Schandelmeier: Smart dogs can keep bears at bay

John Schandelmeier

It is finally summer. It is the time for fisherman and hikers to be outdoors. For many of us, these activities include the family dog. However, there are bears in "them thar woods"! The dog of the house will invariably find those bears and bring them to you: "look what I found, Dad!" Your instant reaction is, "you found him, you keep him!"

Couch dogs and bears don't mix well. In 1983 I landed my Super Cub on the grass strip in Eagle and jumped out with my big German shepherd, Kip. An old bush pilot, Guy Selman, was there to watch me land. Guy looked at me and said, "that dog will kill you one of these days, boy." At that time of his life, Guy only could see out of one eye, but he had been around the Bush. He knew that dogs and bears were a poor mix.

What Guy didn't know was that Kipper had grown up on the Bristol Bay coast. The Bay is home to one of the healthiest brown bear populations in Alaska. Kip was a shepherd with fair smarts and an excellent herding instinct. As a pup, he had learned to stay between his person and a bear. Lots of barking and a few in-and-out dashes, but absolutely no contact. Kip learned this method by trial and error. Few of our pet dogs have that type of opportunity to learn about bears.

Most dogs are allowed to run free when their owner is hiking off the beaten path. Dog noses, infinitely superior to ours, can detect bears at quite a distance when the wind is favorable. A dog, unfamiliar with bears, may be curious. Or they may have a misguided idea they are protecting their person. Either way, the next part of the equation involves a relatively unhappy bear at close range.

You can teach your dog how to cope with bears. It involves little beyond the basics of dog training. While in the woods, dogs should either be at heel or ranging in front no more than 30 or 40 feet. I like my dog out front where I have the advantage of watching them test the world with their nose. We live by sight, dogs live by scent. Their vision is a couple feet off the ground. Try crawling through the woods on your hands and knees, you'll be surprised at the things you don't see.

The dog will smell things far in advance of your sight. When a dog indicates something interesting or exciting, they should be called back to heel. This is how they learn not to chase. The heel command can be simply taught in a half-dozen 10-minute sessions. Some dogs get it in one lesson. Teach heel in the house on a short leash. Don't use a choke collar, don't use treats, and above all, never raise your voice or show impatience.

Training is supposed to be learning time, not play. Some kids love school, but not the math problems. However, when told, they will sit down and learn. Dogs are the same. Snap your dog on a leash and put his nose at your knee. Good dog! Now walk Rover around the room with less than a foot of freeplay on the leash. As he gets the idea (one or two laps around the room), you can start slacking the tether. Every time his head moves from your knee, jerk the leash slightly; just enough to get his attention. Ten minutes of this and I will bet you can try without the leash.

The test is when you move outdoors. Patience. Don't raise your voice. Lots of "good dog!" when he gets the idea of what you are requesting. The goal is to have a dog that is an asset in the woods, not a liability that could cause trouble.

Even with a well-trained dog, trouble can come without warning, but a very knowledgeable dog can help you out of it. A few years back, while fishing in the Bay, my wife, Zoya, and I were camped out in a tent near our processors' headquarters. There was a fishing opening in the middle of the night, so off I went. My wife stayed with our dog, Maudie, at camp.

Not long after I left, a middle-sized brown bear showed up to rub against the tent. Maudie rumbled low, a vibration rather than noise, waking Zoya. The bear moved away from the tent and Zoya sent Maudie to move the bear farther. Maudie went after the bear, Zoya ran to the closest bunkhouse, and the bear then chased the dog. The ensuing circus woke everyone that was still around the cannery. The bear couldn't catch the nimble little shepherd and soon quit the chase. Maudie harassed the bear to keep him moving away from the tent.

Maudie has more bear experience than almost any dog I've worked with. She doesn't like to chase bears, but will go when you send her. Like the school kid with the math problem, she isn't having fun, but does as she is told.

Train your companion to do as they are asked and you will be rewarded greatly while in the woods. You will be safer and smell far more with the help of your dog. The saying "you don't need to be the fast runner to get away from a bear, just not the slowest," will not be something that needs to be tested.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.

John Schandelmeier