According to archeological records, dogs very similar to the modern day Karelian Bear Dog (KBD) and Russo-European Laika have existed in northeastern Europe and Scandinavia since the Neolithic or New Stone Age period over 12,000 years ago. The Karelian Bear Dog is a resilient breed that has not only survived the test of time, but also revolutions, civil wars, world wars and the resultant decimation of its homeland, to become a modern day national treasure in its homeland of Finland. Typically considered to be an aggressive, fearless breed of dog, the quick reflexes and hunting prowess of the KBD have made the dog of choice for hunting many aggressive game, including bear, moose, and wild boar. It is due to the breed’s ability to both hunt and offer protection against bear in Finnish Karelia that the Karelian Bear Dog earned its name.
The Karelian Bear Dog is said to have originated with the Vikings alongside several other varieties of Spitz-type dogs for use as a hunting dog in Karelian region of Northern Europe; an area currently divided between the Russian Republic of Karelia, Russian Leningrad Oblast, and Finland (the regions of South Karelia and North Karelia) as the result of conflicts between the nations. Several varieties of these Spitz-types dating back to the age of the Vikings still exist today. Over the centuries through selective breeding these Spitz-type dogs were further developed and refined to fulfill specific roles such as hunting, herding and pulling sleds. It was from these early Spitz-types developed to hunt small game such as squirrels and marten, through larger more aggressive game such as moose, wolf and the Eurasian brown bear, that the Karelian Bear Dog came to be. These antecedents to the modern day Karelian Bear Dog also resulted in a nearly identical breed known as the Russian-European Laika.
Through the excavation of Viking era graves in Denmark, Brittany, the Isle of Man and elsewhere the popularity of this breed as a working dog becomes evident, as they are frequently found to be buried with their masters. It is believed that this Viking era custom of burying the dog with its master allowed the dogs to accompany their master in the afterlife, and guide them to the underworld.
In more modern times the Karelian Bear Dog originates from Finish ancestry, as the Bjornhund in Swedish or Karjalankarhukoira in Finnish. In 1917 Finland which had previously been ceded to Russia in 1809 gained its independence as a result of the Russian Revolution; a conflict that destroyed the Tsarist autocracy and led to the creation of the Soviet Union. A civil war between the Finnish Red Guards (the remaining Russian garrisons still present in Finland) and the White Guard (A Finish Militia force) would ensue a few months later with the "Whites" eventually gaining the upper hand. In 1920, as a result of the Treaty of Tartu, the border separating Russia and Finland was officially confirmed, with Finland now claiming North and South Karelia and Russia forming its portion of Karelia into the Karelian Autonomous Republic of the Soviet Union (ASSR) in 1923.
This also marked the split of the Karelian Bear Dog on the Finnish side of Karelia from the Russian-European Laika on the Russian side of Karelia, which up until this point were basically the same breed of dog. Finish breeders associated with the Finnish Kennel Club continued to breed the Karelian Bear Dog for hunting and showing, with it making its first debut in Helsinki at a Kennel Club Dog Show in May 1936.
The destruction of World War II nearly brought the breed to the brink of extinction as Finland became embroiled in numerous conflicts throughout the duration of the war. Starting in November of 1939, when Russia attacked Finland in what was to become known as the Winter War, a war that raged across much of Karelia. Battered but not beaten by a Russian military that included three times as many soldiers, thirty times as many aircraft, and a hundred times as many tanks; Finland would seek a diplomatic end to hostilities. Although the League of Nations deemed the attack illegal and expelled the Soviet Union from the League, Finland would still be forced to sign the highly unfavorable Moscow Peace Treaty in March 1940 ceding 11% of its pre-war territory and 30% of its economic assets to the Soviet Union.
The peace was short lived and in June of 1941, Finland, hoping to reverse the territorial losses suffered under the Moscow Peace Treaty, and now allied with Nazi Germany would once again unsuccessfully fight against the Soviet Union in a conflict that would come to be known as the Continuation War of 1941. As history tends to repeat itself, not only would this conflict again encompass much of Finnish controlled Karelia, but Finland would begin actively seeking a way out of the war after the disastrous German defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad in February 1943. Reprieve would once more come in the form of a highly unfavorable treaty called the Moscow Armistice. The agreement signed on September 19th, 1944 between Finland on one side and the Soviet Union and United Kingdom on the other would among other things force Finland to cede parts of Karelia and Salla, as well as certain islands in the Gulf of Finland to Russia. Additionally the armistice forcibly compelled Finland to drive all German troops from its territory, leading to the Lapland War in which Finland fought against and defeated Nazi Germany in its northernmost Lapland Province. This last conflict would see the Germans adopt a scorched-earth policy upon their retreat, as they proceeded to lay waste to the entire northern half of the country. The end result of these conflicts was that Finland would defend its independence and democratic constitution, but lost nearly 10% of its territory, including its second largest city to the USSR.
