A resort town in a mountainous area of central Japan is using a rare breed of dog to chase bears away from areas where people live, in an effort to promote coexistence.
Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture had struggled since 2000 with bears entering the town to scavenge for food, when Picchio, a nonprofit organization devoted to conserving bears, introduced “bear dogs” there in 2004.
[Photo courtesy of Picchio]
The Karelian Bear Dog is specifically trained to bark and chase back into the forest bears that enter residential areas, thereby eliminating the need to either catch or kill the bears for the sake of ensuring public safety.
Though the dogs have been used in the United States since 1996 to protect residential areas with nearby bear populations, Karuizawa, a popular resort town just 170 kilometers northwest of Tokyo, is the only place in Japan to use the Karelian Bear Dog to provide protection.
Following the introduction of the bear dogs and other preventive steps, the number of bear incidents in Karuizawa plummeted from 255 in 2006 to just 4 in 2017.
“Forests represent the abundance of animals and plants,” said Shinya Kuwata, 50, the leader of Picchio. “It is important not to kill bears but separate them from humans, and bear dogs can be a big force in realizing such a future.”
The dogs’ handler Jumpei Tanaka, 44, said the dog breed originated along the Finland-Russia border. The dogs are known for their highly independent nature, which must be tempered, he said, through development of a relationship of trust with a handler.
For Tanaka, that meant staying with the dogs “24 hours a day to be accepted” by the animals at the outset of training upon arrival from the United States, he said.
(Jumpei Tanaka holds a Karelian Bear Dog puppy)
Following the death of the first-generation bear dogs, Tanaka has been working with a second-generation bear dog, Tama, a female, in the town.
However, Karuizawa is far from the only town in Japan to have bear problems. Throughout Japan, there were over 12,000 instances of people encountering bears over the past year through March — and about 100 people were attacked.
A number of municipalities facing with such problems have contacted Picchio, but the organization has been hamstrung in providing help because of the difficulties faced in increasing the number of bear dogs.
Due to a quarantine policy, Picchio could only import dogs at least 10 months old from the United States. Thus the organization had to rely on U.S. organizations to raise and initially train the dogs, with the Japanese side paying the related expenses.
But Picchio has now begun to breed the dogs domestically, with that effort producing its first success when Tama gave birth to six puppies in April after mating with a male dog imported from the United States.
The organization is hoping to raise more bear dogs if its breeding efforts continue to be successful.