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caption: Teton, a 10-week-old Karelian bear dog, waits for his handler, Nils Pederson, at the final "find" during a field-test. The "find" is a taxidermied bear. 
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Teton, a 10-week-old Karelian bear dog, waits for his handler, Nils Pederson, at the final "find" during a field-test. The "find" is a taxidermied bear.
Credit: Photo by Sara Diggins

The wildlife super dog that can save us from bears

Maybe you remember this story from last summer: A young, 300-pound black bear gave chase to wildlife officials in Los Angeles.

The ordeal became a live cable news hit. Helicopters were broadcasting the bear's every move as he jumped fences or chilled in the shade of a neighborhood tree. He even found a cool way to beat the California heat — taking a dip in a neighbor's pool for about nine minutes.

This bear was eventually captured and released. But things like this don’t always end so smoothly.

Sometimes problem bears like this have to be killed. So a new philosophy on how to handle bears has slowly taken shape. There are new ideas on how to keep bears wild and out of the harmful way of humans. Hopefully eliminating the need to kill the bears.

This new system relies on a very special tool — a very special kind of dog from Finland, known as the Karelian bear dog.

Teton the Karelian Bear Dog

I’ve come all the way to Montana to meet Teton, a young Korelian bear dog.

He looks like he could be a big dog in the making. He’s got some good sized paws. All Karelian bear dogs have thick black and white fur. They look kind of like a cross between a border collie and a husky. Teton has an all-white face except for one black patch covering his right eye.

He’s training to become a dog that will work with wildlife officials to push bears out of human populated areas. But these dogs can do much more than that. They can track big mammals like cougars and help with search and rescue efforts. They are kind of like wildlife super dogs. And once you’ve seen them in action, you never forget it.

Even though Teton is only 12 weeks old, and cute as anything, he's hitting the training course hard.

"So our test is set up just around the periphery of the yard that you see here," said Teton’s instructor Nils Pederson. He is the co-director of the Wind River Bear Institute in Florence, Montana.

Wind River trains dogs like Teton for wildlife officials all over the world. And they use the strangest training course you’ll ever see.

Nils has hidden animals parts, bear skulls, paws, even a full dead cougar, all over this meadow. It’s about the size of two football fields.

"These are animal parts, these are bear parts that have been donated to us by Fish and Wildlife and parks," Nils said. "Animals that have been killed in conflict scenarios so these aren’t parts we’ve collected ourselves in other words."

The different animal parts are spread out strategically around the field. Nils is testing to see if Teton can pick up on the scent. And then to see if he can track that object. Nils sets the eager pup on the course. As soon as he catches his first whiff of something, his head snaps to the left. And this youngster shows the determination of a much older dog. It’s actually pretty funny to watch, he only weighs about 15 pounds, but he’s so serious and focused.

His little puppy paws carry him directly to two bear skulls. It's a gruesome sight. There is no fur or skin left on the skull. Just muscle and dried blood.

"Yeah, it looks like a Halloween decoration," Nils said.

The grizzly scene doesn’t stop Teton. He wastes no time chewing on the bear part. He’s in puppy heaven.

Teton may seem a bit aggressive, but that is actually a good thing for this test. Nils needs to see that a puppy is willing to engage with a bear or cougars. They can’t show any fear or boredom.

"A lot of our real good dogs are thrilled by it," Nils said. "They see something new and scary and they are thrilled by it. And they want to get in there, you know. And it is kind of an interesting trait."

We leave the bear skulls behind and continue on to see what else Teton will find. He is barely taller than the grass he’s walking through. Next, he discovers a complete bear carcass, fur and all.

"Find it. Good, boy. Nice find," Nils said. "That’s right. Get it."

Teton doesn’t waste time pouncing on the bear. He finds the tongue and starts pulling and chewing on it. It might seem a little grotesque or morbid but it’s necessary training for the job this dog will be doing.

Nils actually encourages Teton. This bear carcass is great way for the young dog to get familiar with what he will encounter in the field — the smell, the look, even the feel of the bear.

Teton climbs on top of the bear and starts tugging on its fur with his teeth.

"So this guy is pretty fresh," Nils said. "He was killed about a week and a bit ago for getting into trouble with a guy in the Jacuzzi, actually."

A man was having a relaxing evening in his backyard hot tub when this black bear wandered in. The man tried to scare the bear off. The hot tub man even flicked his towel at the bear.

"Which worked momentarily but then the bear followed him to his house," Nils said.

When a bear is comfortable getting that close to humans and seems to be unafraid, that is an issue. It's unsafe for the bear and unsafe for humans. Montana wildlife officials had little choice — they lethally removed this bear.

This is exactly why Nils works to train dogs like Teton. A wildlife officer armed with one of these dogs could help prevent a bear from ever getting into a situation where it would need to be killed.

"We need to have dogs that are capable of addressing bear issues like that so that in the future, you know, so if it is a bear that is possible for us to work with we can, rather then have to destroy it," he said.

THE WILD is a production of KUOW in Seattle in partnership with Chris Morgan Wildlife and The UPROAR Fund. It is produced by Matt Martin and edited by Jim Gates. It is hosted, produced and written by Chris Morgan. Fact checking by Apryle Craig. Our theme music is by Michael Parker.

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