Karelian Bear Dog

Also sometimes called the Karelian Bearhound, in Germany it is known as the Karelischer Barenhund, in Holland the Karelische Berenhond, in Sweden the Karelsk Bjornhund, and in Finland the Karjalankarhukoira, the Karjalan Karkuloirat or the Karjalankarhukoira Karelsk Bjornhund.


This breed was developed to hunt a wide variety of game, from hear, wolf, lynx and deer to squirrel, rabbit and marten. In a secondary role, when not in the field, it acted as a watchdog and property guard.

The Karelian Bear Dog is a large, powerful and robust hunting dog with a typical, tightly curled, spitz tail. Its hunting method is different from that of hounds. It does not undertake long chases but works close to the hunter and makes a short, fast chase when the quarry is encountered, trying to corner it. Once this has been done, it keeps it at bay until the hunter has killed it. The conspicuous black-and-white coat makes it easy for the hunters to spot.

Bears have almost vanished from Finland in recent times, so these dogs, despite their proud name, must now content themselves with smaller prey. Some of the game animals that have now become their main quarry tend to climb trees to escape, with the result that this breed has become a good ‘treeing’ dog. And some of those that have been exported to the United States have now been hailed as an exciting new kind of ‘coonhound’.

The ancestors of this hunting dog inhabited the northern lands of Scandinavia and north-east Europe since the Neolithic era. The distribution of those early dogs ignored national boundaries, but in recent times their modern descendants have fallen foul of political divisions. The two main areas of interest in the breed have been Finland and north-western Russia. The Finns called the dog the Karelian Bear Dog, while the Russians insisted that it was the Russo-European Laika. It was the same animal, but the two countries refused to accept this. The conflict led to a separation, not only of titles, but also of dog populations, with the inevitable result that the breed started to split into two different types. These remain almost identical, but because they did not interbreed, they did begin to diverge slightly and today are treated as distinct breeds. This one, the Karelian Bear Dog, living in Finland, is slightly less powerful and less aggressive than1 its close Russian cousin (see separate entry).

During the 1800s and early 1900s, many imported breeds were allowed to mate indiscriminately with these indigenous hunting dogs. As a result, the pure type was being lost. This decline was halted in Finland in 1936, when local enthusiasts began breeding to a fixed standard. It was at this point that they introduced the official name of Karelian Bear Dog, and opposed any further crossings. (Inconveniently, Karelia switched from Finnish to Russian control in 1941, but despite this the word Karelian was retained in the Finnish name of the dog.) In 1946, after a decade of proper control, the FCI and the Scandinavian Kennel Club formally accepted this breed. In 1980 the Canadian Kennel Club followed suit.


As regards the personality of this breed, there are strongly conflicting views. It has recently been described as ‘not an easy dog to have as a companion, but many of its supporters would disagree with that. They insist that it ‘loves everyone in the family, and is absolutely reliable with children’. Again, it has been said that ‘extensive training is necessary’ if it is to be kept as a household companion, but supporters say it is ‘very easy to train and teach to tolerate other animals in the house, including chickens and cats’. One feature which everyone seems to agree on, however, is that, no matter how friendly it may be inside the home, it is intensely hostile to strange dogs. Presumably, it has a genetic disposition to treat any large furry object that is unfamiliar to it as if it were a bear.


The height at its withers should be about 19-24 inches/49-60 cm. It has all the features of the spitz but it may be born with a bobtail. Its coat should not be profuse but thick and harsh in texture.

A powerful, medium-sized breed, the Karelian Bear Dog has fine-developed bones and muscles, especially in the shoulders; a deep, broad chest; a wedge-shaped head with a moderately big black nose; small, rather charming eyes; medium-sized erect ears; and a curled tail, tipped in white. White markings—a long narrow blaze extending from the forehead to the nose, a neck band, throat, chest, and paws—distinctively divide the solidly jet black areas.


The Karelian Bear Dog needs plenty of exercise to keep him occupied and in shape. He should be kept in a secure area when playing or allowing him time off lead; if he picks up a scent, he will pursue it.


A firm yet fair hand is needed to get results with the independent-minded Karelian. Intelligent and alert, he will quickly figure out if his owner is serious. Motivational training that takes into account his energy level and perceptive instincts will get the best results.


The thick, double coat of the Karelian Bear Dog sheds about twice a year and should be combed with a metal brush at those times to help remove the dead hairs and speed the process along. Otherwise, he is a neat and easy-to-care-for dog who has little doggy odor.


There are no reported breed-specific health concerns. Average life span is 10 to 12 years.


Early obedience training is definitely necessary for the four to eight puppies per litter.

Gallery of Karelian Bear Dog