in four years, and he blamed local wildlife officials for not doing more to stop them. “We need to have methods to protect our livestock,” Brian Mays told the Press. “This is my livelihood.”
But not every bear conflict leads to bloodshed, or even an overturned trash can. Wynn-Grant tells Mental Floss that most bear conflicts that are called in are actually just sightings: In other words, a person sees a black bear wandering through their backyard or crossing their street, but otherwise keeping to itself, and they decide to report it because they feel it doesn’t belong there.
Without assets like Karelian bear dogs at their disposal, wildlife officials have a few options when someone calls in a nuisance bear [PDF]: They can visit the site of the incident to check things out, capture the bear and release it some place far away, or they can euthanize it. That third option is a last resort for most agencies, reserved for bears that break into houses and act aggressively towards people. Capture and release is the preferred method for dealing with bears that have become a problem—by developing a taste for bird seeds or human trash, for instance—but haven’t proven to be dangerous, though this strategy presents its own set of challenges.
In the early days of bear management in the 1970s, wildlife officers relocated bears hundreds of miles away from the sites where they were found. That way, the thinking went, the bears wouldn’t return to the same trash cans that had attracted them in the first place.
But relocation didn’t really work. No matter how much distance was placed between bears and their problematic feeding grounds, many were able to find their way back—sometimes in a matter of days. The protocol for bears that return to the same spot after relocation was (and still is) euthanization. As for the bears that didn’t return, some had trouble finding food in their new environment, and many starved to death. It wasn't until the early 2000s that the first bear management groups added Karelian bear dogs to their relocation plans. And they were primed for the challenge.
Fossil records indicate that an ancestor of the Karelian bear dog first emerged in northeastern Europe around 10,000 BCE. An early member of the spitz family—cold-weather dogs characterized by pointed ears, curled tails, and thick coats—these pets lived alongside Vikings in Scandinavia and were even buried with their masters.
As the centuries progressed, the dogs took on a specialized role as hunters of big game. Dog owners in Karelia (which is part of Russia and Finland today) bred them for traits such as speed, strength, shepherding ability, and most importantly, fearlessness. Like other hunting breeds, KBDs were trained to silently track prey alongside a hunter, and then, once they had picked up the scent, pursue it on its own. Loud barking or baying would indicate to the hunter that the game had been cornered and was ready to be claimed.
Karelian bear dogs are still used to hunt this way in Finland. In other rural parts of Europe where bears are common, they're used as guard dogs. It was the latter use of KBDs that in the early 1980s caught the attention of biologist Carrie Hunt.
After earning a masters degree in wildlife biology from the University of Montana, Hunt became was one of the first biologists to use aversive conditioning on wild bears, a method in which an animal is trained to associate a place or behavior with pain, fear, or discomfort. She help pioneer the rubber bullet and pepper spray conditioning methods, and was looking for new approaches when she learned of a certain dog breed protecting field researchers from polar bears in Norway. If KBDs were being used to scare bears away from people in Europe, Hunt thought, why couldn’t they do the same with nuisance bears in the U.S.?
In the 1990s, Hunt imported her first Karelian bear dogs to the U.S. from Finland. Those dogs became the foundation for the Wind River Bear Institute, a new facility where Hunt bred and trained the dogs for aversive conditioning. Today, the Montana-based organization connects dogs to wildlife management groups as local as Glacier National Park and as far away as Japan.
Not every puppy that’s born at Wind River grows up to shepherd bears. “People hear the name ‘bear dog’ and think this dog will be a good dog with bears, and it’s more the exception to the rule,” says Nils Pederson, the wildlife service dog program coordinator at the Wind River Bear Institute.
When the dogs are just a couple months old, they undergo a series of tests that determines the path they take.The initial trial may involve crawling through a confined area, something working bear dogs encounter frequently when chasing bears out from under people's houses or tracking them in their dens. Later, trainers may lead puppies to an upright metal barrel to see how they react in the presence of something large and imposing. Once they’ve graduated past that stage, which takes three weeks on average, the dogs are tasked with sniffing out animal carcasses. This gives trainers a chance to see which dogs are capable of tracking down wild animals, or at least which ones are willing to try. “We’re not only evaluating the pup’s personality in new and interesting situations, we’re also determining their level of boldness, what motivates them, and then, ultimately, how do they react in a frightening situation or a startling situation that involves bears,” Pederson tells Mental Floss.
A pup that whimpers when confronted with an object several times its size doesn’t automatically flunk out—the tests are just as much about evaluating instinct as they are about teaching the right behaviors. The process plays another role that’s vital in this line of work. When the top dogs move on to work with real bears, they’ll be expected to perform a job where the wrong move or the slightest hesitation could lead to serious injury or worse. By following such a rigorous training and evaluation process, the trainers at Wind River can be confident they’re not sending any dogs into the field that don’t belong there. Pederson says, “You need a dog that’s smart enough not to get itself killed.”
About 20 to 40 percent of every litter produced at the Wind River Bear Institute goes on to work as bear dogs, with clients shelling out $4000 per animal. Some of the few existing bear dog programs receive no state funding, so officials have to look else for their budget: Washington's program is "budget neutral," with funding coming entirely from outside donations, and Nevada relies on donors and money from department employee's own pockets to maintain its bear dog program.
