If You’re a Bear, These Dogs Will Give You Paws

When grizzlies and black bears start hanging around people, Carrie Hunt and her feisty Karelians persuade them to go away

For a bold Montana grizzly bear, it was an astonishing lesson. Where he had been sitting, fearlessly, by a remote cabin stood two black-and-white dogs. Their ferocious barking had spoken clearly. After a quick retreat to a dense stand of trees, the grizzly got his reward for a lesson learned well: peace and quiet.

Bear expert Carrie Hunt is pleased with the schooling provided by her trained Karelian bear dogs. From Alaska to New Mexico, Hunt and her Karelians teach bears to avoid people. As writer Mark Derr discovers, they aim not to banish bears but to encourage a peaceful coexistence that could preserve the animals.

Bears and people have not mixed well. Easy availability of human-provided food creates fearless nuisance bears who may then actively seek food from people. Such bears damage property and can be more dangerous than their "wild" brethren.

Traditional methods to deal with problem bears, such as shooting them with rubber bullets and other nonlethal rounds, have met with limited success. Even when the bears are trapped, tranquilized and transported to remote wilderness areas, more than half get back into trouble and must be killed.

Hunt and her dogs offer another approach. Native to Karelia, a region straddling the border between Finland and Russia, Karelian bear dogs are renowned for their hunting skill. Though not good as pets, once trained the dogs are ideal for reforming problem bears, the main goal of Hunt's nonprofit Wind River Bear Institute.

"These dogs can convey complex messages," says bear expert Stephen Herrero. "They can help us save bears."

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.