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Bear Bells with a Bark and a Bite

Pedigreed pepper spray? Handguns that heel? Bear bells with a bark?

Biologist Carrie Hunt wants to introduce an age-old tool to reduce conflicts between wild bears and humans---the dog.

Hunt, a participant at the Tenth Annual Conference on Bear Research and Management held recently in Fairbanks, thinks a special dog should do a job now assigned to rubber bullets, pepper spray and other gadgets. After becoming interested in using dogs to deter and repel bears in the early 1980's, Hunt found a breed that seems perfect for the task---the Karelian bear dog.

Just like a Labrador retriever is born nuts about ducks, Karelians enter the world with a keen sense for bears. Bear hunters have bred Karelian bear dogs for centuries in eastern Finland and western Russia. A properly trained Karelian bear dog will guard homes, camps, and people by warning bears away, according to Hunt, a biologist with federal, state and private agencies for 20 years in Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico and Canada.

Hunt recently resigned her position as leader of the New Mexico Black Bear Project so she can devote her time to training and breeding Karelian bear dogs. Ultimately, she wants to further the peaceful coexistence of people and bears.

Karelian bear dogs are handsome descendants of elk hounds with the body of a husky, right down to the curlicue tail. Adults weigh about 50 pounds. Most of them are dairy cow black-and-white with intense eyes that peer through a raccoon-like mask of black. Because they hail from the subarctic, Hunt thinks they will thrive in Alaska.

She hopes Karelians will be used by the public and by government agencies as tools to avoid bear encounters and to adversely condition problem bears. She gave an example of "trap- happy" black bears in New Mexico who didn't mind being caught in cage-type traps repeatedly for the reward of stinky, but apparently tasty, bait. When a bear made a habit of going for the free meals, Hunt released the bear with her two Karelians hot on its heels. The dogs treed the bear, making it associate visiting the trap with an unpleasant experience.

"The important thing to remember is that these dogs are not hounds that will run the bears for miles; these are guard dogs," Hunt said. "They just want to get the bear out of there."

Hunt thinks a well-trained Karelian will be a valuable trail companion for Alaska hikers and other bear-country outdoor enthusiasts. A Karelian at the heel of a hiker who suddenly encounters a bear feeding on a moose carcass will start barking. If barking doesn't scare the bear and the bear charges, the difference between other dogs and Karelians is then apparent. Hunt said Karelians will run toward the bear.

"They're bred to guard, and to fight," Hunt said, adding that their strategy is to nip at a bear's backside. In that dire, but rare situation when a bear charges, Hunt said the Karelian will give its life for its owner.

However, the main goal is not for Karelian bear dogs to die fighting bears. It's to alert hikers and homeowners to a bear's presence and to warn bears away before they become a problem. She stressed that even though bear savvy is in their blood, not all Karelians want to work bears. And, once you have a Karelian bear dog, it expects something from you.

"You can't expect this to be a dog you put in the back yard," she said. "They want to be your partner; they want a purpose in life. It's up to you to bond with your dog and continue its training according to your specific needs."

For more information about the Karelian bear dogs or Hunt's program, write to:

Wind River Karelian Bear Dogs
"Partners in Life"
3133 E. Emigration Canyon Road
Salt Lake City, UT, 84108