Well-trained dogs can be a great defense against bears
One deep-throated bark said it all: “Heads up!’’
I looked up from clearing brush in an alder thicket to see Lars, who’d been left babysitting the backpack in a grassy clearing, staring intently ahead and to his left, his Labrador ears stiffly square on his head, his eyes and nose focused up mountain.
“Come’’ was all I said, and he was at my side in a blink. I made sure the bear spray was handy and just started yacking:
“Hey Bud, what’d you hear? Is there a bear out there? I’m sure you must have scared it. You certainly scared me. I’m sure it’s gonna just move around us.” Yadda, yadda, yadda.
Up mountain I heard brush breaking, the sound getting more distant. A cream-colored bundle of intensity near my right knee, Lars kept his nose and eyes focused in that direction. I kept talking until the tension in his body began to ease. It was a matter of minutes.
Whatever it was he’d sensed was obviously gone by then. Whether it was a bear or not, I was never able to ascertain, but given that Lars rarely barks when we are in the field, and given that he has done this long, deep-bark before I have seen a bear or bears, odds are that was what slipped past.
Dogs and bears are, of course, a much-debated subject in this state. Most people have heard the warning story of the dog that runs out ahead of its owner to confront a bear, turns tail upon meeting the bear, and then comes running back with the bear in pursuit.
There is that risk with dogs, especially poorly trained dogs. A dog trained to come on command to your side when wildlife is spotted ahead solves that problem. Lars is a gem in this regard. Now only 18 months old, he is still occasionally overcome by the attraction of other people and disobeys the command to come in order to go meet them.
Such is not the case with bears or moose. Told then to “come,’’ he is quick to respond. He might hesitate for just a second sometimes with moose, but never with bears. He seems to sense the danger and recognize that two against one is better than one and one against one.
He fortunately does not have the issues, as they say, of one of his predecessors. Magic, the sweetest of dogs I’ve ever known, had a chip on his shoulder for bears. He once drove one off a moose kill when we were waterfowl hunting the ponds between the willows and alders way up the Twentymile River valley.
I ended up in the middle of it because there was nowhere else to go. When the snarling, barking and teeth popping started, I was in an alder thicket but knew there was some kind of bear encounter going on. I decided it would probably be better to deal with it in the clearing just ahead than wait for it come to the brush.
Or maybe I just had a soft spot for that dog. Either way, I broke into the clearing to find the bear standing on the carcass of a moose, a rather nice bull, and a snarling Labrador, a dog that never showed the slightest inclination to do battle with anything but bears, facing off with it.
The bear took one look at me and took off. Maybe he figured that if the dog was crazy there was a danger the master might be the same. I was just happy to see the bear leave. The 12-gauge shotgun is a pretty good tool for stopping bears, but not when loaded with birdshot.
A good dog, in my experience, might actually be better. ◆