85-pound TooKay alerted first. When the rangy black and white husky left his bed on the piled saddles, the two dogs sleeping in the tent with my sister Julie and me suddenly became frantic to go out, sobbing and whining with coiled restraint. Moments later, all three were bellowing at something hidden in the thick, summer-green brush a couple hundred feet from where our tent stood at the edge of the Alaska Range.I glimpsed the dogs through a break in the brush, and when they started barking backwards—facing the intruder aggressively but falling back instead of pressing forward—I knew something big and bad was approaching.Moments later a grizzly stood up on its hind legs, just a hundred feet from the tent, its massive blocky head and shoulders clearing the chest-high dwarf birch by nearly three feet.Had the dogs not alerted us, the bear would have been right on top of us before we were aware of it. Coming downwind, it would have not known of our presence until so close it may have felt threatened enough to trigger an aggressive response. Fortunately, one good look over the dogs, our camp, my sister and me, and our three curious Icelandic horses, convinced the bruin to depart.For nearly 30 years our 80-pound working trapline huskies have also served as bear dogs, not for hunting but to drive unwanted beasts out of camps or away from our remote home north of the Alaska Range. Only on rare occasions have we had to shoot a persistent bear; most leave promptly when the dogs get after them.Hunting bears with dogs is illegal in Alaska, but, with a permit, dogs may be used to drive off bears so they don’t have to be shot in defense of life or property. While we never sic dogs on bears for sport or encourage them to chase bears acting harmlessly, some of our dogs have proven themselves adept at driving away most problem intruders.With their vastly-superior sense of smell, dogs often detect a bear even when it remains silent and out of sight, and being natural hunters, they are also more alert than humans during long, tiresome treks. (A curious or stalking bear, however, approaches from downwind, disadvantaging the dogs.)Alaskan huskies tend to be alert watch dogs. Our big, old-type freight huskies also tend to be aggressive hunters with a special animosity saved for bears. We choose dogs for this dangerous job carefully, selecting older experienced ones ideally proven in the business, and perhaps adding a bold youngster or two so they can learn both forcefulness and caution from their elders.Bears intimidate youngsters more easily, but these inexperienced dogs, being more worried and alert, often make better watch dogs. However, we’ve had picketed one- and two-year-olds refuse to bark at a nearby bear, apparently because they want to avoid drawing attention to themselves when they can’t move away.In spite of our remote bush location, bear incidents are not common, but over the decades the encounters add up. With any intrusion we study the actions of each dog. Some make great bear dogs: assertive, loud and fearless but not pushing the boundaries of safety too far. More timid dogs won’t push a bold bear hard enough to chase it off, while a few have been so aggressive I feared for their safety.Most encounters have involved loose dogs during summer hikes running off a bear as it fled unseen through the brush, with the dogs returning momentarily, panting heavily, eyes glittering. However, a few times a grizzly or big black bear stood up to the dogs, refusing to retreat. That’s when the dogs really prove themselves—or fall flat on their faces.Streak and Comet, two 115-pound malamute-husky crosses, were the best bear dogs we ever had. Loving and loyal to us, they would stand up to any bear or leave it alone on command. But even they were stumped by a big brute that came in one dark fall night after our moose meat hanging in a screened shed. Their first attempts to drive it off ended in a stand-off. When Julie, at home alone, fired warning shots, the dogs backed off and the bear immediately began to approach her. Seeing their person in danger, the dogs came blasting back, redoubled their efforts, and ferociously drove that grizzly off into the night.Because we have no trails suitable for wheel rigs, our dogs’ summer exercise comes from loose running. We often hike or ride horseback with four or five, so they become responsive to vocal commands and we learn which ones to leave at home if we might be running into moose. We know which make great bear dogs, and who goes after squirrels and grouse. Practicing on squirrels, the dogs are trained to dash forward aggressively on the command “Get it!” and then to come back when called, even when entranced by the hunt.Because our dogs range ahead when we are hiking, they “clear” brushy areas of bears, greatly decreasing the likelihood of us startling a bear at close range, or inadvertently approaching a bear guarding a kill or a sow with cubs to protect. These