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About the Akita
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The Akita's story is a primeval one. The breed is the descendant of the ancient dog with erect ears and curled tail whose likeness is found carved in the early tombs of the Japanese.

In 660 B.C., dogs were brought to Japan from China and Korea. It is from these ancestral beginnings that the Akita springs. However, actual documentation of its existence didn't occur until the early 17th century when a nobleman exiled to Akita Prefecture, a northern province on the island of Honshu from which the breed takes its name, encouraged the local aristocracy to develop a powerful hunting dog that possessed superior intelligence and courage.

Historically, the Akita's prey included deer, wild boar and Yezo, a type of large, fierce bear. When hunting the Yezo, two dogs held the bear at bay until the hunter arrived with spear or arrow.

The breed also was developed to retrieve downed waterfowl. Although it has the strength and dentition necessary to crunch through frozen carrion, its "soft" mouth when retrieving and delivering quarry to the hunter's hand ensures downed waterfowl is never mangled.

Early on, breed ownership was restricted to members of the nobility, and much ceremony and ritual were attached to it. Leashes indicating the dog and owner's social rank were used, and a special Akita language was developed. One emperor even passed an edict whereby the breed was to be addressed in honorific terms.

Like Japan's historical warrior class, the samurai, the Akita became a fighting dog in the late 1800s and early 1900s. During this period, other breeds were infused to enhance its fighting ability. However, after the Akita was declared a national monument in 1931, a movement began with the goal of restoring the breed to its original, prefighting form. At that time, three separate organizations formed to register it, each having a breed standard of its own.

In 1937, Helen Keller became interested in the Akita during a visit to Japan. Out of respect for the spirit she displayed by learning to communicate despite being blind, deaf and mute, she was presented with two puppies by the Ministry of Education.

Keller's interest in the Akita, combined with its status as a national monument, the breed's national spiritual significance as a symbol of good health and the erection of a statue memorializing the faithful Akita Hachiko (see story below), probably kept the Akita from extinction during the devastation of its homeland during World War II.

Much of the historically famous foundation stock was produced between 1948 and 1950. Ichinoseki and Dewa emerged as the two main breed lines. Dogs bred from them made their way to the United States in the 1950s and 1960s when servicemen stationed in Japan after the war brought the Akita stateside.

The Akita Club of America was founded in 1956. Several Japanese standards were incorporated into its standard for the breed. In 1973, the breed was accepted into the American Kennel Club's Working Group. In 1996, the Akita ranked 35th among the 143 breeds the AKC registered, with 11,161 dogs listed.

A Regal Personality In A Pleasing Package

The Akita is a large to giant-size breed with tremendous stamina and strength. Dogs stand between 26 inches and 28 inches, while bitches stand between 24 inches and 26 inches. Weight is in proportion to height; in general, males weigh from 100 pounds to 135 pounds, and females weigh between 85 pounds and 105 pounds.

Solid coat colors are black, white, fawn and brown. Brindle and pinto (a white background with large, evenly placed patches covering the head and more than one-third of the body) are acceptable patterns. There may be a blaze or mask on the face when dogs are other than white in color.

With the exception of white dogs, in which it may be somewhat faded, nose color is black. The ears are prick and carried forward. The eyes are triangular in shape and dark brown in color. The tail is carried over the back in a double, full or three-quarter curl.

The attractive breed has more than good looks to its credit. "The Akita is a unique, powerful breed that is at the same time beautiful," says Carol Foti. "In disposition, the breed is similar to the Chow Chow and Chinese Shar-Pei who have a proud, aloof attitude."

In 1977, Foti handled and owned the first Best in Show Akita for the breed, Ch. Wanchan's Akagumo. She is a longtime member of the ACA and chairs its Public Education Committee. Foti also serves on the ACA's Judge's Education Committee and provides ringside tutoring at regional events.

Rather than being sloppily affectionate as are some other breeds, the Akita is slightly to highly reserved--even with its owner. Yet, it is an extremely loyal and devoted dog. Many are familiar with the story of Hachiko, the Akita who went to a Tokyo train station every afternoon for nine years to meet his master, who had died at work one day and never returned. Upon Hachiko's death, a statue of the dog was erected to commemorate his unfailing devotion.

"Akitas are more cerebral than other guard-dog type breeds," Foti adds. "Rather than immediately reacting to situations, they tend to size things up first and then respond."

