Tag Archives: Akita

Dog Man

by Martha Sherrill

This book was recommended to me by more than one person I met at the dog park. As an Akita owner, it seemed like a must-read. Dog Man chronicles the life of Morie Sawataishi, who more or less single-handedly saved the breed from extinction in WWII-era Japan. Under the duress of wartime, the dogs were eaten for meat, and their fur used to line soldiers’ coats. It was illegal to own them, and all most all of Japan’s Akitas had been rounded up. The Akita had already been mixed with a few foreign breeds, such as Mastiffs and German Shepherds, to introduce greater size and strength when dog-fighting became popular in the years earlier. Then, when WWII broke out, some Akita owners deliberately mixed their dogs with German Shepherds, which were spared from the war effort because they were valued as service dogs.

I learned quite a bit more about the Akita breed, including how the split between Japanese and American Akitas came to be: Two particular dogs were born in postwar Japan who embodied the characteristics of two different bloodlines. One was from the city of Akita and the other from the city of Odate. There was something of a rivalry between the two areas to produce the best dogs. Kongo, from Odate, was a large, barrel-chested dog who had some traits that were associated with foreign dogs with which the Akita had been earlier bred. Goromaru, from Akita, was longer-legged, and not as stocky as Kongo. His face was rounder, as opposed to the longer, slightly more Shepherd-like face of Kongo. And where Kongo had loose skin, Goromaru’s was tight. It happened that Goromaru’s owner was a glamorous former actress, and as a result this dog was widely seen and admired across Japan. He came to the attention of U.S. servicemen stationed in Japan after WWII, and they too liked what they saw. As a result, the Dewa line of Akitas which he represented were acquired and taken back to the United States. It also happened that the two Akitas that Helen Keller acquired were both from Kongo lines, which made these dogs all the more desirable to the Americans in Japan. This was the origin of the difference between the modern American and Japanese Akitas.

In Japan, these two champion dogs, so different in appearance, became the rallying cry for the standardization of the breed. It was the Ichinoseki line exemplified by Goromaru which was chosen to exemplify the original and true characteristics of the Japanese Akita. Morie was involved at this fundamental level, as an owner and breeder who showed his dogs in many competitions, winning more often than not. Dog Man is structured by the succession of dogs that Morie owned, each defining a portion of his life, while at the same time re-establishing the breed that he loved more than anything. In tandem with a few other men who owned Akita dogs, with whom he crossed his own, Morie sought to return the breed to its old snow-country origins. He saw that in the wake of the sudden, incredible demand for Akita dogs driven by American servicemen, puppy mills were springing up all over the country, and many of the people involved were only interested in making money, not in producing sound, healthy dogs with true characteristics of the breed.

Morie had ample opportunity to do the same, but amazingly, never accepted money for one of his dogs:

“Kitako [Morie’s wife] encouraged him to sell a few puppies now and again, even to simply offset the costs of his dog habit, but Morie resisted. Every time he tried to put a price on one of his dogs, he felt uneasy. He had only one litter a year, sometimes two, and he liked to see the puppies go off to people he knew and respected. He might repay a favor or a vague social debt by giving away a puppy, and he didn’t mind making an instant friend, either, but when he thought about selling a dog to a total stranger–or taking cash for a puppy–something inside him was revolted.”

Breeding was not easy, either, because at this point there was so much other blood in the Akita line:

“Every dog had an atmosphere of its own, and a look, and a balance of qualities as well as vulnerabilities and mannerisms that Morie found fascinating. Sometimes when he admired a dog’s strengths, he tried to imagine what would happen if it were bred with one of his own. People who’ve never done it tend to imagine dog breeding is simple. But Morie spent untold hours contemplating the possibilities–always hopeful and excited. Life was full of mystery and magic, and risks. Genetics most of all. If you put two dogs from the same established breed together, they would reproduce themselves almost perfectly. But if you put two Akitas together, the force of the unknown took over. Beneath the obvious traits of each Akita, there were dozens of hidden ones waiting to come to the surface.”

What was he looking for?

“‘I always wanted to breed confident dogs,’ he says. He looked for energy and endurance, a ruggedness and competitive spirit… a dog with a strong will, a vigorous dog with kisho.”

After winning many, many prizes in the show ring with various dogs, Morie decided to train one of his dogs, Samurai Tiger, to hunt. They began with duck hunting, and then rabbits and pheasants. Eventually, together with his mountain man friend Uesugi, Morie took Tiger bear hunting.

“Uesugi always said that when you stood face-to-face with a bear, it brought out the true nature of a dog and the true nature of a man.”

“Even though some of the old legends about Akitas describe them hunting in pairs, Morie never hunted with more than one dog. He found that his dogs tended to compete for game and fights started. There were other displays of dominance, too, which were distracting and simply a waste of time.”