are the primary reasons bears attack humans, and with the dogs forewarning us, we can avoid those treacherous encounters.I once unexpectedly walked up on a black bear while hiking alone. Rooting quietly beside the trail, the bear was hidden behind a clump of alders. Tired and walking in a silent stupor, I didn’t see it until I cleared the brush and found myself twenty feet from the startled creature. Fortunately he was as unnerved as I, opting to bolt huffing away instead of charging in a panic.That never happens when I have dogs along. I have hiked that same trail literally hundreds of time with dogs without seeing a single bear, although on occasion I’ve heard the distance crash of one fleeing the pursuing dogs.Letting dogs run loose is irresponsible if they run off to chase game or interfere with other people, and using poorly-trained dogs as bear protection can be dangerous. Some dogs will bait a bear until it charges, and then retreat to (and then outrun!) its slow-moving master.This nearly happened to me once when I spotted a sow black bear with three little cubs traveling down the middle of a vast gravel bar that I was skirting. Urging my horses faster, I hoped to slip past before the dogs saw her. Too late! Big brown Arthur listened when I told him to come along. His handsome masked brother Beau did not, sprinting the 300 yards to the bears in short order. Seeing the dog, the sow first rushed off downstream, then suddenly swerved away, her babies falling all over each other in the haste to figure out just which way Mama wanted them to go. Then Beau arrived, and she charged him.Beau stared at her in surprise. Then he spun away, galloping straight back at me.Lucky for me I was so far away. The bear turned back to her little ones after a couple hundred feet. Beau went after her again, and this time she chased him even farther. By then I was nearly a quarter mile away, and Beau let the game go when the sow returned to her cubs.Others have not been so lucky. In his definitive book Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, Stephen Herrero recounts the story of a man whose bird dog ran off to bark at a sow grizzly with cubs several hundred yards away. When the bear charged, the dog fled back to the owner, who was then attacked. (Fortunately the sow was more interested in returning to her cubs than in pursuing an attack, and the fellow survived.)We’ve also learned the importance of having more that one bear dog. During a summer trip, our single dog Barki lived up to his name when he announced that a black bear was lurking around camp, but without other dogs to back him up, he left it up to us to deal with the intruder. Shouting and gunfire failed to send the bear on its way, but I finally unnerved it by violently shaking a 2-inch diameter cottonwood tree.Being pack-oriented animals, dogs work best in a group. They need to know their partner will grab the bear from behind if it charges too closely. Just as in a dog team, numbers give them a sense of power and purpose. However, it still takes attitude to get a tough job done.We were camped on a gravel bar one night during a move from spring camp back home with three horses and thirteen dogs. Most of our older dogs had grabbed a porcupine and lay useless, sleeping off a potent sedative, when a big black bear marched boldly into camp.Julie and I started turning the picketed dogs loose. Five youngsters ran hesitantly at the bear, but when he called their bluff, they milled around, barking ineffectively.Old Rueben weighed nearly 100 pounds, an experienced dog, but we hesitated to turn him loose. At 11 years old, he was a pretty creaky age for a dog of that size. But Reuben had tangled with bears before and when we turned him loose he knew what to do.Plowing through the circling pack of his hesitating team mates, he charged with a mighty bellow. The bear stood staring belligerently at him. Bouncing pups off his shoulder and hollering his war cry, Reuben thundered straight on. He was closing in on that bear’s face when it suddenly panicked, wheeled and bolted. With youngsters closing ranks behind him, Reuben chased that bear across the bar, up the bank, through the brush and far enough off into the spruce that it never did come back.I like dogs that are aggressive but still responsive to commands; in addition to being less likely to cause trouble, they are also less likely to get hurt—and more likely to get the job done right.Early one morning during a recent summer trip, our three trail dogs ran a big black bear up a tree right behind our tent. After letting the bear think about its sins for a minute, we called the dogs off. They eased away enough for the bear to descend, and then pressed in again. Seeing that the bear was reluctant to turn its back on the dogs, we called them off again. Backing up, they let the bear start moving off before closing in to push it away.When the bear had first approached camp, we were all