The Akita inu is well known in its home country of Japan, but it's just gaining popularity here in the states. Read on to learn more about the fluffy canines.
1. THEY’RE NAMED FOR A REGION IN JAPAN.
Akitas have been around for thousands of years, so their exact origins are murky at best. What we do know is that the contemporary Akita was first bred in the Odate region of Japan's Akita prefecture. The dogs, originally known as "snow country dogs," were first used to track game during hunts. By the mid-1800s—as a response to a population boom in rural areas—their role had expanded to include the protection of family homes. They were originally called Odate dogs, until their name was officially changed in the 1930s.
2. THEY’RE BUILT FOR THE SNOW.
Akita is surrounded by mountains, resulting in cold, harsh winters and rainy summers. The rocky and cold environment is hard for most living things, but Akitas thrive in it. Their heavy double coats keep them warm, while their webbed paws help them walk on snow.
3. THEY HAVE A STRONG PRESENCE IN JAPANESE CULTURE.
In Japan, the Akita symbolizes good health, happiness, and longevity. Often the Japanese will gift a small Akita-shaped statue to friends and family as a "Get Well Soon" token, or if someone has just had a baby. The statue is considered a way to tell loved ones that you wish them good health in the future.
4. THE WEALTHY HELD A TEMPORARY MONOPOLY ON THEM.
Around the 17th century, the Akita was a status symbol. Breed ownership was restricted to the Japanese aristocracy. The animals led lavish lifestyles with elaborate feeding rituals and fancy collars, and special leashes denoted the owner’s rank and stature on the Japanese social ladder. The pampered dogs were used to hunt, alongside falcons, for boar, deer, and other large game. Some owners even hired special caretakers, who were sometimes tasked with the care of just one dog. By the 19th century, Emperor Taisho had changed the law so that any citizen could own an Akita.
5. THEY'RE STILL USED IN DOG FIGHTING.
Unfortunately, dog fighting continues to be popular in Japan. Although it's illegal in major cities like Tokyo, rural areas continue to host fights. In the early 20th century, Akitas were crossed with a variety of tough breeds like the mastiff, great Dane, and St. Bernard in an effort to bulk them up for the fighting pits. Akitas mixed with Tosa dogs were common (Tosas for their stamina and Akitas for their strength) and were called Shin-Akitas, or “improved Akitas.” That said, unlike in other countries, dog fighting in Japan is not a fight to the death. The dogs are outfitted in elaborate get-ups, and fights are broken up before either dog is mortally wounded.
6. HACHIKO IS THE MOST FAMOUS DOG OF THE BREED.
You probably know the story of Hachiko, Japan’s most famous dog. Hachiko’s tale started in 1920s Tokyo, where he would accompany his owner on his walk to the train station. Every day, the dog would patiently wait on the platform for his owner to get home from work, and then walk home with him. This routine went on until 1925, when his owner died at the office. Although Hachiko’s owner never returned to the train station platform, the pup waited there anyway—for 10 years. The canine’s extreme loyalty struck a chord with the Japanese people, who would feed and visit the dog while he waited at his post.
The entire country mourned the dog when he finally died in 1935; a bronze statue was erected in his memory.
7. THERE’S A MUSEUM DEDICATED TO THEM.
The love for Hachiko is so widespread in Japan that there’s a museum erected in his memory. The Akita Dog Museum in Odate, founded by the Akita Dog Preservation Society, is a celebration of Hachiko and the Akita breed in general. Inside, guests can find documents, art, and other information about Akitas; outside, guests are occasionally greeted by real Akitas who have been tasked with playing host for the day.
8. HELEN KELLER HAD ONE.
Helen Keller is generally credited with bringing the very first Akita to the United States. In 1937, Ms. Keller and her companion, Polly Thomson, traveled to Japan, where Keller learned about Hachiko and his legendary faithfulness. Impressed by the breed and its loyalty, Keller, as the story goes, decided she wanted an Akita of her own. An Akita Police Department instructor named Ichiro Ogasawara offered her a puppy named Kamikaze-Go. Tragically, he died of distemper at just over seven months old. When Ogasawara heard the sad news, he sent her Kamikaze’s younger brother, Kenzan-Go. The dog was considered an official gift from Japan.
9. INSURANCE COMPANIES DON’T TRUST THEM.
Akitas are notoriously protective and fiercely loyal. The dogs are generally distrustful of strangers and don’t get along with other dogs. Because of this behavior, insurance companies will sometimes charge their owners more. That said, don't think of your Akita's aggressiveness as a done deal: You can combat his or her natural possessiveness early on by socializing them as puppies.
10. THEY’RE PART OF THE SPITZ FAMILY.
Like most other wolfy-looking dogs, the Akita falls under the spitz umbrella. Spitz dogs typically have fox-like features—a long snout, pointed ears, and a curled tail. Other dogs that share this category include the Norwegian elkhound, the Samoyed, the shiba inu, and the tiny Pomeranian.
11. WORLD WAR II ALMOST WIPED THEM OUT.
Times were tough for all Japanese dogs during the war. By 1943, Japan was hit with strict rationing, and many pet owners couldn't afford to feed and care for their large dogs. Eventually, the streets were cleared of any animals that weren’t German shepherds being used as guard dogs. In an effort to save the Akita, devoted breeders gave their dogs German-sounding names and hid them in remote villages, hoping they could ride out the rest of the war without attracting notice.
Not even Hachiko’s statue was safe—the bronze figure was melted down to be used for weapons. (Don’t worry—a new one replaced it in 1948).
12. THEY’RE VERY CLEAN.
Just like the shiba inu, these dogs are clean to the point of being finicky. The dogs self-groom and have an almost cat-like obsession with cleanliness. Their coat sheds twice a year, so trips to the groomer are unnecessary.
Images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise stated.