Other characteristics that recommend the Akita include the fact that it does not bark excessively. (It was developed to be a silent hunter that attacks without warning.) It is not destructive when properly trained and conditioned as a puppy. (Adult dogs can be left alone while owners are at work. However, until they reach maturity, it is wise to crate puppies and adolescents in the owners' absence.) Like other primitive breeds, the Akita is exceptionally easy to housetrain and very clean.

Generally it is an easy breed to groom. Usually, shares Foti, five minutes a day is all that is necessary to keep the harsh outer coat and soft undercoat in good shape. A pin brush or a stiff, natural-bristle brush is recommended.

The only exception is when dogs blow their coats twice a year. At those times, they shed garbage bags full of hair. To speed the process, Foti recommends bathing dogs in warm water to loosen the dead hair and then giving them a good going over with a shedding rake or blade when they're dry. Since the Akita has little doggie odor, the need for bathing otherwise is infrequent. In keeping with the breed's overall grooming ease, it requires no clipping or scissoring. However, if dogs don't wear their nails down, they should be trimmed regularly. Periodic, professional teeth cleaning by a veterinarian is recommended as well.

Challenges Associated With Akita Ownership

While the Akita possesses many desirable qualities, it also has some characteristics that may be challenging to the inexperienced--and sometimes even experienced--owner. For example, multiple-pet households are problematic unless the Akita is raised with the other dogs, cats, rabbits, etc. "The breed is a very primitive, wolf-type animal. The functions the Akita was developed to perform [i.e., hunting and fighting] are still evident in the breed's dog-aggressiveness and instinctive hunting behavior when it comes to its interactions with other pets," Foti cautions. Further, although the Akita won't harm pets with which it grew up, it still views small, domestic animals and other dogs (such as the neighbors' cats and dogs) not part of its immediate family or "pack" as prey or opponents and will hunt or fight them if the opportunity arises. Akita ownership also presents some challenges for those with children. According to Sophia Kaluzniacki, D.V.M., "Although the breed is devoted to family youngsters, trouble may arise when playmates are on the scene. If a fight (or even friendly scuffle) erupts between the children, the Akita may feel the need to defend the young family member by attacking the small visitor. Thus youngsters should never be left in unsupervised situations with the breed."

Kaluzniacki is an AKC conformation judge who has been working with the breed for nearly 30 years. Dogs from her kennel have won Best of Breed, Best of Opposite and Best Veteran Winner at ACA national specialties. She serves on the Judge's Education Committee and is the club's delegate to the AKC. "Because the Akita is powerful and has a mind of its own with a well-developed protective instinct, the breed needs an owner capable of communicating leadership to the dog. Otherwise, the Akita is likely to rule the household," Kaluzniacki further warns. Foti agrees and adds, "The most common problem with Akita ownership today is that owners allow or even encourage the breed's natural protective instinct. [As a result] dogs eventually get to the point where they won't allow nonfamily members in the home."

An owner who encourages aggressive behavior (such as growling, mouthing or biting) with roughhousing, teasing and games of tug of war makes a serious mistake likely to cost the pet's life. (Owners of uncontrollable, people-aggressive dogs sometimes opt to euthanize the animals.) Rough play fuels the Akita's aggressive nature and, over a period of time, can make dogs uncontrollable. (Note: Dog-aggressiveness and people-aggressiveness are strong hereditary traits that can be modified somewhat with training but never completely extinguished. There is a fine line between the two. When dogs are handled roughly by owners, dog-aggressiveness can be transformed into human-aggressiveness.) Often, the rationale for rough handling is the misguided belief that dogs won't protect owners unless aggressiveness is encouraged. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Both Foti and Kaluzniacki emphatically emphasize that protectiveness is wired genetically into every Akita. The breed is ever ready to defend those it loves.

Proper Handling And Training

"Because the Akita is powerful, strong-willed and potentially aggressive, it is absolutely essential that dogs be handled properly the first six months of their lives," Foti further cautions. "Every aspect of their handling should reinforce the owner's dominance during that period and thus set the tone for the rest of the dog's life. While not recommended for adolescent or adult dogs, placing a puppy in the alpha roll is one way to reinforce this," Kaluzniacki explains. "This means rolling the puppy over on his back and gently but firmly restraining him in this position until he relaxes all the tension in his body and looks away from the owner. It's important to note that if the puppy is released before he submits [i.e., relaxes and looks away], canine dominance will be reinforced."

"The way in which training sessions are ended can also reinforce owner dominance," Foti adds. "For example, if an Akita becomes impatient with being stacked [placed in a conformation show position], the owner should stack the dog one more time and thereby force him to submit to the owner's will. This should be followed with enthusiastic praise and, then and only then, should the training session be ended."