asleep and I was the one who woke to the sounds of softly-moving brush and the exhaling snuff bears make when sniffing. Although our pals sprung to action once they realized what was happening, it is note-worthy that dogs, especially trail-worn ones, can easily sleep right through the approach of a bear.Most of the time, however, the dogs will alert on a bear long before we are aware of it. Julie was hiking across a mind-numbing expanse of black spruce when her dogs alerted and charged forward. We always pay close attention to the dogs’ reactions to their surroundings, and Julie, instantly scanning the area, spied two tiny black cubs perched atop a scraggly little spruce right ahead of her. Calling off the dogs, she beat a hasty retreat to avoid a conflict with the sow.Although I have heard about using leashed dogs to drive bears away, in our experience restrained dogs are at a severe disadvantage during a close encounter with a bear. Because they can’t split up to dance and swing around a bear, they are much less effective. In order for dogs to press an aggressive bear, they must approach more closely than would be safe for a comparatively-sluggish human at the other end of a leash. Also, most dogs are well aware of how restraint confines and thus endangers them. This effectively reduces the courage needed to bluff a bold bear.I have only once seen an entire dog team fall to the ground in abject terror, and that was when my dogs were charged by a winter grizzly. With the bear on the hard-packed trail and the dogs restrained by their lines, they could only make one leap off into deep snow. Unable to move away from the bear or split up to distract it, they lay motionless, trying to melt into the snow as they gazed away, avoiding eye contact.Fortunately the bear paused by the dogs long enough for me to extract my rifle and shoot the beast. Had the dogs not been between me and the bear, or had I not been carrying a heavy firearm, the story would have ended differently.In a nearly identical situation a musher in northern Alaska lost his entire team when a starving winter grizzly charged in; only one badly injured dog survived the attack by crawling unseen under the sled. Unarmed, the musher had to flee on foot while the bear was engaged with the dogs. Tragic though it was, the musher did the right thing. The only other possible alternative for an unarmed musher would be to turn as many dogs loose as possible, and even then in deep snow that might not be effective—and could result in human flesh as well as dog flesh nourishing the starving bear.Although our dogs have never been injured, others have not been so lucky. One of our neighbors had to sew up a long gash in the side of his dog when a bear laid it open as the dog tried to drive the intruder away. Another dog—a Karelian bear dog, no less—returned home with spinal injuries, which the owner believed had been caused by a bear slap.In his book Tales of Alaska’s Big Bears, Jim Rearden tells the story of a man who was charged from 15 yards by a huge coastal brown bear. It had closed the distance between them before the fellow could pull his pistol when his dog, normally afraid of bears, leaped at the aggressor’s throat.The dog’s flashing counterattack gave his master time to retreat, and the sow, eager to return to her cubs, quickly cut off the attack, but not before pinning the dog to her chest and crushing the life out of him with a powerful bite, less than twenty feet from the man whose life he saved.Dogs can certainly be a liability in bear country, but with the right dogs, trained and handled properly, they serve the valuable purposes of early warning, driving bears away, or closing in to protect other pack members (including bumbling two-legged ones). Their behavior tends to retrain habituated bears, teaching them to avoid camping places instead of seeking them out for handouts. By effectively chasing them away, dogs have saved the life of many a bear by making it unnecessary to shoot the intruders.A friend of mine was once charged by a grizzly while walking through the woods with her armed husband and two small children. As the bear closed in, she leaped off the trail—right onto the bear’s cubs. Before the sow could reach her or her husband could shoot, their loose sled dogs intervened, distracting the grizzly long enough for the family to retreat. All parties escaped with nothing worse than frazzled nerves.Some people never venture into bear country without a heavy firearm or at least some bear repellent spray.My first choice of protection is a few good dogs.Long-time mushers, Miki and Julie Collins are the authors of “Dog Driver: A Guide for the Serious Musher” and two adventure books. They live in the remote area north of the Alaska Range, running an 80-mile trapline by dog team. A version of this story first appeared in “Fur-Fish-Game” magazine.
Racing in the ACE Race with Tonya Helm On this episode of the Mushing podcast,