On that first hunt, they got a bear. “After they’d hauled the bear out of the hole, Uesugi gave Samurai Tiger some of its blood to lap up. ‘That did something powerful to him,’ Morie says of the dog. ‘ After that, it was as if he’d follow that scent to the ends of the earth to taste it again.’”

Eventually, Morie and Samurai Tiger would kill 11 bears together. By 1975, Morie had been breeding Akitas for 45 years, but would still get anxious when a new litter was ready to be born. “There was always the chance that another Samurai Tiger might appear. ‘They say you get only one dog like him in your lifetime,’ Morie says, ‘but I thought if I lived long enough, I might get two, and prove that saying wrong.’”

And by this time, the Akita breed characteristics had become firmly established:

“Since the 1980s, the dog world of the north had begun to favor an Akita with a slightly different look–longer and thinner legs, a more foxlike snout and triangular eyes–but by the early 1990s, this style of dog prevailed as the new standard in Japan. It had been a long, slow struggle since the end of World War II, when the dog men of the snow country had simply hoped to produce litters of puppies with erect ears and curling tails. Now the days of the hodgepodge dogs were over. The stout bodies, bear-shaped heads, and shepherd faces were gone, too. The traces of cross-breeding with Western dogs in the early part of the century had been erased. And when two of these Japanese Akitas were bred, there weren’t surprises–but perfectly uniform litters of dogs so similar it was nearly impossible to tell them apart.

The result was a smaller, more finely featured Akita than those in America and elsewhere. That didn’t bother the snow country breeders. Since the Akita was their native dog, they felt they were allowed to set trends, rather than follow them. But it was this, along with a desire to resist being influenced by the international market, that led the Japan Kennel Club in 1996 to begin refusing to recognize Akitas from other countries, creating a split that has still not been reconciled. To many breeders and Akita clubs worldwide there are two distinct breeds, and ‘American’ Akita and a Japanese one, something the American Kennel Club has not yet recognized.”

But, despite the fact that Morie had contributed greatly to the preservation of the Akita dog, he felt that something in them had changed:

“Slowly over the years as Japan became tamer and richer, he says, the Akitas changed too. Their faces are delicate and sweet. Their eyes are sensuous. Their mouths seem to curl up in a perpetual smile. They are cute dogs, happy dogs, pets… He’d helped to preserve the Akita breed–the flesh and bones of the traditional snow country dog. But what about its heart and soul, its nature? The essence of the Akita–its unique spirit and ruggedness–now seemed unsuitable for the modern world…‘I worry that the dogs are losing their core aggressiveness and sharpness, their shrewdness,’ Morie says. ‘Having kisho means a fighting spirit. And I think it’s a fighting spirit that has allowed the Akita to survive for centuries. But people want dogs to be useful to them, and so their traits are always desirable in relation to man, and what man wants from a dog.’ … When you rescued an animal from extinction, what was the most important thing to save, the body or the spirit?”

Katz on Dogs

by Jon Katz

I’ve been doing a lot of dog reading since getting Charlie, and not all of those titles are listed here. I figure I will remember what The Akita was about. But there were a few things in this present book that I wanted to take notes on. There are of course many schools of thought with regard to how to train dogs – dogs in general and particular types of dogs as well. Here are some of Katz’s thoughts:

“…what is perhaps the most essential ingredient in a dog’s life: a human who will take emotional responsibility for him.”

“Humans may not be as unique as we think; perhaps other animals also have a well-developed sense of self-consciousness. But probably not the animals that share our homes and menace our bedroom slippers. The more I’ve moved away from interpreting my dogs’ behavior as nearly human, the easier it is to train them, and the less guilt and anxiety I feel.”

“The reality is, we don’t know that much about what dogs think, because they can’t tell us. You can make up your own mind about what you think dogs think. Behaviorists tend to believe that dogs ‘think’ in their own way–in sensory images involving their finely honed instincts. They’re not capable of deviousness or spite. They love routine: nothing seems to make them more comfortable than doing the same thing at the same time in the familiar way, day after day–we snack here, we poop there, we play over here. I am astonished at how little it takes to please them, how simple their lives can be if we don’t complicate them with an overlay of human motivation.”

“Remember (and it can never hurt to say before each training session): ‘This is an animal, not a child.’ Most dogs are quite willing to follow the rules; when they don’t, most often it’s because they don’t understand the rules. Communication is the key to training. Don’t blame the dog for being confused. Challenge yourself to be clearer, more patient and creative about letting the dog know what you want. Try. Try again. Understand that real training takes many months, even years.”

Things to keep in mind as I try to make Charlie into the best dog he can be, while being to him the best owner that I can be. So far, so good.

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