Another way in which to reinforce owner dominance is participation in conformation showing. Because of the intensive handling show dogs receive, they seldom have a problem with people-aggressiveness. They are stacked repeatedly and learn to accept the handling of their paws, tails, ears, etc. They also must submit to having their mouths opened and teeth examined. According to Kaluzniacki, proper socialization of puppies is essential to Akita development as well. She says, "The process should be begun by the breeder and continued by the owner. For example, puppies should be exposed to children. However, this must be done properly. Children should sit on the floor when they hold the puppies so they don't drop and scare them. If a child drops a puppy, a negative association with the child and children in general will be established."

Puppy socialization classes also are recommended. They offer a more formalized approach to exposing the Akita to other dogs and people so it learns how to interact properly with both. In terms of training methods, positive reinforcement training is most effective. Kaluzniacki notes the breed particularly is responsive to reinforcement with food and says, "You can get to just about any Akita through its stomach."

The breed does not respond well to harsh training methods and corrections. Jerking with a choke collar attached to a leash actually increases rather than decreases aggressiveness. However, this is not to say firm, consistent handling is not necessary. The Akita needs to have a clear understanding who is boss.

Inherited Health Problems (also see JAA pages on health related topics)

As is commonly the case with purebred dogs, the Akita has some inherited health problems. Those with a significant incidence include hip dysplasia, sebaceous adenitis, progressive retinal atrophy and autoimmune-related disorders such as pemphigus, Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada-like syndrome and hypothyroidism. The following is a brief description of each. Hip dysplasia is a condition in which the head of the femur bone fits into the hip joint socket improperly causing pain and lameness. Surgery, painkillers and nutritional supplements formulated to support the growth of cushioning cartilage are its primary treatments. Screening breeding stock with radiographs for the presence of this condition and listing it with the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals are advisable.

Sebaceous adenitis is a chronic skin disorder caused by abnormal and/or inflamed, or in some cases a total absence of, sebaceous glands. Symptoms include hair loss, formation of silver-gray scales and secondary skin infections with an offensive odor. Therapeutic baths and antibiotics for the secondary infections are recommended treatments.

PRA is a disorder of the eye in which the light cells in the retina wither and die due to insufficient blood supply. The disease progresses gradually, results in blindness and has no known cure. Its onset in the Akita is usually between 4 and 6 years of age. The presence of PRA can be detected by ophthalmoscopic examination by a veterinary ophthalmologist. Breeding stock should be checked annually and listed with the Canine Eye Registration Foundation, which maintains a registry of dogs certified free of inheritable eye diseases identified by the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists.

According to Kaluzniacki, pemphigus actually is a group of skin diseases characterized by varying degrees of ulceration, crusting and pustules. She says, "They are difficult and expensive to treat, and affected dogs often end up being euthanized as a result."

VKH-like syndrome, also called Uveodermatological syndrome, affects the eyes and surrounding tissue. Hair loss and depigmentation around the eyes and nose are common. This painful condition, which often leads to blindness, is treated with anti-inflammatory and immune-suppressing drugs. It frequently leads to euthanasia as well.

Hypothyroidism is a disorder resulting from an inadequate production of thyroid hormone. As in humans, it's treated with life-long drug therapy. Symptoms include a coarse, brittle coat that falls out, thickening and discoloration of the skin, lethargy, obesity, mental slowness and irregular heat cycles. A complete thyroid blood profile available from Michigan State University can help determine if a dog is likely to develop thyroid problems.

While not considered an inherited ailment, the Akita also is subject to bloat and torsion like other large-chested breeds. Bloat is a life-threatening condition that occurs when the stomach swells with gas and then twists, cutting off its blood supply. Because some authorities believe it may be associated with consuming large amounts of dry chow and water, Foti recommends dogs be fed twice a day rather than once. Their ration should be divided equally between the two servings and soaked in water for 30 minutes prior to feeding. Exercise also should be avoided one hour immediately before and after feeding because it may be a causative factor.

Because the Akita is a large breed, the feeding of young dogs should be monitored carefully. "Owners tend to push puppies nutritionally by overfeeding them with products that supply premium nutrition. While this sounds good in theory, the rapid growth rate it stimulates often leads to bone, tendon and joint problems," Kaluzniacki warns. "Feeding dogs smaller amounts of nonpremium products still allows them to attain their genetic weight. However, they grow more slowly and are less likely to develop muscular or skeletal disorders."

