About Karelian Bear Dogs / Dispelling myths / Homeland of the KBD / Defining a KBD breed standard / Our KBD library

Defining a Karelian Bear Dog breed standard

The Russians and the Finns

Before there were breed standards or the name Karelian Bear Dog, museums and archives of Russian cynology (the study of canine evolution and breed development) provide documentary evidence of dogs that descended from the ancient spitz-type hunting dogs and looked identical to today's Karelian Bear Dogs (KBDs). Indeed, centuries ago, before stud books and dog registries and before political divisions of the native Karelian peoples, the gene pool of the spitz-type hunting dogs exhibited much genetic diversity, yet the isolation of roadless countrysides helped to preserve the local people's aboriginal dogs. Below, a photograph taken near the Vivi river in Siberia (N. P. Naumov, 1927) shows dogs with physical characteristics similar to those of today's KBD.

In appearance, the Karelian Bear Dogs exhibit traits of the native dogs of Finland, Karelia and the northeastern part of European Russia. However, even in this part of the world, native dogs became increasingly mixed with imported cultured breeds--such as Setters, Spaniels, hounds and later German Shepherds. It became clear that the only way to save the unique hunting qualities and natural beauty of the regional aboriginal dogs was for man to intervene with nature, selectively breeding local dogs for the genetic traits (such as size, shape and temperament) that most closely characterized the native dogs.

The breed standard written to describe the desireable traits for the Karelian Bear Dog differed in Finland and Russia. As a result, just as the Karelian people experienced political separateness, dogs that once shared overlapping gene pools began to diverge as distinct breeds.

The Finns began selectively breeding only black-and-white aboriginal dogs primarily from Komi. By 1936, the Finnish standard called for a black dog with white markings on the head, chest, legs and abdomen, and in 1946, the Karelian Bear Dog breed became recognized by Scandinavian and Finnish kennel clubs. Today, the Karelian Bear Dog is among the top ten most common dog breeds in Finland.

The Russians began breeding many of the same aboriginal dogs from Komi (in addition to those from the Archangelsk Province and other regions) during approximately the same time as did the Finns, but the Russians began by breeding all the original colors of the dogs: wolf gray of various shades, red coats like the standard spitz, and even black and tan. After World War II the Russians, too, began selectively choosing black-and-white dogs for breeding and named their breed the Russo-European Laika (REL).

Only recently were Karelian Bear Dogs imported to the United States and Canada. Most of the Karelian Bear Dogs bred in the United States are descendents from the KBDs and RELs that were brought to this country around 1991 by Dr. Shushanov. Names of his dogs can be found in pedigrees of many lines of KBDs now living in the United States. The Karelian Bear Dog was recognized by the Universal Kennel Club in 1996, and offspring from Dr. Shushanov's breedings were registered with the United Kennel Club as KBDs.

A super bear dog?

A false statement repeated by some who have written about the Karelian Bear Dog is that the Russians bred their dogs with the Utchak Sheepdog to create a "super bear dog" that exhibited even greater courage and stamina. Some sources offer descriptions of the physical and temperament traits of a large and ferocious Utchak "breed."

However, the Utchak has never been proven to exist in Russia. Russo-European Laikas originated from aboriginal dogs of the northeast part of European Russia, and they are not believed to have been cross bred with any other imported breed. In fact, the very existence of a so-called Utchak Sheepdog is yet to be proven.

Like the Karelian Bear Dog, Laikas are also known to work bear (photograph by Marina Kuzina, 2005).

The Laika: a close relative to the KBD

Between about 1930 and 1940, the Russians established four primitive breeds of Laikas as purebreds. These Laika breeds and the Karelian Bear Dogs selectively bred in Finland during that same time period were decended from the same large group of similar dogs from northeastern Europe. The word "Laika" originated from the word "layat," which means "to bark." Vladimir Beregovoy, a world renowned expert on dogs, tells us that the Russians sometimes refer to the Karelian Bear Dog as the "Finnish Bear Laika" and the Akita as the "Japanese Laika."

There was a famous Russian space dog named Laika who became the first living creature from Earth to enter orbit when she was launched into space aboard the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik 2 on November 3, 1957. Found as a stray from the streets of Moscow, she paved the way for human spaceflight. Despite her name, she was not of the Laika breed. True hunting Laikas have never been sent to space.

After World War II, when the Russians began to selectively breed their dogs based on color, the Russians named their red-grey or grey dogs West Siberian Laikas (above, photograph provided by Vladimir Beregovoy) and their black-and-white colored dogs Russo-European Laikas (or RELs).

Vladimir Beregovoy himself owns West Siberian Laikas. He writes, "Despite the fact that these dogs [Laikas in Russia] were essentially no different from the Karelian Bear Dog of Finland, the breed was named differently, as Russo-European Laika."

Today, the Karelian Bear Dog and the Laika are indeed different breeds in dog registering organizations. In fact, there are several recognized breeds of Laika. Yet, to fully know the Karelian Bear Dog is to appreciate the common heritage of the Finnish KBDs and the Russian Laikas that existed before there were breed standards set by man.

The science of heredity

Astonishingly, dogs are believed to have more physical and behavioral variations that any mammal on this planet. Such diversity is possible because of the special nature of a dog's DNA, exceptional in the animal kingdom. For those readers with an interest in science, we have included a brief description of some of the basic concepts surrounding heredity, evolution and selective breeding in the creation of a breed of dog.

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