Work of Dogs
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Conservation Dogs Work for Wildlife


Encouraged by her positive experience, Falk began breeding livestock guarding dogs, viewing them as integral to both farming and carnivore conservation. Many others apparently share her view—in 2000, the USDA published a survey citing that 28 percent of US sheep producers enlist the help of guarding dogs in their operations. While there are plenty of case studies to support their efficacy, USDA expert Roger Woodruff says the best proof is in the pudding: “Lots of people are still using livestock guarding dogs.”

Good Dog for Bad Bears
One northern European hunting breed, the Karelian Bear Dog, has taken nonlethal predator control to the front lines. Bred in Finland for centuries, this robust black-and-white Spitz-type breed was traditionally used to tackle bears, lynx and other large game. In the early 1990s, US wildlife biologist Carrie Hunt decided to test the Karelian Bear Dog’s ursine zest as a tool for bear conservation. Through her work with the Wind River Bear Institute (WRBI), Hunt developed the “Partners-in-Life” program, which includes an innovative management technique called “bear shepherding.”

This technique uses Karelian Bear Dogs, aversive conditioning and positive reinforcement to teach bears to avoid situations that bring them into contact with humans. Assaulted by loud noise, pelted with harmless rubber bullets and beanbags, and chased by the barking dogs, “problem” bears learn that being around people isn’t worth the trouble. Bear shepherding also includes education on the human side of the equation: Wildlife managers and the general public are taught how to reduce conflicts with bears by altering their own behavior.

Over the past nine years, bear shepherding has prevented the needless destruction of many bears in the US, Canada and Japan. And, due to its safe and effective protocols, WRBI has never had a dog, bear or human injured during this activity, which occurs 200 to 300 times a year. In spite of its effectiveness and charismatic appeal, however, the Karelian Bear Dog is definitely NOT for the casual dog owner, Hunt is quick to point out. “This breed does not make for a good pet, as they were born to leave you to hunt,” she explains. “It takes many hours of training to produce a companion dog.”

While all conservation dogs require significant training, a mounting body of evidence suggests that they’re well worth the investment. Dogs embody a unique blend of intelligence, resilience and sensitivity, and a willingness to work with people who are committed to working with them. It will ultimately be up to us, of course, to dramatically reduce the ever-growing ecological footprint of humanity, and to learn how to live with wildness in a manner both graceful and compassionate. But how fortunate we are to have such loyal companions to help us along the way.




Paula MacKay is a conservationist, author, and wildlife researcher.

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