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Bear of a dog

Barking at bears, romping through the forest, sniffing for poaching evidence, getting petted by a child and maybe cooling off with a swim in the Pend Oreille River ...  it's all in a good day's work for Jax, a 1-year-old Karelian bear dog employed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"The beauty of this breed is that Jax can be calm and licking the fingers of a kid one moment and then turn it on when he's on the ground scaring the heck out of a bear," said Keith Kirsch, the Spokane Region Fish and Wildlife police officer who trains, houses and handles Jax full time.

The agency's six Karelian bear dogs are being used across the state for wildlife research, enforcement and for conditioning bears, cougars and moose to avoid humans. The dogs also are ambassadors and consversation starters for public wildlife education.

"They have the genetics to do it all very well," said wildlife biologist Rich Beausoleil, the agency's bear-cougar specialist in Wenatchee.

Most of the dogs were purchased over the past 13 years for about $4,000 each from the Wind River Bear Institute in Montana. Jax is the first Karelian assigned to the Spokane Region.

These wildlife service dogs are trained to confront sometimes dangerous animals without attacking or injuring them, Kirsch said. "We've used them to haze bighorn sheep off a highway," he said.

Other states using Karelians for wildlife service include Montana, Nevada, California and the province of Alberta.

The dogs sometimes are used to find orphaned bears so they can be taken to rehabilitation centers for eventual release.

Nick Jorg, the officer who oversees Washington's Karelian program out of Seattle, said his 75-pound Karelian stepped up to another role in an unplanned bear encounter.

"I was alone with Colter when we discovered two cubs up in a tree," he said. "I was trying to get out of there immediately when I saw this big, beautiful (black bear) sow barreling in on me.

"Colter responded and plowed into her side. He rolled over a bear more than twice his size. That gave us a chance to get out of there. Nobody hurt."

Beausoleil handles a Karelian named Cash that's been trained for a variety of work. In some cases, Cash will scent bears and cougars and chase them until they go up a tree so they can be tranquilized for wildlife study and collaring without having to be trapped.

"Cash has dealt with 500 bears and 130 cougars so far in his career and saved a lot of staff time," he said.

The agency's Karelians are taken to fairs, festivals and schools where they break the ice for staff to educate the public on living with dangerous wildlife.

Jax came to Spokane last year and debuted at 5 months old with Kirsch as they responded to a black bear cruising a North Side neighborhood.

The dog gave Kirsch an approachable platform to explain bear management to the crowd that had gathered Oct. 16 along Lyons Avenue near Nevada Street. Meanwhile, department staff tranquilized and removed the bear from a tree.

Kirsch traveled with the crew to a release site and Jax did his part to help convince the bear to stay out of town.

"We don't hurt the animals, just condition them," Kirsch said.

"We don't call them problem bears because the problems often are human-caused. Things like bird seed, pet food and unsecured garbage attracts bears and gets them into trouble.

"It's not healthy in the long run for a bear to lose its fear of humans."

Washington's Karelian Bear Dog program is funded by donations garnered online, from presentations and fundraising events.

"The GPS tracking collar I put on Jax was donated by the Northwest Sportsman Club," Kirsch said. The collar allows the officer to know the dog's position as it roams while the officer's working.

"While I'm doing a routine check on hunters and their licenses, for example, Jax might be sniffing around beyond the scene to see if there's sign of an illegal kill," he said.

"Very little gets by his nose. He finds stuff. He finds evidence, day or night."

Working in wolf country adds more risk to the dog's work, Kirsch said. "It's a nerve-wracking deal to have him out there sometimes because wolves don't tolerate dogs."

The Karelians are whistle trained and wear electronic collars when loose, but they're also encouraged to be independent thinkers, he said.

"Jax is training quite well," Kirsch said, noting that he and the dog have been to clinics in Western Washington and he drives the pup to learn from veteran dogs in action whenever possible.

At home and in the field he works on commands such as come, sit, down, no, up-up and leave it.

"I want to let him cruise around and do his job without taking off after a white-tailed deer."

The dogs live and travel with their handlers. "They're gentle at home, but not the best pets," Jorg said. "Colter will dig his way out of a fenced yard or climb over a 6-foot-tall fence no problem. He's so driven by his nose."

The handlers' service pickups are fitted with air-conditioned club-cab compartments for the dogs.

"They're always with us," said Jorg last week after the successful release of two bears in Pend Oreille County. "And sometimes we smell like it."

Jorg pointed to slime on his dog's back. "When the bear climbed up that tree, it poohed on Colter. It looks like this job is going to end with a trip to the river for a swim."

(The spelling of Nick Jorg's name was corrected from the original)

Jax, a 1-year-old Karelian bear dog, rides with his handler, Washington Fish and Wildlife Department officer Keith Kirsch. - RICH LANDERS / Spokesman-Review
Karelian bear dogs are led to the back of a culvert trap holding orphaned black bears by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife staff. The dogs are allowed to bark and scare the bears to create a negative experience that will help persuade the bears to avoid contacts with humans after being released into the wild. RICH LANDERS / Spokesman-Review