Born to hunt bear
Finnish Bear Dogs are now being trained to protect bears, but controversy surrounds breeding of the animals
"The black and white colour, the fire
in his eyes, the carriage and vigour
of the Karelian Bear Dog catches the eye
of the hunter.
The dog is like a piece of untamed wilderness"
"He fed the family, drunk the clan,
supported the ancestors."
– From traditional Finnish poem
By Loreth Beswetherick
Karelia straddles the present-day border of Finland and Russia but the political split of the territory has shifted back and forth with bloody battles through history — a bifurcation between the competing influences of east and west.
But Karelia holds a place vital in Finnish cultural history and it is from this torn land one of the Finn’s national icons originates — the Karelian Bear Dog.
It is a hound with a wild and primitive spirit and energy. Loyal to one master for whom it will kill. A dog bred with the courage to hunt the Russian brown bear. The dog of a Finnish peasant and of the hunters and artists and scientists who moved into the backwoods of Karelia in the 1800s.
So dear to the Finn is the Bear Dog that when the Russians invaded Finnish Karelia in the Winter War of 1939 and 1940 and the Continuation War of 1941 to 1944 — over a million Finns fled the territory. Those who owned dogs killed them rather than leave them to the Russians. The breed — which had officially been named in 1936 — was destroyed to near extinction.
The Finnish Kennel club formed a committee and set to work re-establishing the breed standard in a small town in south-eastern Finland. It was in this town, in the fall of 1996, a commemorative life-size bronze statue of the Karelian Bear Dog was unveiled and erected in the town square. The town came to a standstill. All businesses shut down for the day and the town hall was given over to dancing and speeches. Dawne Deeley, a Bear Dog breeder from Sidney on Vancouver Island was there.
The next day an invitational hunt was held. It was open to only the top 14 Karelian Bear Dogs in all of Finland. "It was a very big honour for me to be invited to attend this," said Deeley. "This whole thing, the whole affair, was in honour of one breed of dog. That is how much pride the Finns have in their Karelians."
The oldest available written information traces the Bear Dogs back to the Komi hunter tribe of 900 AD and it is thought the dogs moved west with the hunters as they began to trade with the Karelians in 1100.
It is from this illustrious lineage that one small black and white Karelian Bear Dog puppy will come to make the Sea to Sky Corridor its home. Corridor conservation officer Steve Jacobi is waiting for one of Deeley’s pups. Deeley is one of the only breeders in this country with pure lineage.
When it is old enough, the young Bear Dog will likely receive some training from the RCMP dog handler in Squamish. "I will also look at some Canada Customs training," said Jacobi. "They train for searches. Any training I can piggy back on I am going to try and get for the dog."
It will then work, at the side of its master, in the conservation area stretching from Squamish to D’Arcy.
Jacobi has earned the trust of Deeley, a purist, who is dedicated to preserving the Finnish Bear Dog lineage in what is becoming a free-for-all in North America.
Deeley usually sells her dogs — to a carefully screened buyer — for $1,000 a pop. But to Jacobi, she will give the puppy as a gift. She feels she needs to get dogs into working homes. "In Europe, a Karelian cannot be a champion unless it has a working title and a show title." Deeley said the Finns are dead set on preserving character and working versatility as well as eye appeal — the complete dog. "That can be hard to get across to people here who think a show dog cannot find its way out of a kennel."
But she is still torn in her decision.
Jacobi will use his dog partly for bear aversion work — scaring bears into staying away from humans and from becoming habituated to garbage. "The irony," said Deeley, "is these dogs were never developed to protect bears. They were developed to keep bears from going anywhere so you could shoot them. Hunting is very, very much a part of Finnish culture," she said. "And these dogs are still used basically for hunting — mostly moose but some bear now because the bear has come back quite strongly in eastern Finland. For a while it was pretty much wiped out."
Jacobi said he will also use his dog to track and tree other wildlife. "I hope to use it for cougar chases and to be able to tree cougar. They have extraordinary ability to scent things down so I am hopeful I can train it to do searches on vehicles for firearms, wildlife and wildlife parts," said Jacobi. "The dogs have incredible ability, dedication and willingness to do a lot of work... very much a one-man dog. They have remained unchanged for thousands of years."
