Thousands of black bears roam Japan’s forests, sometimes causing problems for humans and for themselves. This is where a group of highly skilled Karelian bear dogs come in. As part of the Picchio Wildlife Research Center’s bear protection team, they are responsible for safely relocating and rerouting dozens of stocky bruins each year. Plus, they’re super charming!
Although a stressed Japanese black bear, who was more than twice his size and weight, hit the metal container and scratched it, Nanuq, a Karelian bear dog (KBD), stood quietly. His gaze moved between the bear trap and the face of his handler, Gen Oshima.
Oshima crouched next to Nanuq at one end of the barrel trap, which served as a temporary cage and which we had carried to the edge of a narrow dirt road in the high mountains of Karuizawa, Nagano, Japan. It was a typical mid-summer working day for members of the Picchio bear protection team.
Oshima repeatedly gave Nanuq a hand signal to bark. Muffled shots echoed through the lush forests and damp summer drizzle. The bear growled and crawled to the other end of the tubular enclosure. Early in the morning she had stepped into a painful snare trap set by a farmer hoping to catch the deer and boar that ate his crops. After Oshima reassured the bear with an arrow, we examined her and moved her to a better place. Now the Bruin was fully awake … and angry.
Satisfied, Oshima told us to get into our vehicles and close the doors. He and Nanuq climbed a slope above the trap, where they stood side by side. Oshima picked up a rifle loaded with rubber bullets (in case of problems).
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At Oshima’s instruction we hooted loudly and Nanuq barked. A nature conservation intern sitting in a truck that is being pulled by a rope attached to the barrel trap. When the door opened, a man shot a projectile over the trap. It exploded with a loud bang and puffs of smelly smoke. Driven by fear, the Japanese black bear rushed outwards. With her muscular legs she dragged herself down through the thick foliage into a steep valley and to the other side.
To encourage the bear to move further into uninhabited areas, Oshima and Nanuq chased after her, yelling and barking. They returned in less than 10 minutes; The bear had moved in the right direction, away from farms and residential areas. It was the 45th bear released this summer.
These publications have two goals: to free the bears and to condition them to dodge people and cities. In many areas of Japan, people do not live peacefully with bears. Bear sightings often provoke hostility and fear. Local government officials and hunters across Japan kill approximately 3,000 bears annually.
Saving lives, reducing injuries and educating bears about people – and people about bears – are the tasks of the bear protection team at the Picchio Wildlife Research Center. The human and the thick-skinned black and white KBD employees work hard, play hard, make love and take a nap whenever possible.
The bear team’s reputation for reducing conflict between bears and humans has grown tremendously in Nagano and is spreading across Japan. In the summer, municipalities, homeowners and companies contact Picchio almost every day. They expect the bear team to rescue trapped bears, advise methods to deter bears, and drive out the Bruins. However, when Picchio began efforts to protect the bears early on, many people were skeptical. Some furiously resisted the presence of bear dogs in their neighborhood. Now many city dwellers wave to the Picchio dogs, who drive the shotgun into the staff car.
Bullet, Picchio’s first dog worker, won the Nagano Prefectural Hometown Forestry Award in 2013 – the first dog to win this award! Bullet had participated in 400 non-violent bear hunts. Unfortunately, he died of leukemia that same year.
Picchio acquired Bullet from the Wind River Bear Institute (WRBI) in the United States. One of Picchio’s bear conflict specialists, Jumpei Tanaka, went to the US to learn how to use KBDs. Today, Nanuq, Tama, Rela and Elf Bullets follow large paw prints.
KBDs are the only breed that Picchio and the WRBI train to be herding bears. WRIL Director Nils Pedersen explains: “KBD is known as one of the few dog breeds that are able to bark a grizzly bear safely and effectively on the ground. This is a genetic trait found in KBD and is very unique. Other dog breeds are capable of dangling black bears and barking bears, but they are also prone to being injured or killed, especially by grizzly bears. The KBD is special in its ability to effectively bark a grizzly bear onto the ground without allowing itself to be killed and without bringing the bear back onto its handler. “
Japanese black bears (adults between 90 and 260 pounds) are much smaller and lighter than American grizzly bears, but they’re still powerful animals that could theoretically injure a KBD (who weighs around 50 pounds). None of Picchio’s professional staff and agile dogs have ever been injured by bears.
KBD who remain calm in many situations are emotionally suited to their job. Although KBD shows aggression towards bears when needed, they are friendly and affectionate towards humans. They can work alone or in pairs and always come back to their co-workers. Handler and KBD work and live together and form deep bonds.
The physical characteristics that favor their selection are strength, thick coats, and hard feet for running in difficult terrain in cold temperatures. Their black and white markings make it easier for handlers to observe their behavior when the dogs are working in poor light conditions and on snow. Tanaka believes the KBD’s size is just right for walking through the thickly vegetated forests.
The KBD are descended from the dogs that hunters on both sides of the border between Russia and Finland have used to hunt bears and elk for centuries. They were officially recognized as a breed by Finnish and Scandinavian kennel clubs in 1936.
Because of the success of the WRBI in training KBD to reduce conflict and deaths, conservation organizations are now using KBD in California, Nevada, Alaska, Montana, Canada, and Japan.
Picchio is the only organization in Asia that uses dogs for bear management, but other areas in Japan are considering following their example. The Picchio dogs are not only experienced conditioners for bear behavior, but also PR specialists. They attend numerous public seminars with their human partners, and their warm presence, as well as photos and videos of them on site, provide lessons on animal sensitivity, nonviolent wildlife management, and ecological relationships.
The dogs seem to love their job, although their shifts are irregular and they can be called to work at any time if a bear is sighted in or near Karuizawa.
Picchio bear specialists attach radio collars to the bears they are rescuing in Karuizawa, and each night one of the Picchio employees uses telemetry and GPS to check the bears’ locations. When the bears are too close to farms or homes, Elf, Tama, or Nanuq, along with their human partners, are sent out early in the morning to look for the bears that sometimes enter the farms and yards of sleeping residents. The dogs can sense the Bruins, find their ways and lead them back into the mountains. Over time, the bears learn where to go and where not to go.
Not all KBDs are suitable for bear herding. Tests that begin when the pups are only two months old will show which pups have the ability to withstand rigorous training. Picchio uses the Volhard Puppy Aptitude Test. After Tama was born in 2018, WRBI Director Nils Pedersen assessed her six pups. Only Elf and Rela passed and entered the training phase. The other four found a permanent home with Picchio staff and often hung out in the bear team’s office, playing or napping with their hardworking family members between shifts. Nanuq, Tama’s brother, is her patient uncle.
The training lasts three years and is very thorough. In the first two years, the young dogs learn the basics of socialization and how to deal with bears. The third year is dedicated to on-the-job training, including finding bearskin hidden in fur, approaching stuffed bears, and learning hand signals and commands in English. The dog handlers use English commands because they want the dogs to obey them and stay at work even with Japanese speaking around them.
Tanaka, who has developed his own training techniques, uses positive reinforcement. “At the end of each day,” he says, “there has to be a success.”
Most importantly, mutual understanding and trust between the dogs and people on the bear protection team lead to success. KBD and its employees have achieved a reduction in the damage caused by Ursin in commercial and residential areas by around 75 percent and an almost equal decrease in bear sightings. Many residents who initially spoke out against the KBD program are now supporters.
Photography courtesy Greg Goodmacher