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Craig Medred: Will Fido deter or encourage bear attacks? Depends on training

Craig Medred

What a month it's been for weirdness on the bear front. First comes the warning from noted Canadian bear researcher Stephen Herrero that old Fido -- your best friend -- might be your worst enemy in bear country.

Herrero and associate Hank Hristeienko crunched the numbers on black bear attacks in North America and concluded that in most cases involving bear attacks on people with dogs it appeared the dogs had " been running loose at the time of the attack and drew the bears to their owners."

Three dog owners ended up dead, which ought to make everyone think twice about taking their dog for a walk in the wilder parts of Anchorage, given that black bears are almost everywhere in the city.

Of course, not all of the "black bears" are actually black bears, as well-known local runner Tom Corbin learned about the same time Herrero warned about letting Fido run free. Corbin ran into a black grizzly bear at close range in Hillside Park. Luckily, he didn't have a dog with him. Corbin's response?

He eased on by the bear as if an encounter with a grizzly were an everyday thing. And it might well be, whether we see the bears or not.

While Corbin was on the Hillside dodging the black grizzly that some mistook for a giant black bear, there were reports of a "brown bear" spotted at popular Kincaid Park next to the busy Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.

Whether it was a brown black bear -- the "cinnamon" color phase is very brown -- or a grizzly bear was unclear. Both have been known to use the park, although the former are far more common.

The confusion over what kind of bear this brown-colored bruin might have been almost makes one think the species should be renamed. Say, maybe, "long-clawed, square-headed bear" for the brown/grizzly, and "pointy-nose bear" for the traditional American black bear.

The square-headed bear is the most dangerous of the two as unlucky Jessica Gamboa learned when she stopped near a pair of grizzly bear cubs while running at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson just outside of Anchorage in mid-May.

Mama bear quickly emerged from the woods and put a thrashing on Gamboa that left her in an Anchorage hospital. She might have been better served by running on past the cubs as if they weren't there.

Everyone knows you shouldn't run from a bear because you will get mauled. But a recent video of a couple of Canadians running like crazy to escape a black bear might suggest otherwise.

The behavior of the bear in the seven-minute video appears to mimic that of the classic, predatory black bear. Herrero has described it this way: "Potentially predatory approaches are typically silent, and may include stalking ... followed by a fast rush leading to contact. We know of incidents where a black bear behaved as if it were considering or carrying out a predatory attack and was deterred by people's aggressive actions such as shouting, or hitting with rocks, fists, or sticks."

The Canadians in the video never resorted to violence. They're Canadians, after all. But several times they drive the bear back with loud voices before turning to run like hell. The bear, which could have been conditioned to following people to get handouts as opposed to predatory, does not give chase, which underlines a problem with bear attack data.

Most people don't report, let alone videotape, bear encounters in which they run and survive. This corrupts the data on bear attacks. The data reveals how many people ran and were attacked , but nobody knows how many ran and were not attacked.

The same problem exists with the new data on bears, dogs and attacks on dog owners, as columnist John Schandelmeier pointed out recently. Herrero and Hristeienko's conclusions are based in significant part on dogs behaving badly.

The dogs are running willy-nilly off the leash, encounter a bear, panic, go running for backup, and in the process bring the bear back to Mr. or Ms. Owner. Or, as Schandelmeier puts it, "the dog of the house will invariably find those bears and bring them to you: 'Look what I found, Dad!'"

It doesn't have to be this way. Schandelmeier has spent most of his life in bear country with dogs without a problem.

"You can teach your dog how to cope with bears," he writes. "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."

A properly trained dog -- out front is where they should be, as Schandelmeier suggests -- provides the best early warning system you can get in bear country. But the emphasis there is on properly trained.

The dog that stays in sight, comes back to you when called, and is calm in crisis not only provides an early warning system but helps intimidate a bear. Bears don't do well in groups, which is why bear attacks on lone individuals are more common than bear attacks on couples and bear attacks on couples more common than on big groups.

You and your calm teammate dog can look more like trouble to a bear than you alone. Your dog running in fear from the bear, meanwhile, looks like bait. Bears recognize fear. It makes prey vulnerable.

That's why bears do sometimes chase a runner, whether canine or human. And being chased is no fun. That's probably the best reason not to run from a bear. If your back is turned, you never know when it might catch up.

The Canadians in the video don't even look very comfortable once safely back in their motor vehicle.

Reach Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com

 


By CRAIG MEDRED
craig@alaskadispatch.com