Jacobi first encountered the breed in Lethbridge, Alberta this spring where he was taking a course. There he met Shari Cousins with the Alberta fish and wildlife department. She was putting her new Bear Dog through training with the RCMP.
Cousins had bought her hound from the woman responsible for marching the little-known breed onto the US map and into the North American consciousness over the last two years — Utah’s Carrie Hunt, a bear biologist.
Hunt, of the Wind River Bear Institute, has developed a bear aversion program using a team of Karelian Bear Dogs. She uses the specially-trained hounds in combination with other aversive condition tools like red pepper spray, rubber bullets and on-site trap releases to modify bear behaviour. The dogs patrol for and warn bears to stay away. They also track specific problem bears. The goal is to keep the ursine beasts from getting into trouble, thus reducing bear/human conflict. Hunt works mostly with grizzlies and her methods have met with success in both Yosemite and in Glacier National Park.
It was in 1982, after becoming interested in using dogs to deter and repel bears, that Hunt first hit upon the breed she felt would be perfect for the task. As Border collies have an instinct to move sheep, the Karelian Bear Dog, she found, had an instinct for handling bears. They were not too big and not too small and full of "true grit." With similar colouring to the Border Collie, the Bear Dog has the body and shape of a strong-chested Husky.
After working with her team from New Mexico to Alaska, Hunt developed the Partners in Life program. She now breeds, selects and trains Karelian Bear Dogs and partners them with people in the field who are dedicated to working with, and conserving bears.
Hunt is currently in Alberta as a guest of Richard Quinlan, area biologist for the province. He wants to see if a Karelian Bear Dog program could be used to help protect the grizzlies, predominately in south-western Alberta.
"We have the most productive grizzly bear habitat in the province," said Quinlan. In the past problem grizzlies were shipped north to uncertain fate. "We have to look at a different approach."
Quinlan said he has convinced wildlife field officers, managers and Alberta’s assistant deputy minister to attend Hunt’s workshop. Also invited are a regional biologist from the Kootenays and two conservation officers from the Fernie area.
"I wanted them all to see it first hand then we will sit in a circle and decide whether this can be used or not," said Quinlan. "There are some negative aspects to using Bear Dogs. One of them is cost. It’s very labour intensive... it can take a minimum of two weeks of very intensive work with the Bear Dog crew to turn a bear around."
The program, said Quinlan could be ideal, to turn bears around that have just started appearing on private ranches before they become too used to people. He said it is unlikely the program would work with an already habituated bear.
"If you have an animal coming into the town of Banff and walking past 100 tourists and digging into the garbage, I think it is very unlikely that you are going to be able to turn that animal around," said Quinlan.
"On the other hand, if you have an animal, like we often do, that has started to live on private land in an area where there are very large ranches it can survive in that landscape without too much worry of running into people. But, then it suddenly starts hanging around the ranch house or eating grain that is spilled. That is a bad situation developing because the grizzly will get acclimatized to the people and dogs there. That bear can be turned around as long as you get to it quick enough. It takes recognition of that situation developing then you need the capability to take some proactive measure quickly, like the use of bear dogs," said Quinlan.
"Bringing Carrie Hunt in is sort of the last step in a number of steps that we have taken after a really tumultuous year in 1997 when there was a great deal of attention on grizzly bears in Alberta." said Quinlan.
The Nature Conservancy of Canada is helping fund Hunt’s trip and has indicated it will provide seed money for the program. Quinlan hopes the government will be embarrassed into chipping in.
In addition to piquing the interest of bear experts like Quinlan, Hunt’s story has been lapped up by American television programs, newspapers and glossies — all holding the Karelian out like a new American toy for the Christmas season. Now, everyone wants a Bear Dog.
And, this has purists like Deeley in a rage. American breeders are tying to turn a quick profit with dubious stock and the lineage, she feels, is being compromised.
