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Pooch protection: Dogs used in northern Japan to scare off bears

Tama, a 5-year-old female Karelian bear dog, leaves for a patrol with participants in a study session in Myoko, Niigata Prefecture. (Mainichi/Shigeharu Asami)

NIIGATA -- Amid a recent spate of Asiatic black bear attacks on people in Japan, dogs trained to scare off the large animals have been drawing attention in Niigata Prefecture as a way to help keep the bears away from residential areas without exterminating them.

At a study session in the Niigata Prefecture city of Myoko in September, Picchio, a nonprofit organization based in the Nagano Prefecture town of Karuizawa, briefed the attendees on countermeasures it is taking against bear attacks using dogs.

The study session was organized jointly by the Wildlife Research Organization in Niigata and the Kubikino NPO Support Center, and was held at the Heartland Myoko facility in the city. Some 50 people participated in the event.

Junpei Tanaka, who trains Karelian bear dogs for the Picchio group, took 5-year-old female Tama to the facility for the event. Karelian bear dogs are a large species native to a border zone between Russia and Finland and have traditionally been used to hunt brown bears.

Picchio became the first organization to introduce the dogs to Japan from a U.S. training facility in 2004. The dogs are taught to react to the smell of bears, and can track them to ensure safety in areas where the animals appear. The canines, which can detect the smell of the bears and can hear their movements, notify staff of their existence to ensure worker safety.

The dogs bark loudly to chase away bears and can keep a certain distance from the large creatures, leaving both parties unscathed.

While the brave canines are not afraid to boldly confront bears, they generally have a gentle temperament toward humans. The dogs undergo training and need to pass aptitude tests before they are sent out to track bears.

During the event, Tanaka patrolled an area around the venue with Tama. The dog weighs 27 kilograms and is about the size of an average elementary school child. The dog was affectionate with the children who participated in the event. But when Tanaka gave her an instruction, her eyes grew sharp, and she began to run up a slope surrounded by farmland and forests. There were no signs that bears were around the area, but Tama notified Tanaka that other wild animals were nearby in bushes.

Tanaka briefed the participants on countermeasures against bears that are being implemented in Karuizawa.

Many holiday villas have been built in mixed woodland locations in Karuizawa situated between mountainous areas bears inhabit and residential zones, and local residents have been worried as bears have frequently been spotted in the area.

In 1998, Picchio launched a project to protect and manage Asiatic black bears. The group captured 34 of the animals and released them back into mountain areas after attaching a transmitter to each of them.

When bears come close to residential areas, Picchio staff members use barking dogs and fire rubber bullets at the animals to scare them away in a bid to install them with a fear of dogs and humans. The organization also cut down trees in bushland and improved trash cans to prevent bears from opening them. Thanks to these efforts, the number of bear sightings decreased from a record high of 36 in 2006 to nine by 2016.

The Asiatic black bear is designated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list as a vulnerable species. The bear is already extinct in the southwestern Japan main island of Kyushu. The Environment Ministry designates the animal as a species that could become extinct in the western Japan main island of Shikoku and in the northern Japan prefecture of Aomori.

Yasuyuki Nagano, vice president of the Wildlife Research Organization Niigata, is determined to use Karelian bear dogs to ensure the coexistence of humans and bears.

Many outdoor sports-related events are held in Myoko and various university sports teams also hold camps there so it is important to prevent bears from encountering people. Nagano pointed out that the use of highly trained dogs can help protect humans and bears.

If bears are considered harmful to humans and culled, it could tarnish the image of Myoko as a city working to protect wildlife.

Moreover, as bear dogs are playing an important role as "goodwill ambassadors" working for the coexistence of humans and bears, Nagano says, "The Myoko Municipal Government should train experts to transform the city into an area where people can coexist with wildlife."

(Japanese original by Shigeharu Asami, Joetsu Local Bureau)

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