Following the War, the Northern half of the country was in ruins; and there were very few Karelian Bear Dogs remaining. Finnish breeders hoping to restore the breed would institute a breeding program by scouring the countryside for any remaining specimens and purchasing the few remaining Karelian Bear Dogs that could be found. These dogs were then selectively used to re-establish the breed. Every Karelian Bear Dog today can be traced back to some forty dogs that were found, saved and used in this breeding program after the war.
In 1945 The Kennel Club confirmed the first breed standard and the breed name "Karelian Bear Dog". Starting open registration of Karelian Bear Dogs in 1946, and by 1951 the Kennel Club had reached its short term goal of achieving 100 registrations per year . Today 600-800 Karelian Bear Dogs are registered annually, with some 18,000 residing in Finland where they are among the 10 most popular breeds.
In the United States, Karelian Bear Dogs are used by the National Park Service as a non-lethal wildlife control technique, more specifically they are “Bear Control Dogs”. They are used to scare, or harass the bear in such as way as to teach it to avoid areas populated by humans. Another group the Wind River Bear Institute who’s interest is to reduce human-caused bear mortality and conflicts worldwide, also utilizes Karelian Bear Dogs to teach the bears to stay away from human populated areas.
The Karelian Bear Dog is defined as a compact, lean muscular middle sized Spitz type dog. Males should measure between 21-24 inches at the withers, while females should be 19-22 inches, the ideal weight for males is between 55 and 60lbs, and 35-45lbs for females. The musculature of the body should be well developed with a spacious, not very broad, rather long chest, reaching approximately to the elbows. The ribs are slightly arched; the forechest should be clearly visible, without being to broad. The head and tail should be carried high in an almost proud fashion a very typical trait of this breed. The hind legs should be positioned wide with fast mobile legs ready for action.
The coat of the Karelian Bear Dog should be black with clearly defined white markings on the head, neck, chest, belly and the legs. The black may be dull or even shaded with brown, any other colors such as wolf grey, red, or fawn are should be considered faults. The coat forms a ruff surrounding the head with straight course guard hair and a thick, dense woolly undercoat. The ruff on males will be significantly more developed and pronounced than it is on females. The hair on the tail should be full with the hairs being longer than that of the body, especially the underside with no feathering.
The Karelian Bear Dog is a very intelligent, affectionate dog that bonds tightly with his master and master’s family. This breed is generally untrusting of strangers they may appear standoffish, aloof or reserved and generally don’t like to be petted by humans that are not members of their household. A territorial dog by nature, they will bark at strangers and act aggressively by raising their hackles and dashing in and out in an intimidating fashion if they feel it warranted, though they usually will not bite unless they feel threatened.
The Karelian Bear Dog is also defined by its alert, excitable and seemingly anxious temperament which can lead to unwanted or excessive barking. The investigation of any disturbance or irregularity in their territory is generally met with barking, this includes strangers, strange dogs, strange or familiar vehicles, an odd sound, an eagle flying overhead, boredom etc.
This is a territorial breed of dog, that will display aggression towards strange dogs if they feel they are intruding. Dogs that have grown up in the same household since puppyhood will generally co-exist together once they properly establish the Alpha, Beta roles amongst themselves. The introduction of adult dogs of the same sex should be done with caution and with the expectation that a fight may erupt as they try to establish their roles within the pack, although some dogs females included may remain enemies for life. As with many Spitz-types their territorial nature combined with their size, strength, and muscular body mean that they are not only apt to get into a fight but are generally very good at it. Though unlike some breeds they are not known for killing other dogs and simply use fighting as a way to solve problems, generally stopping once the other dog submits or retreats.
As for their disposition toward domestic or wild animals Karelian Bear Dogs are enthusiastic hunters bred to be aggressive with large predators and skilled hunters for smaller game. The origin of this hunting dog is one of peasants and hunters that could not have a dog that would be a liability to their livelihood by constantly attacking farm animals. Thus this breed learns quickly and easily to ignore domestic animals such as cows and sheep, but smaller animals such as cats and rabbits may be too tempting for them to resist. Chickens and other poultry are generally safe as long as the dog is trained from puppyhood not to harm them.
Since the Karelian Bear Dog possess a thick double coat of fur, that consists of a thick, dense, soft undercoat and a coarse longer topcoat some grooming and ritual brushing is going to be required if you plan on letting them in the house. The undercoat will shed or “blow out” annually and for females this may happen twice a year. For dogs living in warmer climates there is a tendency to shed year-round. Caring for this breed will require that you put up with plenty of dog hair on the furniture and carpet, and floating through the air during these shedding sessions that can last three weeks or more. You can reduce the loose hair you find with regular brushing and grooming sessions during these times.
Karelian Bear Dogs are some of the healthiest dogs in the world. Currently there are no serious hereditary health problems known to be associated with them. However, minor abnormalities typical of all purebred dogs may occur among Karelian Bear Dogs. Infrequent occurrences of umbilical hernia and monorchidism (the state of having only one testicle within the scrotum) have been seen among puppies.