NAGANO – Hoping to promote coexistence, a resort town in a mountainous area of Nagano Prefecture is using a rare breed of dog to chase bears away from areas where people live.
Karuizawa had been struggling since 2000 with bears entering the town to scavenge for food, when Picchio, a nonprofit organization devoted to conserving bears, introduced Karelian bear dogs there in 2004.
The Karelian is bred to bark at and chase bears back into the forest when they enter residential areas, thereby eliminating the need to 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 170 km northwest of Tokyo, is the only place in Japan to use Karelian bear dogs to provide protection.
Following the introduction of the dogs and other preventive steps, the number of bear incidents in Karuizawa plummeted from 255 in 2006 to just four 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 breed originated along the Finland-Russia border.
Karelian bear dogs are known for their highly independent nature, which must be tempered, he said, through developing a relationship of trust with the handler.
For Tanaka, that meant staying with the dogs “24 hours a day to be accepted” at the outset of training upon their arrival from the United States, he said.
Following the death of the first generation of imported canines, Tanaka has been working with a second-generation dog, Tama, a female, in the town.
However, Karuizawa is far from the only town in Japan to have problems with bears.
Across the nation, there were more than 12,000 reported instances of people encountering bears over the past year through March. About 100 people suffered an actual attack.
Many municipalities facing such problems have contacted Picchio, but the organization has been hamstrung in providing help because of the difficulties it has faced in increasing the number of dogs.
Due to quarantine policies, Picchio could only import dogs from the United States if they were at least 10 months old. 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 dogs if its breeding efforts continue to be successful.