by Tracy Campion

Officer Dustin Prater watched as his partner, Spencer the Karelian Bear Dog, ran along the horizon, his tail held high, his nose to the ground. Almost as if he sensed his partner talking about him, Spencer glanced back over at us. At eight years of age, he wasn’t slowing down…yet.

I watched Spencer, who was exploring the landscape with working dog photographer Holly Cook. They wove in and out of sight as Spencer followed his nose, alert and curious.

Spencer became a part of Officer Prater’s life when he was only fourteen weeks old. Officer Prater and his wife, Julie, drove out to the Wind River Bear Institute in Montana in February of 2012. Little Spencer was in the kennel with his siblings, who were sleeping. But Spencer’s eyes were fixed on the couple and their truck. His focus on his new partner hasn’t faltered since that day. Spencer fit in well in the Prater household, which included their three girls and, up until two years ago, their beloved black Lab, Gracie.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) Karelian Bear Dog program began with biologist Rocky Spencer, who in 2003 partnered with a black and white dog named Mishka. Their goal? To reduce human-bear conflicts in Washington State. Since that time, the Karelian Bear Dogs and their partners have provided a deterrent to bears, responded to bear and mountain wildlife complaints, assisted in a homicide investigation, helped investigate poaching cases, assisted in non-lethal “hard releases” of bears to restore their natural fear of humans, and provided educational outreach at schools and public events statewide to share the WDFW’s mission.

“It all began with Rocky Spencer and Mishka,” Officer Prater said.

After Rocky Spencer’s untimely death in 2007, Officer Prater honored his friend by naming his canine partner after him. Mishka retired in 2015. In addition to Officer Prater and Spencer, there are three more teams, including Nick Jorg and his canine partners, Colter and Freya, Keith Kirsch and Jax, and Rich Beausoleil and Indy, who is Spencer’s brother.

Officer Prater and Spencer are an incomparable team, working to protect wildlife throughout Washington State. When he was ten years old, Officer Prater had a profound experience with a game warden that forever changed his perspective – and his career path, as well.

“I grew up in the South Park neighborhood of Seattle,” he said, “and my family hunted and fished. I’d hear negative stories about game wardens, and I was fearful of them. One day when we were fishing in Eastern Washington, a game warden approached my father and me. He checked our fishing licenses, and checked what we’d caught, and then he spent 45 minutes just talking with us. It was such a positive experience. I appreciated what he was doing, and why, and from that point onward, I wanted to be a game warden. My misconception of what they were like was completely opposite of what was true.”

Spencer, who was showing us how he searched for an animal, was wearing his standard uniform: a radio collar that’s affixed with a GPS. If Spencer was out of earshot, Officer Prater had a handset that he could use to cause a vibration or – in safety situations, such as not wanting Spencer to cross a busy road in pursuit of a bear – a shock.

“I’ve rarely had to use the shock, and it was only in safety situations like that,” Officer Prater said.

As he spoke, Spencer continued to explore with Holly. Even from a distance, I could see that he was smiling. As they approached us, we saw that Holly was carrying something; it turned out to be a rather large Muscovy goose that Spencer had found.

“I brought dinner!” Holly said, laughing. “Spencer kept on nudging the goose with his nose, and I felt like I needed to bring it back.” Spencer looked from the goose to Holly, and then fixed his eyes on Officer Prater.

“Find it,” Officer Prater said to Spencer, who trotted off, eyes soft, smiling, and tail aloft. There wasn’t a bear to find (that we knew of, at least!) but Spencer trotted off in search of whatever he could find.

“He’ll air scent and ground scent,” Officer Prater explained. “Right now, he’s trying to cut the wind. You can watch his tail, and when he’s hot on something, it will start to ‘tick,’ wagging ever so slightly, but he doesn’t bark until he actually has his eyes on the bear. And that’s pretty typical of Karelian Bear Dogs. I can be 100 yards away, and if I hear barking, I know that he has eyes on the bear. He has likely either treed it or bayed it – which is when he’s circling the bear.”

