Akita: The Heart of the Breed

Pictured Above: GRCH Subarashii’s He’s Bone A Fide, AOM “Danny”, Bred and Owned by Wendy Sorrell, Subarashii Akitas. DeeDee Murry Photography

Akita…. a National Monument of Japan, its original country of origin. The first Akita in the United States was gifted to Helen Keller in 1937 when, on a visit to Japan, she had arranged to visit the Akita region. Ms. Keller had learned of the story of Hachiko the legendary and faithful Akita, who waited for his master at the station for years after his master died while away. She wanted to visit the train station where his Bronze likeness and plaque bearing his story stood on the spot where he had loyally waited for his Master each day. Upon expressing a desire to meet an Akita, a Police Department instructor fulfilled her wish.

As she loved large dogs and was so impressed with the Akita’s faithfulness, the decision was made by the Police Instructor and his family to formally present her with their own puppy, Kamikaze-Go, he was just 75 days old and she nicknamed him “Kami”. Unfortunately, after returning to the States, and to Helen Keller’s utter devastation, she lost Kami to distemper at just 7. months of age. It was decided by the government to send another Akita to her as an official gift of the Japanese Government in 1939—it was not until Kenzan-Go arrived that Ms. Keller learned that he had been generously provided to her by the same young Police Instructor and that her “Go-Go” was the litter brother of her precious Kami!

Go-Go protected her and brought her much joy each day of his life. It has been said that young American servicemen also found the breed’s loyalty and dignity alluring and brought some Akita to American shores when they returned from WW II. The Akita region that the breed originates from is a mountainous and arctic (winter) region of Japan and the breed was originally used in pairs to track and hunt the 800-pound Yezo bear, holding it until the human hunter arrived to kill the bear. Perhaps the legendary faithfulness of the Akita is derived from their original purpose on the side of a mountain with a lone hunter and a hunting mate of the opposite sex. The Akita is not a pack animal in the “traditional” hunting dog definition, for they can be intolerant of other animals, especially those of the same sex.

They possess a heightened prey drive but can be raised and taught to tolerate other animals in their domain today, if much consideration and respect is given to the nature of the breed. While Akitas are no longer used to hunt bear—aside from the Conformation show ring—they continue to prove their faithfulness, natural intelligence, dignity and all-purpose working ability in many areas.

Akitas today participate in a variety of Performance events, serve as Therapy Dogs, Crisis Response Dogs and even as Service Dogs in the right situation! In 2008 the American Kennel Club Award for Canine Excellence (ACE) in the Therapy Dog category (there are five catagories and one dog is awarded in each category from the thousands submitted each year) was awarded to Zadok, loved/ owned/trained by Julie Burk of Oregon. Zadok had a remarkable instinct for knowing just the right way to approach each person, based on his/her needs and could even detect when someone was near death and would then provide extra comfort. Zadok and Julie were also certified as a National Animal Assisted Crisis Response Team, helping people in disasters…. whether that meant comforting victims or rescue/recovery workers. Zadok comforted students and faculty at the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007 and, again a few short months later at Northern Illinois University in 2008, earning him and Julie a spot in both those college families.

Sadly, Julie lost Zadok at just under 10 years of age but he will now live on as a relevant and important part of Akita history as an example of what an Akita can be in the hands of a knowledgeable owner who can help him/her reach their full potential and develop their capacity for seemingly human understanding.

Akitas can and are able to be trained in obedience, agility and even rally but it requires special skills as a trainer/ handler to understand the Akita intelligence and, despite their obvious sense of dignity, their uncanny sense of humor! Th e Akita is one of a handful of breeds which possesses the innate ability to “think for themselves”. This is not to say they won’t respect your authority but they must see a reason to do what you’re asking them to do, especially if it’s repetitive.

For this reason, when training in performance events, it becomes imperative to be firm but patient and keep it interesting, challenging and fun for the Akita. More than one Akita owner has found themselves on the receiving end of an Akita’s boredom induced comedic antics at just the wrong moment! The owner of a Veteran Akita at the Akita Club of America National Specialty thought she’d like to try her dog in a Rally run-through, even though he had not ever participated, she thought he might like to try it. On a sit/stay, she gave the command and he sat, very, very slowly.

