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Judging The Akita

The Akita Breed Standard: Temperament and Character

 

 

by Barbara "BJ" Andrews,

former Akita Club Of America Judges Education Committee Chair and developer of The Judges Guide Book

 

You Are The Judge

My job is to help you grasp the finer points of type and character in the Akita Breed Standard{1}. Speaking now only for myself, not as the former chair of the Judges Education Committee, let's begin by acknowledging that the Akita has come a long way since the seventies when it was considered a "trash breed."  Rarely is an untrained or dirty Akita brought into the show ring today but inherent breed temperament can be problematic for novice or misled judges.

 

Aggressiveness

A concern for all judges and may still be encountered through a novice exhibitor who can’t control the Akita or a misguided owner who wants to show off his tough dog.  We once asked a man to leave ringside with the dog held in a death grip as it lunged at passing dogs.  It was not an Akita.  He had chosen a breed to match the black leather spiked collar that matched his biker jacket and studded belt.  The point is, when a judge gets bitten by an Akita, it gets in the press and makes other judges nervous about applying for the Akita.

 

So, in order to judge the Akita well (and comfortably), you must consider several points only alluded to in the Akita Breed Standard and which are barely mentioned by the Akita Club Of America{2} and AKC.  His fighting dog background is downplayed but no one has informed the Akita.  He is what he is and if he has just been challenged by another dog, he will be “testy” when you approach.  By the Japanese Akita Type is distinctly different than "American" Akita type.way, the term "testy" is a derivative of testosterone. So it pays to pay attention to your ring, especially in Open Dogs.  The Akita is not vocal so the beginnings of trouble can occur without your knowledge.  Indeed, in Japan the dogs are expected to do the stand off silently, just staring, threatening, until one breaks eye contact and is in effect, “defeated.”

 

Obviously, you will never, under any circumstances, spar Akitas.  Many years ago at a Regional Specialty in Tampa, Hideo Ito assumed our handlers were prepared and the dogs properly trained and under control.  It resulted in a serious brawl.  If however, you note that a mature male is standing in the company of other males with his tail relaxed, you must question character and lack of proper Akita temperament.

 

"Courageous" is Akita Breed Type

The Akita was a hunter of mountain bear and boar.  Big bears.  Boars with tusks.  The Akita is not a hound, he was Japan's bigger, more powerful counterpart to the king of terriers, the Airedale.  Like any terrier, the Akita will not back down from a fight.  Some might say, he relishes an opportunity to show his strength but there is one more word wisely used in the Akita Breed Standard.  In a minute, we'll see how it modifies the scrappy, tenacious terrier temperament.

 

Do not equate the Akita's concept of "hunting" with the hound breeds.  The Akita is not a pack dog, he doesn't need or want "backup."  The Akita was hunted in pairs, and like the Airedale, he tolerated the scenting dogs in order to do what he did best - confront, confound, and combat the bear or boar.  Knowing this, you will then understand why the Akita is...

 

"Aggressive Towards Other Dogs."

That phrase is in the Breed Standard for good reason.  A dog that will confront an angry bear or wild boar will not back down from any challenge, perceived or actual.  The Akita will, by his heritage and due to a darker side of his history, dominate other dogs.

 

Okay, so let's deal briefly with something you may know but prefer not to think about.  The Matagi-inu or hunting dog, was crossed with the tosa-inu and other Japanese types used specifically for dog fighting. Subsequent crossing with mastiff-type breeds increased size, power, and strength.  Thus, the Akita became Japan's version of the pit bull.

 

Yes, the Akita was fought for sport and while we are on this usually-avoided subject, a word about the white Akita is appropriate.  The most distasteful parts of Japanese (dog) history have been pretty well purged but white Akitas were "valued" for reasons other than purity.  In a particularly gruesome arena sport which tested skills of bowmen, the white dog stood out from multiple dogs and when "pitted" against a canine opponent, there was also something intrinsically appealing about the color.  When blood flowed freely it was more spectacular on a white dog...

 

So, as the hunting Akita emerged from his remote mountain home, you can see that he changed. As a great warrior, he became symbolic with courage, fighting ability, and the dignity and aura that surrounds the Samurai.  Also due to the mastiff and influence of other guard breeds, the Akita protects his family and their possessions.  It is part of his heritage and something no one who loves (or judges) the breed should attempt to change.  Setters and Pointers mark game.  Owners don't expect them to compete with Border Collies in Obedience.  You understand.

 

Most people choose the Akita because he guards his family and their  possessions.  Akita owners (and judges) accept that the Akita is not "a dog for everyone” and are not influenced by the Animal Rights movement.  Breeders and judges must insist on correct Akita temperament rather than the submissive “loves everybody” personality which is valued in many other breeds.  In one of the first club publications on the breed, Terri Caudell-Arndt did an excellent editorial entitled “Let’s Not Candy Coat Our Akitas.”  You will expect all Akitas to be well mannered and under control, but unfortunately that is not always the case.  My job is to teach you how to "read" the breed and control your ring.

 

Ch. O'BJ BigSon Of Sachmo, ROMXP #3 Sire All TimeIf the dog stands tail up, with dignity and self-assurance, approach him with confidence.  The dog pictured left was a multi-Group Winner, ranked in the top 10 Working Dogs, owner handled, before the split.  He was all Akita, tail always “cranked”, muscles tensed, but he accepted the exam like the gentleman he was.  Do not timidly extend your hand, he will sense your fear and be suspicious of you and trust me, that's not the way you want a guarding breed to judge YOU.  If you fear the breed, don’t judge it until you have met and examined enough Akitas outside the ring to be comfortable with the temperament and character.  If you "inherited" the Akita, just ask that you not be assigned the breed when accepting a judging invitation.  Like a physician, “do no harm.”  Not to yourself, and not to the breed.