There didn’t seem to be a bear about, but Spencer was busy inspecting everything in the field. “We work on the fly; I used to have a frozen bear paw that I used, but I gave it to another handler,” Officer Prater explained. Spencer approached a pile of deer bones, including a pelvis and leg bones with sinew still attached. He took a bone in his mouth but dropped it immediately as his partner told him to “leave it.”

Bear dogs like Spencer are used to help protect bears instead of using lethal force when bears and humans share the same space. With continued encroachment into lands where bears historically roamed, these incidents are becoming increasingly common.

“We teach landowners how to avoid attracting wildlife, including how to handle their chicken feed and garbage,” he explained. “The phrase goes, ‘A fed bear is a dead bear,’ and it’s against the law to feed them. We don’t want bears to be habituated; we want them to remain wild and healthy.”

PAWS, located in Lynnwood, Washington, cares for orphaned bear cubs. When these bears are ready to be released, the WDFW Karelian Bear dog teams are present to ensure that they’re deterred from returning to areas where humans live.

“We do what’s called a hard release,” Officer Prater explained. “The bear is in a culvert trap, and the dogs are barking. It’s adverse conditioning. When we release the bears, we shoot them with a bean bag, then release a cracker shell, which is an M-80 noisemaker.

“We’re teaching the bears boundaries. They usually don’t come back, but if they do, that’s a different problem.” Fortunately for Washington’s bears, the strategy has been largely successful.

Spencer and Officer Prater starred in Animal Planet’s Rugged Justice, where they helped locate poached animals, including a trophy elk. “Sometimes, we’ll go two weeks without a wildlife-related incident, and then we’ll get two calls in one day,” he said. Spencer located the body and a student officer used a metal detector to find the bullet that killed the animal. The human who illegally killed the animal remains at large.

Another call involved a bear that had traveled from Joint Base Lewis McChord to Lakewood. “I was off duty when I got the call, but Spencer and I were there within thirty minutes,” Officer Prater recalled. “The bear was going over fences, and we were crawling underneath them. This was a hot day, and it was about 2:00 p.m., and we were running constantly for 45 minutes. We were worried that a homeowner might shoot the bear or that he might get hit by a car. We got picked up by Lakewood Animal Control because our vehicle was far away by that point, and then we got a call that the bear was six houses away. When we stopped the truck, Spencer got to the bear so quickly that it couldn’t go over the fence. We were able to shoot the bear with an immobilization dart and then safely relocate it.”

Rugged Justice gave the public a good sense of the work that we do,” he said. It also provided a window into their partnership.

“I wouldn’t trade him for anything,” Officer Prater said. Spencer’s smile and wagging tail said the same thing.

“You know when you see athletes on television, and they’re announcing their retirement?” Officer Prater asked me. He was contemplative, his light eyes going back and forth from Spencer, off in the distance, to me, standing before him, notebook in hand.

“You see them thanking everyone, and then they just break down emotionally at the end…They know they aren’t going to play again. They’re done with that part of their lives. Well, Spencer completes me as a ‘player.’ I’m a better officer with him by my side, whether we’re looking for a bear or not. We have complete trust and understanding. He’ll tell me when he’s ready to retire, and then I will, too.”

Officer Prater’s soft eyes were damp. Mine were, too. I hadn’t expected to be choked up. But hearing that Officer Prater – who was entering his twentieth year as a game warden for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) – wanted to retire when Spencer did, too, spoke not only to the depth of their partnership, but also of their connection and commitment to one another.

The Karelian Bear Dog Program is budget-neutral, with no funds paid from the WDFW agency budget. The program is 100% supported by private donations. By donating today, you can help support the mission of these hardworking dogs.

To make a donation, send a check or money order to:
16018 Mill Creek Boulevard
Mill Creek, WA 98012