Educating the public is also an important part of the Wind River’s commitment to reducing bear conflict. The institute brings the KBDs to places in need of a bear management plan, where they can raise awareness of the issue and show people what can be done to tackle the problem. The dogs at Wind River are trained to be friendly, which means they can be brought into elementary schools and meet kids who may be hearing about bear conflict issues for the first time.
Karelian bear dogs are still rare in the U.S., but Hunt's project has inspired more breeders around the country to raise the dogs with wildlife conservation in mind. Many of the KBDs that are placed with bear management groups are never used for aversive conditioning—in Alaska, for example, they locate grizzly bear dens in potential oil fields so companies know which areas to avoid. But in places like Nevada, Washington, and Alberta, Canada, federal agencies are using the dogs as a deterrent.
The Nevada Department of Wildlife Karelian Bear Dog program germinated in 2001, when the department's black bear biologist Carl Lackey took home Stryker, the grand-puppy of two KBDs from the Wind River Bear Institute who was bred by a biologist in Montana. During his time with the department, Stryker aided in the capture and release of over 500 bears and traveled by snowmobile, chairlift, and helicopter to reach vital dens.
When Stryker died in 2014 at age 13, he left a vibrant legacy. He sired Rooster, the 12-year-old KBD who's helped capture and release just as many bears as his father and is known as the "heart and soul" of the department's bear dog project. Rooster's own offspring have gone on to work with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the California Department of Fish and Game, and the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in Yellowstone National Park.
Today the NDoW's Karelian bear dog program comprises seven dogs, with the division's two leaders—Lackey and Reich—caring for each animal as their own. "They are members of our families and are often the center of attention," Reich says.
The team includes three of Rooster's offspring (Orca, Dazzle, and Sputnik), along with three puppies purchased from a breeder in Ontario (Kondii, Gimbal, and Banjo). Rooster is approaching retirement age, but the next generation of dogs continues his work every year when hungry bears start crawling out of their hibernation dens and into people’s dumpsters.
When a problem bear in Nevada has been tranquilized, tagged, and caged in a barrel for transport, the NDoW uses a few aversive conditioning strategies upon its release. First officers create a frightening situation for the bear by shouting at it or using noisemakers—a barking Karelian bear dog helps amplify the confusion. Once the bear has left its barrel, it’s pelted with rubber bullets or balls. This pushes the bear into a sprint, which means the Karelian bear dog on the scene can be sent to chase after it.
Research has shown that the dogs are crucial to this process. For a 2002 study co-authored by Lackey, 62 problem black bears in the Lake Tahoe basin were captured and fitted with radio collars. The bears were either released without intervention (the control group) or released with common deterrents like loud noises or rubber bullets (the experimental group). Half of the bears in the experimental group were also chased by hounds or Karelian bear dogs during their release. According to the study, bears who were chased by dogs took approximately 100 days longer to return to the urban areas than the bears who weren’t. “The only significant variable … was the use of dogs,” the paper notes. When paired with other strategies, such as shooting rubber bullets, yelling loudly, or firing cracker shells, a barking, fearless dog on a bear’s tail is more effective at keeping it away.
The benefits of using dogs on top of other methods is obvious to those who work with them. Rae Wynn-Grant is a part of the longest-running black bear research project in the U.S., which studies the patterns of human-bear conflicts in the Adirondacks in New York and the Lake Tahoe Basin, and she gets to see releases in Nevada up close. “They run just as fast if not faster than the bear, and they’re super agile," she says. "There’s more accuracy [compared to rubber bullets] with the dogs being right up there with the bear. That’s something that only animals are able to do.”
Bear management programs are catching on to the benefits of having one or two KBDs on their team. The NDoW, which deals with a black bear population that straddles the Nevada-California border, has shown the California Department of Fish and Wildlife how to use the dogs on their bear releases. While the CDFW doesn’t have an official Karelian bear dog program set up yet, they’re looking into acquiring a few dogs of their own.
Thanks to a new emphasis on non-lethal management methods, bear populations are recovering. Black bear numbers in North America now approach 1 million, and grizzlies in Yellowstone National Park have rebounded to full capacity. But growing bear populations and the creep of human development means that conflicts are more likely to happen than ever, and though most black bears that wander onto residential property aren’t aggressive toward humans, one study found that 86 percent [PDF] of black bear attacks in North America between 1900 and 2009 have occurred since 1960.
This trend will likely mean good business for the Wind River Bear Institute. Nils Pederson predicts that states in the Northeast like Pennsylvania and New Jersey will eventually adopt bear dog programs to handle the black bear boom they’ve seen in recent years. He also sees the dogs being used to control polar bears in Arctic communities as climate change-related sea ice loss pushes the predators into populated areas.
The responsibility of reducing bear-human conflict ultimately falls with local communities, Lackey notes. For residents, that means keeping food in locked containers, taking down bird feeders after winter, and recognizing the difference between a nuisance bear and a bear that’s just passing through the neighborhood. For now, working dogs like Rooster still have a serious job ahead of them.