Rare Breed Spotlight: The Karelian Bear Dog

Capable of facing off with bears and elk, this fearless and independent spitz dog needs a loving but firm owner.


The northern regions of the globe have contributed a variety of dogs known generically as spitz breeds. They share many of the same features, such as a wedge-shaped head, upright ears, a square or slightly off-square silhouette, a thick double coat, and a tail curled over the back.

The Karelian Bear Dog is Finland’s donation to this distinguished coterie. The striking black-and-white dog takes its name from Karelia, a region in northern Europe, which was the site of conflict between Russia, Sweden and Finland. Its predecessor is believed to be the primitive Komi dog, an inhabitant of the forests of the Komi Republic to the northeast of Russia, which fell to the Russians in 1472.

Early Karelians were red, red-gray, or black and white, but breeders preferred the sharp, clean contrast of the black-and-white coats and bred out the other colors. A hunting dog and guardian for Finnish peasants, the Karelian was almost wiped out due to warring between the Finns and Russians. To ensure the continued existence of these courageous canines, Finland began officially breeding Karelians in 1936. A breed standard was drawn up in 1945, and the dogs were first registered with the Finnish Kennel Club in 1946.

Although dubbed “bear dogs,” Karelians are also used to hunt moose, elk, wild boar and some smaller animals, such as squirrel and mink. Karelians usually work one-on-one with the hunter, silently trailing game and barking only when the quarry is cornered or treed. Its modus operandi is to harass the game to a standstill, keeping it engaged by circling, barking and nipping until the hunter is within shooting range. It’s a technique that requires tenacity, nimbleness, unabashed bravery and stamina – all qualities of the Karelian Bear Dog. Maybe that’s why it’s one of Finland’s 10 most popular breeds.

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