Fish and wildlife officer John Clarke calls JSG’s Karelian Bear Dog program “Alberta’s best kept secret” for a reason — few people are aware of it, despite efforts to promote the very successful initiative. During a bear encounter, a well-trained Karelian will force a bear to leave the area by standing its ground and barking. “It’s reassuring to know the dog has your back,” said John. “When I go out on a livestock kill, for example, the dog will stand guard and smell for any approaching bear. If the bear comes into sight, the dog will alert me, and go after the bear.”
“Word of the program is slowly getting around, but we will continue to raise awareness.”
The Karelian Bear Dog program began in 2001 and consists of three dogs and two handlers: John works in Blairmore with dogs Kuma and Koda. Fish and wildlife officer Rob DiPalo works in Cochrane with Atlas.
The Wind River Bear Institute (WRBI) breeds the Karelian Bear Dogs used in Alberta. Through a number of intensive assessments of the puppy’s personality and behavioural traits, the WRBI matches a puppy with a fish and wildlife officer. The puppy then works and lives with the officer.
“I used dried up bear and cougar paws as toys in my training toolbox,” John said. “I throw the toy for the dog to teach it the distinctive scents. However, they have a mind of their own, and require extensive training during the first three years.
“However, on average, it costs about $5,000-$6,000 in food, boarding and vet care to maintain Kuma, Koda and Atlas per year. That is great value for money – they do a fantastic job.”
As well as keeping officers safe, Karelians help promote the BearSmart program, which focuses on human safety, helping bears survive and reducing property damage associated with bear problems. They also play an important role in bear aversion programs, bear tracking and monitoring, poaching investigations and wildlife management.