He then proceeded to bark at her each time she looked at him! She had successfully taught him the “speak” command in the past and though she had not given the command in the quiet room—he clearly had decided that he did not see a reason to sit with all these people watching him and wanted to liven things up a bit! When corrected for “speaking”, he proceeded to not only bark but offered her a “high five” to the delighted laughter and applause of those watching!

While the Akita is loyal to a fault, this leads to a natural affinity to guard its home and those in its home. Upon first meeting, the Akita may appear aloof until it quietly assesses your intentions and perceives you to be no threat and then it may approach you as a way of introduction. What you will experience is a large, powerful canine moving fluidly, almost catlike and gently to its visitor offering a gentle nudge of their hand or simply sitting by your side accepting a few gentle pats on the head. It was for this reason that Andi Meloon donated an Akita for Bill Bobrow to train as a service/seeing eye dog for Dr. Jeff rey Fowler in 1994, a heart surgeon who lost his eyesight! Dottie the service dog was welcome at the office and the hospital as Dr. Fowler continued his work with Dottie as his eyes and other surgeons as his hands.

She exemplified the intelligence of the breed and the knowledge that she had work to do and attended to Dr. Fowler and his patients with gentle, calming reassurance. For her service, Dottie was awarded the Delta Society Service Dog of the Year Award in 1994.

Perhaps, aside from all of the usual superlatives used to describe the Akita— large, powerful, stubborn, intuitive, and loyal with comedic sense—it could also be said that the Akita has an indomitable spirit and “heart”. In closing, there is another example of the breed’s essence in the 2001 ACE award winner from the “Companion Dog” category. One dark morning in the city of New York, Chilie, an 8-year-old female Akita smelled smoke in her apartment. She began to bark and then run to the adult’s closed door, scratching at it in an attempt to wake them to no avail. Chile then went to the children’s room where her two kids lie asleep and pulled the covers off of them and began pawing at them to wake them…it worked! They began screaming which woke the adults and the family fled the apartment with Chilie hot on their heels urging them to keep running!

The apartment was a total loss, the family and their hero dog displaced. They were able to keep her with them for a while but due to an illness, the family was forced to give her up. Akita Rescue of Western New York stepped in after digging into their own pockets, transporting her across three state lines with assistance from many in the Akita community, to be fostered in Pennsylvania awaiting a long shot at adoption since her age was a deterrent.

Far away in California, Hogan Sung was surfing the web to build a memorial page for his beloved deceased bulldog, coincidentally, named Chilie when he read her story and just had to have her! He flew 3000 miles to see her and bring her back home to California with him! Unfortunately, perhaps because of the stress of the relocation at her age and losing her family, Chilie suff ered gastric torsion in California and underwent surgery…. once again, the indomitable Akita spirit manifested itself and despite all predictions and warnings that she may not survive the surgery, Chilie beat the odds and, not only survived the surgery, she lived out her natural life accepting another rescue Akita that Mr. Sung adopted, loving and being loved, seemingly unaware of her “hero” status.

The Akita… strong, quiet, dignified, majestic and sometime class clown…the opportunity to get to know one is most certainly worth the time…so much more than a working dog, more like a “heart” dog. While the breed is not for everyone, it is a breed that when respected and raised in a knowledgeable environment might just teach us humans a thing or two about how to have “heart”! All in a day’s work for the extraordinary Akita!

  • Julie Mayes has been involved in Akitas for over 22 years, handling and breeding under the prefix “Kokoro”. Julie is a member of the Akita Club of America, a past member of the Board of Directors for the ACA, the “AKC Gazette” Akita Working Columnist, Judges Education Mentor for the Akita and an AKC Breeder of Merit. She has co-presented Akita Handling seminars at the ACA National Specialty and is a past and current ACA National Specialty Assistant Show Chair. She resides in Michigan with her family and 5 Akitas.

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