Dog Breeds: The Akita
The Akita is Japan’s national dog and is protected by law as a national monument. The breed was developed in the Akita prefecture, on the island of Honshu, and according to DNA evidence, it’s one of the oldest breeds. In fact, the Akita is very primitive and is closely linked to the wolf. It’s actually part of the Spitz family. In Japan, the dogs were used for fighting, as sled dogs, and for hunting large prey, like bears and wild boars. For years, only members of the ruling class were allowed to own Akitas.
World War II nearly made the dog extinct. With the shortage of food in Japan, many dogs died. Also, Akitas were killed for their fur, which was used to line army uniforms. Ironically, the war also created a future for the breed. Many American soldiers fell in love with the dog and returned back to the states with Akita puppies. The first Akita in the U.S. was brought here by Helen Keller in 1937.
The Akita is the smallest of the giant breeds of dogs, typically standing 24-28 inches tall and weighing between 75 and 110 pounds. The males are usually larger than the females. They have a large triangular head, small eyes, and prick ears. They have powerful, muscular bodies and a tail that curls over the back. The plush double coat sheds twice a year. In the U.S., Akitas can be any color.
The American Kennel Club and the Canadian Kennel Club consider the Japanese and the American Akita as the same breed, while other kennel clubs list them as two distinct breeds. Japanese Akitas are a little smaller than their American cousins, and fewer colors are allowed in Japan.
In temperament, the Akita is naturally dominant. In fact, one expert told me that every Akita born thinks it is the alpha dog. These aren’t dogs for first-time owners. Akitas need owners who can establish pack leadership early. The dogs also need a lot of socialization at an early age. Most are naturally animal aggressive and consider just about everything as prey, unless they are taught differently while they’re puppies. Because of the Akita's protective nature, they make excellent guard dogs.
These dogs are extremely intelligent, and it’s said that they know the pecking order of their human family. Akitas are protective of their territory and of their human pack, which sometimes creates problems. They’re usually suspicious of strangers and are sometimes aggressive. Insurance companies consider them high risk dogs because of bites and attacks. An Akita should never be left unattended with small children. For one thing, since they’re so protective of “their children,” they might not understand typical playing and rough housing among kids and think that their child is in danger. For another, a large energetic Akita could easily injure a small child accidentally.
I’m not trying to paint a bad picture of the Akita. I’ve owned two, and they were wonderful dogs. Mine never showed aggression toward people, but they did toward small animals. They absolutely hated cats! Ours lived in our large fenced-in yard, and they felt that anything that came into their enclosure was fair game, including birds, snakes, lizards, armadillos, and the dreaded felines.
My Akitas were otherwise very well behaved, calm, playful, and extremely loving and affectionate. They understood, however, that they were my dogs – not my husband’s. They were affectionate toward him, but they usually ignored his commands.
Akitas are fiercely loyal. One named Hachiko is legendary. In the 1920s, Hachi was owned by a college professor. The dog accompanied his owner to the train station every morning and returned ever afternoon to wait for his master’s return. This continued for 18 months. In 1924, the professor died at work, and Hachi waited at the terminal for days. The professor’s family found Hachi and brought him home, but for 10 years, Hachi continued making the trip to the station in hopes of finding his master. In 1935, Hachiko died – at the train station, still awaiting his beloved master. The Japanese erected a bronze statue of Hachiko at the same train station. In 2009, a movie was released about Hachiko: Hachiko: A Dog’s Story.
In Japan today, the Akita is a symbol of good health and well being. Small statues of the breed are often sent to celebrate special occasions like the birth of a child.
If you’re thinking of getting an Akita, be sure first that you have the experience necessary to handle such a strong-willed dog. Half of all Akitas in the U.S. end up in shelters or rescues. Most reputable breeders recommend never having two Akitas of the same sex, especially from the same litter. In such a case, the dogs might “hunt” in tandem and “gang up” on other animals. MAKE SURE to give your Akita puppy lots of socialization with all kinds of people, animals, and situations.
Akitas, like most large breeds, are prone to joint dysplasia. They also sometimes suffer from skin ailments, hypothyroidism, and bloat. A healthy Akita can live for up to twelve years.