Karelian Bear Dog

Linda Simon
Dr Linda Simon (MVB MRCVS, University College Dublin)
Photo of adult Karelian Bear Dog

Hailing from the northern European region of ‘Karelia’, the Karelian Bear Dog is well-known in Finland and Russia, though it is relatively uncommon in the rest of the world. They are a medium-sized, athletically built dog with a dense black and white coat and the typical coiled tail of Spitz dogs. Brave and powerfully built, they are well adapted to hunting large prey, rarely backing down from a confrontation, even with a far larger animal. They have the potential to be aggressive with other dogs and with humans that appear to be posing a threat, so require firm training and a dedicated owner.

With energy to spare, this highly-driven dog needs plenty of exercise and play-time, as well as lots of space and outdoor access. Clever and motivated, the Karelian Bear Dog takes well to a large number of disciplines and can excel in many areas once given the opportunity.

About & History

The Karelian Bear Dog is also referred to as the Karjalankarhukoira and is believed to have originated many thousands of years ago, though precise historical records are lacking. Native to the area of northern Europe known as ’Karelia’ (a region previously owned by Finland, though now occupied by Russia), the Karelian Bear Dog is a Spitz-type dog widely prized for its courageous hunting abilities. When hunting, they typically work silently in pairs until they alert the hunter to the presence of the prey by barking vigorously and keeping the animal in one place, often nipping it into submission, as the human arrives.

Thought to have worked alongside the Viking people for many years, not only were they utilised for the hunting of large animals, such as moose and bears, they were a valuable multi-purpose breed, assisting their masters when herding farm animals, acting as watchdogs for their families, and even being used as sled dogs. It is thought that the appearance of the breed has not changed much over the centuries, owing to a limited gene pool and the fact that it was a dog bred for function rather than aesthetics.

In the 1920’s, a significant event in the history of the Karelian Bear Dog occurred, when a new and official border between Russia and Finland was put into place. This essentially led to the creation of two distinct dog breeds; the Karelian Bear Dog and the West Siberian Laika Dog, which up until that time, had not been distinguishable from one another.

Two world wars dramatically reduced the population size of the Karelian Bear Dog, and it is quoted that today’s population all arise from only forty-three survivors from the 1940s. A Finnish breeding programme was widely put in place at this time to ensure the survival of the breed. Indeed, shortly after, in 1945, the Karelian Bear Dog breed standard was written. The breeding program was a huge success, and nowadays, the Karelian Bear Dog is one of the most popular breeds of dog within its native Finland.

Owing to the bravery and hunting ability of the breed, they have even been used in places such as the Yosemite National Park in California, where they assist the rangers in the control of the wild bear population. Interestingly, the Karelian Bear Dog is also used in Canada in the Wind River Bear Institute, where the staff work with Karelian Bear Dogs to keep bears away from people and avoid potential bear related deaths.


Karelian Bear Dog Large Photo
Fraczek.marcin / Wikipedia.org

Classed as a Spitz-type dog, the Karelian Bear Dog has the typical plush, thick coat of this group, as well as their distinctively curled tail which is held over their back. Unusually for a Spitz-type dog, their double coat is black and white. The most prominent colour should be black rather than white, and their tail should end in a white tip. A brownish fur tint (or ‘highlights’) on their black fur is acceptable.

Their body type is a reflection of their working ability and is well-muscled and athletic. They are medium-sized and should be longer than they are tall. They possess triangular, erect ears that sit on a wide head, in which sit relatively small eyes. Their chest is broad, and their legs powerful.

Male dogs will typically reach heights of between 54cm to 60cm, and females will usually stand at around 49cm to 55cm. Males weigh between 20kg and 25kg, while the slightly smaller female will weigh between 20kg and 23kg.

Character & Temperament

Typical of a true hunting breed, the Karelian Bear Dog thrives when outdoors and performing tasks. They do best when they are kept active, both mentally and physically. They have a high exercise tolerance and are in no way suited to a quiet, indoor lifestyle. While potentially aggressive if they feel a threat from another animal, with competent training and correct socialisation they can co-exist peacefully with other family pets. Indeed, they are a social breed, and enjoy the company of other dogs that are familiar to them.

The Karelian Bear Dog excels when used as a guard dog as they are innately alert and will bark loudly to make their owner aware of any intruder. Due to the strength of this dog, and its natural affinity for hunting, as well as its need for plenty of stimulation and activity, this breed is only recommended for an experienced owner with plenty of time.


Photo of Karelian Bear Dog puppy

Not for the inexperienced trainer, the Karelian Bear Dog is intelligent and can be independent and stubborn, requiring a firm hand and patience. Their training must start from an early age, as they have the potential to display aggression towards other dogs or become territorial in situations when it is not desirable; such as when new guests come into the home.

Naturally easy to train when it comes to hunting and herding, the Karelian Bear Dog can also be taught to compete in agility and obedience training, as well as a number of other activities.


Living up to about 12 years old, the Karelian Bear Dog generally enjoys a healthy and active life. Responsible breeding, and particularly the use of prudent genetic screening, will play a large role in the continued health of this breed.

One reported condition within the population, is Hip Dysplasia. Many medium to large sized dogs are prone to this debilitating orthopaedic condition, which affects the hip joints. Hip dysplasia leads to chronic pain and lameness and can be life-limiting for many older dogs. Affected animals will often sit with their legs to the side, may bunny hop when running and will become progressively more lame and stiff on their back legs as they get older.

Lifestyle modifications, such as reducing their exercise and avoiding big jumps and steps, can help dogs manage as they get older. Equally, keeping them slim can take a lot of pressure off their joints. Various medical options exist for affected dogs, including joint supplements, pain relief, medicated diets and the use of acupuncture, hydrotherapy, physiotherapy. Often a multi-modal approach is suggested, where a selection of these options is implemented into the dog’s lifestyle.

Exercise and Activity Levels

The Karelian Bear Dog is an active breed that needs at least an hour of vigorous exercise each day. While many breed members can be trained to run off lead, care should be taken in public areas where smaller animals may be roaming and could be mistaken for prey.

A large, securely fenced garden should be supplied to allow the Karelian Bear Dog to burn off excess energy during the day. An under-exercised, bored Karelian Bear Dog will likely become destructive within the home or garden.


Their coat is fairly low maintenance, only really requiring brushing during a moulting season. This breed of dog need infrequent bathing and are often described as not having a ‘doggy smell’ associated with their fur. It is strongly advised that all grooming tasks be carried out regularly to get the Karelian Bear Dog used to them, so it is a good idea to brush them weekly, even if they do not necessarily require it.

Famous Karelian Bear Dogs

Yet to have made their Hollywood debut, the Karelian Bear Dog remains largely out of the limelight. They have, however, made it to the top ten most popular dog breeds list in their native Finland.


There are no popular Karelian Bear Dog cross-breeds in existence just yet.

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