Kaluzniacki recommends feeding puppies a nonpremium puppy food until they're 6 months of age. At that time, she says they should be switched to a good-quality but non-premium product formulated for adult nutrition. Make sure the dog food label shows the product meets the Assoc

The Right Home

In taking care of the Akita's physical health, owners should not overlook its mental health. This aspect of the breed's well-being can be addressed with consistent training. According to Foti, "The permissiveness associated with the typical pet home in the '90s is the basis for most of the behavior problems encountered with the breed. The Akita loves discipline and needs mental boundaries for its well-being. [Therefore] the mental environment is more important than the physical setting in which dogs live."

Thus she would rather see an Akita living in an apartment with a conscientious ownerone who understands the proper handling of the breed and spends time daily training, grooming and exercising itthan one living on a farm where it's ignored and allowed to hunt and run wild.

While the Akita's mental environment is important for its own safety and that of other animals, it also needs physical boundaries. The breed never should be allowed off-leadno matter how well-trained. Its innate curiosity motivates it to see what's on the other side of the hill. When it's gone, it's likely to get into trouble hunting other domestic animals, or it may be hit by a car. To prevent escape, a 6-foot-high fence is recommended.

As for being kept as outdoors, the breed does not tolerate heat well due to the heaviness of its coat. When kept outside in warm or temperate climates, it also is subject to parasites, hot spots and skin problems.

While the breed thrives in cold weather and easily can tolerate living outside in cooler climes, the social isolation typically associated with being an outdoor dog is not conducive to its mental well-being. However, it can do well in a kennel situation if owners make a point of spending time with it (i.e., training, exercising and grooming).

Finally, because the Akita has tremendous stamina, it should be owned only by those willing to provide it with sufficient exerciseideally, a 30-minute walk twice a day.

Guidelines For Purchase

Foti and Kaluzniacki recommend buyers read about the Akita extensively before purchasing one. Once the decision has been made to buy a dog, they advise buyers to look for a reputable breeder. A copy of the ACA Breeder's Directory may be obtained by contacting Debbie Stewart, 17945 Jo Ann Way, Perris, Calif. 92570. Pet shops, which may purchase dogs from puppy mills, and mass breeders, who breed six or more litters per year, should be avoided because they are unlikely to perform genetic testing. Foti suggests buyers ask the following questions when purchasing a puppy:

Did the breeder screen the breeding stock for inherited health problems? Have the puppies been well from birth? Signs of poor health include a dull coat, discharge from the eyes or nose, lethargic behavior and a distended or potbellied appearance. What has the breeder done with the puppies thus far? Has he or she spent time handling them daily? Have the puppies been exposed to children and other household pets? Depending upon their age, are they housetrained or leash-trained? What are the goals of the breeding program? Is the breeder trying to improve the breed or just trying to generate extra income? Does the breeder show his or her dogs?

According to Kaluzniacki, "Good breeders show their dogs because it's the only tangible means of evaluating a breeding program for its strengths and weaknesses. You have to be out there showing in order to know what a good Akita represents."

Since temperament is everything in the selection of an Akita, Kaluzniacki further recommends buyers see both parents if possible. Neither should behave aggressively and buyers should be able to handle them. If either must be put away in order for the puppies to be seen, it's an indication serious temperament problems exist.

In terms of cost, buyers should expect show-quality dogs to be the most expensive. Show prospects range in price between $800 and $1,500, while established show dogs may cost as much as $5,000 to $10,000. Pet-quality dogs are less expensive with a price tag between $300 and $800.

At the time of purchase, a puppy buyer should receive an AKC registration application, signed pedigree, copies of the contract of sale and health guarantee, a complete health record that includes the dates of worming and other medical care and a veterinarian's health certificate proving inoculation. Pet-quality puppies should be sold with a limited (i.e., nonbreeding) registration or a spay/neuter contract.

The breeder also should provide written proof he or she will take the dog back for a limited period of time if it's found to be ill or suffering from some defect. Puppies should be examined by a veterinarian within 48 hours of the sale.

* * * * *

The Akita is a formidable breed with a noble past. It is intelligent, loyal, courageous and powerful. However, while many of its qualities are admirable, it definitely is not the right dog for every owner and may be more animal than most dog lovers can handle. To successfully own an Akita, an owner must be capable of communicating leadership to the dog as well as be committed to training it and providing a firm, consistent yet loving environment with ample exercise. For those who offer these necessities, the Akita is a superior canine companion that offers the protection of a guard dog.