Rocky Spencer, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) Biologist, initiated the use of Karelian Bear Dog’s (KBD) in this agency with the use of Mishka in 2003. Rocky was tragically killed while net-gunning bighorn sheep from a helicopter in September 2007. His untimely death left the agency with a decision that had to be made on who would oversee this program and if we wanted to keep using the KBD’s.
Three generations of champion bear dogs. From left to right, Cash (born 2006), Indy (2011), and Mishka (2003).
Recognizing an opportunity to implement and evaluate cutting edge technology in non-lethal wildlife control techniques, WDFW Enforcement Chief Bruce Bjork, seized the opportunity to experiment and evaluate the benefits of a KBD within the Enforcement Program. He initiated a 1 year KBD pilot program to evaluate the potential benefits of a KBD program in resolving conflicts between humans and black bears in Washington. WDFW Officer Bruce Richards was assigned to be Mishka’s handler during the pilot and tasked with responding to and resolving as many problem bear complaints as possible.
During the pilot project, Officer Richards and Mishka proved themselves to be a valuable asset to the WDFW Enforcement Program as they responded to dozens of problem bear complaints in Western Washington, education programs at schools and fairs, and media interviews on a statewide basis. Officer Richards engaged Mishka in numerous on site “hard releases” (a non-lethal process that reinstalls a black bear’s natural fear of humans) that for a number of reasons is much-preferred to lethal removal or capture and relocation. Officer Richards estimates an 80% success rate on the black bear he “hard released” this past spring and summer.
In addition to tracking and locating bear, assisting in hard releases, KBDs can also be trained to detect items (fish, birds, shell casings, etc.) of evidentiary value. Mishka has been trained to detect all dead animals and animal scat. On one occasion, Mishka was called to help Wildlife Officer Brian Alexander and the National Park Service Officers to locate the remains of an illegally harvested and butchered elk in a remote location in the Olympic National Park. Park Rangers and WDFW Officers had unsuccessfully expended over 600 man-hours of time and effort searching for remains before asking for and securing help from Officer Richards and Mishka. Within 15 minutes of their arrival at the scene, Mishka located several elk bone fragments that had knife marks on them and enough tissue to perform DNA testing.
Mishka also helped other law enforcement officers at the scene of a homicide in Grays Harbor County. In this unusual instance, a woman had allegedly killed her husband, chopped him into pieces, and discarded his remains in a wooded area. The police department wanted Mishka on scene to keep any bear away while their cadaver dogs searched the area.
In 1982, after becoming interested in using dogs to deter and repel bears, Carrie Hunt found a breed that seemed perfect for the task—the Karelian Bear Dog (KBD). Unknown in most parts of the world, the KBD has been bred and used by grizzly bear and moose hunters and farmers in Finland and western Russia for centuries. Just as a Border Collie has an instinct for moving sheep, out of each litter some KBDs enter the world with an instinct for handling bears safely. KBDs weigh about 40-65 pounds when grown and are black and white with a raccoon-like black mask around their eyes. Their body is similar in shape to that of a Husky. The Karelian is highly intelligent, sensitive, independent, and purposeful, with an innate love for people and children. Since KBDs are intense, independent hunters, they do not make good pets, as in Russia and Finland they have been culled if they did NOT go off and leave their owners to hunt! Under Hunt’s direction, Wind River Bear Institute (WRBI) raises, selects and specially trains KBDs to serve as partners for bear-management specialists and people that live in bear country. Hunt has successfully trained and used KBDs for Bear Shepherding since 1990. For the purposes of Bear Shepherding, WRBI uses KBDs for deterrence, aversive conditioning, monitoring, tracking, patrolling, investigation of conflict scenarios, finding food attractants, capture, early warning, a safety net during conditioning of bears, added “volunteer man-power” and public education.
Wind River Bear Institute places their Karelian Bear Dogs in the following roles:
- Bear Conflict Dogs (for Bear Managers, Biologists, Officers, Wardens, Rangers, Private)
- Bear Protection Dogs (for Biologists, Outfitters, Ranchers, Campground Managers, Private)
- Companion Dogs (for Active People who enjoy Outdoor Activities and can provide the environment, activities and commitment needed for a healthy, happy partnership with our highly intelligent and activity-driven Karelians)
The Wind River Bear Institute uses a unique Socialization Program that has a time-proven success record with their KBD’s visiting with thousands of people and kids during hundreds of presentations at schools and other functions, without any problems with confidence or socialization. Pups are handled for a minimum of 1-2 hours daily during the first 7 weeks of their lives. This program has resulted in bold, confident, gentle KBD’s that function well in almost any type of situation.
Testing, Assessment and Puppy Field Programs begins during the pups 7th week, this continues until their 10th week. The pups are then matched with owner personalities and needs. This Program has nearly a 100% success rate for nearly 100 pups! The goal is to match owners with pups to create unusually communicative, intuitive, effective and rich, lifetime partnerships. For more information you can access their web site at: www.beardogs.org
The primary purpose for WDFW acquiring KBDs is to help resolve the many bear-human conflicts that occur in our state and reduce the number of bears that have to be lethally removed. Many successes have been documented in re-training bears to avoid humans through the use of specialized dogs. We also hope to use them to conduct similar work with mountain lions and work as a wildlife enforcement detection dog.
Due to huge budget shortfalls within the agency, the Karelian Bear Dogs are funded solely through private outside sources. These monies are handled and maintained in a separate account specifically for the care, upkeep and training of the KBDs. If enough funds are generated, we will be expanding our KBD program throughout the state to assist and help officers in each of our six Regions.
The Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife is excited about our partnership with Wind River Bear Institute and our growing Karelian Bear Dog teams. We look forward to the KBD teams serving both the people and wildlife in Washington well into the future.