Akita Inu

Ana Oliveira
Dr Ana Oliveira (DVM, University of Lisbon)
 
Photo of adult Akita Inu

Akita Inu is a Japanese breed of dogs that does not go unnoticed due to its imposing, strong, and powerful looks. They are fearless and brave, yet they behave in a calm, quiet, and dignified manner. Akitas are independent and reserved with strangers, but to their family they are docile and extremely loyal, though they hardly ever tolerate any nonsense.

Akitas are large, spitz-like dogs that were initially raised for hunting bears, but are now kept as pets, therapy dogs or police/military dogs. They have a strong temperament and a very complex personality that is not easily understood. The Akita is dominant and intolerant of other animals, especially same-sex dogs, and they need consistent leaders, capable of firm training.

About & History

The Akita Inu is also known as Akita-ken, Japanese Akita, and Great Japanese dog. These dogs originated in the mountains of Northern Japan, in the Akita prefecture. The Akitas are among the oldest of Japan’s native dogs and the breed has remained unchanged for centuries. Their ancestor is the Matagi dog, which is the dog accompanying the traditional winter hunter of Northern Japan – the Matagi. The breed was developed to help the Matagi hunt wild boars, Japanese deer, and Asian black bears, as the dogs would flush out the animal until the hunter could come and kill it.

The breed became widely known after the story of Hachiko, an Akita Inu that came to people’s attention worldwide, leading to the official declaration of the breed as a Japanese National Monument in 1931. Hachiko was born in 1923 and was owned by a Professor from Tokyo who lived in the outskirts of the city and commuted every day to work by train. Hachiko would walk with his owner to and from the train station every day, waiting for him to come back home on the 4 o’clock train. His owner died at work one day but Hachiko kept going to the train station waiting for him to come back, every day for 9 years. The Akita became a Japanese symbol of faithfulness and loyalty, linked to the institution of the emperor, and a bronze statue was erected in his honour at the Shibuya train station in 1934. Moreover, a statue of an Akita is traditionally given to new-borns as a symbol of health and a long, happy life.

In 1937, Hellen Keller visited Japan and became fond of the Akita Inu. Two Akitas were presented to her (as the first one died of distemper soon after she went back to the United States). These were the first Akita dogs arriving to the US.

During World War II, the breed almost disappeared because there was not enough food for them, they were being eaten by starving people, or they were killed after a government order that aimed at preventing the spread of disease by culling all non-military dogs. Thanks to the efforts of some people, Akitas were released in remote mountain areas, where they kept breeding with their ancestors, thus surviving the war. Others started breeding them with German Shepherds, to turn them into military dogs and save them from being killed. During the early 20th century, Akitas were also cross-bred with other breeds, such as the English Mastiff, Great Dane, Saint Bernard and Tosa Inu, in order to give them certain fighting dog features.

After the war, Akitas started being bred again and efforts were made to give them a more standardised appearance, as to revert some of the damage made with past crossbreeding. Some personnel of the US military took some Akita dogs to the US, as they started fancying the breed. They preferred the larger, more heavy-boned dogs with bear-like heads. These were the first dogs that later developed into a different strain of the breed, the American Akita. The American Akita is only thought of as a different type of Akita in the US and Canada, as it is considered a separate breed in other countries. In Japan, the topic is quite controversial and because the Akita is a national symbol of the country, there are breed standards that were created for careful breeding that clearly make the distinction between the Japanese and the American Akita.

Akitas were recognised by the American Kennel Club in 1955. It was first introduced in the UK via Canada in 1937, though it only became more popular in the 1980s. Akitas reached Australia from the US and New Zealand from the UK in 1982 and 1986, respectively.

Appearance

Akita Inu Large Photo

Akitas are large dogs with thick double-coats, resembling those of the Siberian Husky. Their coat is usually short, though there are some Akitas that have long coats (known as Moku) due to the presence of a recessive gene. The American and the Japanese Akita differ in terms of coat colours, as the American Akita may come in all possible colours. The Japanese Akita, however, may have just a few:

  • Red
  • Fawn
  • Sesame
  • White
  • Brindle

The Japanese Akita may not have any markings, contrary to the American that may have some markings, such as a black mask. Also, Japanese Akitas have lighter features and fox-like heads, while the American Akitas are heavier and have bear-like heads instead. Akitas have triangular ears which are slightly angled.

A male Akita (American) is usually around 66 to 71 cm tall (26-28 inches) and weighs 45 to 59 kg (100-130 lb). The female is 61 to 66 cm tall (24-26 inches) and weighs 32 to 50 kg (70-110 lb). The Japanese Akita is a little smaller and also lighter than its American counterpart.

Character & Temperament

Akitas are handsome, intelligent, and strong dogs known for being courageous and wilful. They are also dominant, spontaneous, and independent in their way of behaving. They are calm and quiet most of the times and tend to “think” first and react after, as they size things up before responding to situations. This characteristic makes them unpredictable and difficult to read.

Because they were not bred to live in groups, but rather to live and work alone or in pairs, they are not animal friendly and they are also reserved around strangers. They tend to be aggressive towards other pets and are particularly intolerant of animals of the same sex. Due to the Akita’s silent and careful temperament, it does not show signs of aggression and its attacks are sudden, unexpected, and quite ferocious. They should, therefore, be kept as an only pet.