Deeley is now fielding requests for dogs from two large US police departments, one of them the Dayton, Ohio police detachment. "They are in a quandary," said Deeley. "They cannot use Shepherds because of the lousy physical quality of most Shepherd breeds. They are not allowed to use any bull-type breed like bull mastiffs or bull terriers because of negative public perception, so they are down to looking at a lot of other breeds and are thinking about the Karelian," she said.
"The interest in the breed, I think, is quite misplaced... I was so angry when I saw Darryl Hannah do this big thing on Carrie Hunt and her dogs on the Knowledge Network. It was so Hollywood. This is not what these dogs are about. This is not what the Finns ever wanted these dogs to become. It really brought tears to my eyes," said Deeley.
"Carrie never took her dogs off their leashes. These dogs are bred to hunt off-leash and solo, miles away from the hunter. She uses a flock of dogs and other aversives including pepper spray, rubber bullets, bull horns and bear bangers. And the dogs seem to get all the credit. We have two pitbull terriers from a boar hunting kennel in Arkansas and they can do the same damn job," said Deeley.
"Carrie has made her reputation on the exploitation of dogs which are not pure-bred Karelian Bear Dogs."
Deeley said she now gets at least a dozen e-mails or phone calls a week from people saying they have a Bear Dog and they want to breed it because they know there is money in it. She said owners are registering so-called Karelian Bear Dogs with private American registries that will issue a piece of paper for 20 bucks.
"The American Kennel Club doesn’t recognize them," said Heeley. "This is coming up to Canada now. I ask people if they know it’s a federal law that you cannot sell a dog for consideration as a pure breed unless it is registered with a body recognized by Agriculture Canada."
Julie Jensen at Hunt’s Wind River Institute in Utah said, however, that Hunt’s dogs are all pure-bred Karelians. But she couldn’t say whether the American Kennel Club recognized the breed.
Deeley, who has officially been named the Karelian Bear Dog breed delegate for North America by the Finnish Spitz Club which governs the breed, said the club finally put its foot down this spring. They said no dogs will knowingly be exported from registered kennels in Finland to countries that do not officially recognize the Karelian standard. "This directive is aimed at the United Sates," said Deeley. "It’s a very nice way of saying Yankee go home."
Deeley has also refused to sell Hunt any of her puppies. She said after calling her Wind River dogs Karelians all this time, Hunt is now finally trying to get pure stock but Deeley is worried Hunt will cross-breed with her other dogs. She said the Karelian is often confused with the Russo-European Laika but the Canadian Kennel Club has now recognized them as distinct breeds.
Deeley herself earned the trust of the master Finnish breeders after many trips to Finland before she got her breeding stock.
"The protection of these dogs and their well-being and integrity have become everything to me. Every dog I have is named after a Finnish legendary person or a god. I want to make sure they are preserved in the way the old masters would have them."
She pointed out the dogs do not make good family pets. "They shed, they bark, they dig, they are difficult to train because they are too damn smart and they can be aggressive. They have a highly developed sense of self and are very independent," said Deeley.
"They can be very hard. You get a big male from a hunting background and he is going to be a big handful because he is bred to hunt a 600 or 700 pound bear... he sure as hell ain’t going to be afraid of you."
One of her bitches, Kati, is due to come into season any day now. "I am sitting here saying any day is fine with me sweetheart. As soon as she is ready to breed I have a stud lined up in southern Finland and she is going back on the plane and away she goes," said Deeley. A pregnant Kati will fly back and give birth to perhaps a half-dozen pure Karelian Bear Dog pups.
One of Kati’s litter, probably a female, will go to Jacobi. It will take two months after breeding and then another two months after that, so the earliest Jacobi could get his baby would be November.
It could even be a Millennium pup... a little Sea to Sky whelp destined to both do its job for the local conservation office and carry thousands of years of proud Finnish heritage into an uncertain future.
"Our breeds have strong Finnish blood and tradition in them. Taking care of them in this changing world is an honorary task for us."
– From the official Finnish Kennel Club breed pamphlet