FLORENCE, Idaho — Karelian Bear Dogs are either born with what it takes to be shepherd bears, or they’re not. The Wind River Bear Institute sits in the heart of the Bitterroot Valley and is home to some of the country’s hardest working canines. The Wind River Partners in Life program trains bear dogs for wildlife management across the United States and Canada. They play an important role in protecting the lives of both humans and bears. The Wind River bear dogs are trained in the art of shepherding bears, or hazing them away from campgrounds, trails and other areas where they could cause human/bear conflict.
The pressure to perform their job begins from an early age.
When the bear dogs are about 10 weeks old, they participate in puppy trials. The puppies do not receive training prior to the trials. Handlers are testing for the puppies’ natural bear shepherding and work ability.
Handlers set up a bear mount in an open field and cover it in bear scent. Puppies are led through the woods toward the mount. Handlers watch the puppies and how they react to both the scent and the bear.
“Dogs who run right up to the bear, barking and carrying on, are ‘conflict’ dogs,” Tim Cavey, Wind River Bear Institute volunteer of eight years, said. “’Protection dogs will run and warn the trainers of the danger ahead. Dogs with no interest, we call them ‘video game players.’”
Akela, the lead bear dog at Wind River, proved he was born to be a conflict dog in bear management. When he was a puppy, he ran up to the bear mount and bit it on the nose.
“It’s in their genetics,” Kelsie Hay, Wind River trainer, said. “Akela knows what to do with himself. His big command is his recall. We don’t throw any Karelian into this. They have to choose this life. The ones who are fearful or uninterested in bears won’t become conflict dogs. We don’t want to put the dogs in situations that scare them or make them uncomfortable.”
Karelian bear dogs are a Finnish breed. Carrie Hunt, founder of Wind River, brought four dogs back from Finland to begin her bear dog program.
Finding a solution
Hunt received her degree in Wildlife Biology and was a part of several bear management efforts while working as a biologist. After seeing bears unsuccessfully relocated and/or euthanized, Hunt decided to create a better program for bear management. Akela is from the first generation of puppies born in the United States by the original dogs from Finland.
These dogs are extremely independent, and Akela is no exception. To demonstrate, Cavey calls him over from across the yard where he found a particularly interesting bush to sniff. Akela didn’t acknowledge any of Cavey’s commands. A few minutes passed and Cavey had already moved on to another topic when Akela sauntered over and sat down at his feet.
“Look at him,” Cavey said. “He’s like, ‘I’m coming, but at my pace. I’m not a golden retriever.’”
A unique breed
Karelian bear dogs are a far stretch from golden retrievers. They are acutely aware of their mission and act on their instincts without prompting from their handlers.
Bear dogs will bark an alert as soon as they sense a bear in the area. Akela, specifically, will bark and vigorously pull at his leash when he detects a bear.
The primary job for bear dog trainers is paying attention to their dog. Bear dogs almost always work in teams of two dogs and two trainers. The dogs may track individually, but once a bear is located, they use teamwork to shepherd it to an appropriate location. The dogs are strapped to their handler by a leash that connects the dog to a band around their handler’s waist. The bear dogs bark and push while the humans follow, yelling, firing blanks and making noise.
“It’s my job to then keep my eyes and ears open,” Cavey said. “They have the attitude of ‘I’m going to go do this, are you coming?’”
Karelian bear dogs have a unique game sense that drives them to sense and search for wild animals. German shepherds also have good noses, so they can be taught to sniff out various things such as narcotics or missing people. They are driven by the promise of a reward if they locate what their trainer has asked them to find.
Bear dogs are completely driven by their senses and couldn’t care less about a reward. They sniff out bears because it is in their blood.
“If they start barking and carrying on, odds are it’s a bear,” Cavey said. “We’ve got one dog who has a thing for cats. With him, it could be a mountain lion or a carcass, but it’s usually a bear. They’ve all got their peccadilloes.”
Akela and his family have worked all over North America to aid in wildlife management.
His lineage has worked extensively in Canada around the Kananaskis region to shepherd bears away from campgrounds and golf courses.
The dogs’ jobs are called pushes. Cavey estimates Wind River goes on 800 pushes a year. Akela went to Alberta with Hay in mid-July to work the 24 Hours of Adrenaline mountain bike race. Prior to race day, Akela walked the entire race course and checked for signs of bear activity. Any bear rubs, scat or carcasses are marked on a map and the coordinates are recorded on a GPS device. Hay and Akela then monitor these “hot spots” for any further activity. During the race, Akela was on-call in case any further activity was reported. Karelian bear dogs have proven to be one of the best methods for wildlife management.
“We like to say it’s nonviolent,” Cavey said. “They’re a much better option for control than drugging or euthanasia.”
Hay said bears have the ability to remember and retain information they learn from Karelian pushes.
“It’s giving them the opportunity to learn and live,” Hay said. “This is the only method of nonlethal bear management right now. Relocation is usually unsuccessful because bears are opportunists. Most problem bears are destroyed.”
Bears are naturally lazy and don’t want to run into other predators, such as dogs or humans, Hay said. They don’t usually make their own kills because they prefer to forage for vegetation and feed on the carcasses left by other animals.
The Partners in Life program encourages bears to remain wild and forage naturally. Hay said humans need to be better about storing their garbage, grain and birdseed because leaving these items unsecured is like tempting a bear with a buffet.
The program hopes to give bears the opportunity to save themselves and teach a mutual respect of space between bears and humans.