The Akita Inu is a powerful dog with a strong and complex personality, which makes it a difficult dog to own and challenging to raise. They are definitely not suited for first time dog owners, as they need someone who can be firm around it and will train it to be below in the dog pack hierarchy. The owner should affirm himself/herself as the alpha leader, as it is the only way an Akita’s dominant traits and possessiveness get under control.

When well-bred and trained, Akitas make excellent pets, extremely faithful and loyal to their family. It is a dog on which an owner can depend and trust, as they will do everything to protect their family. It is said that Japanese mothers would leave their children under their Akita’s care, which clearly demonstrates the level of trust one can put in an Akita. They are also good guard dogs, as they are territorial and protective, defending their territory against any intruders. That said, they are calm and rarely bark.

Akitas are very serious and possessive about their food and toys and tend not to tolerate teasing. People, and especially children, should be taught not to reach out to an Akita that is eating, as they can be aggressive as a way of saying “this is my food, wait for your turn!”. Though affectionate to children, they should not be left alone with children other than their own. They are considered dangerous dogs in some countries’ legislation and anyone thinking about getting an Akita should bear in mind the legal liabilities, such as insurance policies.

Public perception of Akita Inus is not very positive, though an owner of an Akita will find it docile and trustworthy. They are also clean pets to have, having some characteristics that resemble cats, such as cleaning their face after eating, being delicate around the house, and being quite hard to please, getting easily bored. Besides being kept as pets, Akitas are also used as police or military dogs, therapy dogs, and they also make great athletes, participating in various dog competitions: conformation shows, hunting, agility, tracking, weight pulling, obedience, canine good citizen programs, and personal protection dogs, also known as schutzhund.

Trainability

Photo of Akita Inu puppy

Akitas are very wilful and sometimes obstinate. Because they are strong-willed and quite independent, they are not the easiest dogs to train. They require extensive socialization from an early age and a consistent and firm training. Positive reinforcement through rewards and praise will make training easier but consistency is the most important feature of an Akita’s training program.

They need to be exposed to friendly people and different animals since puppyhood, so that they can learn about different situations. This will keep an Akita’s aggressiveness, dominance, and possessiveness under control and will make it more gentle and at ease when confronted with new situations, people, and animals.

Health

The lifespan of Akitas ranges from 11 to 15 years. Akitas are more prone to the following health issues:

  • Bloat and gastric torsion – Second only to the Great Dane, Akitas are more susceptible to bloat, which is the expansion of the stomach with air, followed by its dilation. The stomach may then twist around itself, cutting off the blood supply – gastric torsion. Exact causes are unknown, though this condition usually happens in deep-chested dogs when they exercise after eating large amounts of food. Treatment is immediate surgery.
  • Orthopaedic problems – Hip and elbow dysplasia are among the most common orthopaedic conditions in Akitas. Both affect the articulations, causing the bones not to fit properly and leading to distress, inflammation, pain, and lameness.
  • Autoimmune diseases –Autoimmune diseases in Akitas may affect different organs and systems. Skin autoimmune disorders include pemphigus, lupus, and vitiligo, all causing skin lesions. Akitas may also have autoimmune haemolytic anaemia, a condition in which the dog’s immune system produces antibodies against its own red blood cells. Other autoimmune diseases include myasthenia gravis, a condition linked to an enzyme deficiency that causes muscle weakness.
  • Progressive retinal atrophy (PRA) – An eye disease that is inherited and characterized by a programmed death of the retina cells. Although it is not painful, it leads to sight impairment and ultimately to blindness.
  • Cancer – The most common types of cancer in Akitas are lymphosarcoma, which affects lymph nodes and lymphatic cells, and osteosarcoma or bone cancer, which is among the most aggressive types of cancer in dogs.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Akitas do not require much exercise. They do love the snow and the cold weather and will enjoy a nice run out in the cold. However, daily walks and an occasional vigorous run suffices to make an Akita happy. Because they are inherently dominant and may attack other animals, off-the-leash walks or visiting a dog park are not overly recommended, however, that is not to say that all Akitas are exactly same and this should be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Ideally, an Akita owner should provide it with a decent sized fenced yard so that it can run freely and exercise as much as it feels like.

Grooming

Akitas are heavy shedders and there are two periods of the year in which they shed even more than usual (around Spring and Autumn). In spite of that, they are quite low maintenance. Daily brushes will help with all the shedding and are essential to keep their coat looking well-presented and healthy. Akitas will probably need a bath every few months plus the usual nail trimming and ear checking like any other dog breed.

Famous Akita Inus

The most famous Akita Inu of all time:

  • Hachiko, the Akita that made all other Akitas known. Hachiko was a loyal Japanese dog that waited for its deceased owner to come back from work every day for 9 years, back in the 1920s.

Cross-Breeds

Akita Inu’s cross-breeds are:

  • Boxita – Cross between an Akita Inu and a Boxer
  • Bulkita – Cross between an Akita Inu and an American Bulldog
  • Golden Akita – Cross between an Akita Inu and a Golden Retriever
  • Huskita – Cross between an Akita Inu and a Siberian Husky
  • Labrakita – Cross between an Akita Inu and a Labrador Retriever
  • Nekita – Cross between an Akita Inu and a Neapolitan Mastiff
  • Pookita – Cross between an Akita Inu and a Poodle
  • Shepkita – Cross between an Akita Inu and a German Shepherd Dog

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