 

If you are apprehensive about the Akita, you will consciously select the “nicest” dog rather than the one that exudes correct character.  You will favor the one with the big open mask, sweet eyes and kindly expression instead of the one with the small triangular dark eyes and dark face that may appear threatening.  They are supposed to look like that!  This is a fighting dog, one who will tackle a bear or a wild boar, a dog who is expected to “stare down” an opponent.  To select for less is like choosing an Airedale with the expression of a Cavalier King Charles.

 

Experienced Working Dog judges are comfortable going over the guarding breeds.  Being "aggressive towards other dogs" is problematic only when combined with a male Akita unaccustomed to being grasped by the cheeks and stared in the eye by a stranger..

 

Examining The Akita

So - just as you would be consciously gentle when judging a toy breed, be aware and respectful of the Akita.  Don't grab him by the cheeks.  Do not make prolonged eye contact.  Don't shove him back and forth to check (whatever??)  Do not pick up his feet to check the pads.  He isn't a horse, he's a fighting breed and his feet are the second most vulnerable part of his anatomy.  Do not push down on the withers, not even on females.  That is how one dog tries to dominate another dog.  A nervous or novice Akita may misinterpret any of these actions.  Keep your touch firm but friendly and you and the Akita will get along just fine.

 

Female Akitas Are Big and Strong too!"She" will be no problem unless she shies away.  That could only happen with a female novice puppy or a bitch in season.  Photo #2 shows a typical Akita bitch; big, strong, proper bone and substance, and confident.

 

The AKC Akita Video

And website does no service to the Akita, judges, or potential owners by glossing over the Akita’s genetic and developmental past.  That is seriously misleading to the family who buys a fuzzy, irresistible teddy bear only to discover that undisciplined, it has grown into a grizzly bear.

 

The AKC Breed video depicts the Akita as part of a sled team, as a search and rescue dog, and then as a big ole snuzzly dog loving on his owner.  The Akita is not and never was used in any way as part of any group of dogs!  A couple of gifted and determined trainers managed to get Akitas in harness but that's about as useful as training a foxhound to ignore a hot scent!  The movie featuring dogs "left behind" in Antarctica was not based on purebred Akitas.  To again clarify, Akitas were hunted in pairs, not packs and they were never sled dogs.

 

Nor are Akitas a good choice for Search and Rescue.  They can smell food just fine but their loyalty to humans other than the family is limited.  Are they trainable?  Sure, but they are a challenge for Obedience work.  Some would say Akitas are too smart to walk around and around in circles, going nowhere and being made to stop and sit every time they are told to "let's go."  As an Obedience instructor, I have a different perspective - Akitas are often smarter than their owners.

 

As regards the other video clip mentioned above, of course Akitas love their owners.  But that has nothing to do with evaluating temperament.  Assessing breed temperament and character is not as easy as spotting a limping dog but please do not expect a waggy, exuberant adult dog in your Akita ring.  Akitas are not tail waggers nor are they particularly demonstrative in expressing love and loyalty.

 

Respecting the Akita as it has been since the 1950’s, I characterized the breed as "gentle as a kitten but fierce as the Samurai" in my Dog World column of the 70's and it became a popular phrase.  But remember, Samurai only kiss in private.  It's sort of a guy thing.  An Akita owner knows how devoted his dog is without being hugged and kissed every two minutes.

 

Sachmo's "Adoring You" ExpressionThanks to judges who understand correct Akita temperament, we got past a trend towards smaller, cuter, effeminate males that look up at you and smile at your approach.  Photo #3 is as close as the Akita ever gets to smiling.  Mouth open, relaxed, Sachmo looks up at me with complete devotion and love.  He is by the way, the top sire of all Working Breeds and an exemplary example of the male Akita.  This photo has appeared in dozens of documents illustrating ideal head type but we'll get to head type later.

 

A mature male, approached by a stranger, will not have this expression. Unless it is extremely hot, his mouth will be closed and he will be the epitome of "dignified and courageous."  Dignified is the modifiers mentioned earlier.  When examined, his muscles will be tense, instinctively prepared for action.  Many judges commented on Sachmo's "hard condition" not realizing it was attitude and resentment at being touched by a strange man.

 

Lady judges, relax, the Akita is very perceptive to human sexuality.  Females are treated with respect as are children, puppies, kittens, etc.  Two Japanese authorities, one of them Hideo Ito, a popular international judge, explained that the male Akita does not like to be touched by strangers, especially men.  I once invited a Japanese breeder to "go over" the dog he had traveled thousands of miles to see personally.  Sensing my confusion and inability to understand his broken English, he demonstrated very clearly that it would be like shaking hands, something the Japanese do for business reasons but which they do not do at home!  Smiling, he looked at Sachmo admiringly and remarked again, "Man does not touch man."

 

Temperament

"Alert and responsive, dignified and courageous." Let's look at those adjectives in the Breed Standard. The Akita is ever-alert to his surroundings. He is however, responsive only to his owner or to a perceived challenge. He rarely responds to strangers and as a judge, you are a stranger.

 

The Akita's dignity controls and modifies his capacity to be aggressive. Those two factors, combined with courage, makes him Ak-it-a.  In nearly forty years with Akitas, we had only three bites.  While we were helping friends accomplish a mating with their dog and bitch, a plumber thoughtlessly opened Widow-Maker's gate .  My stud dog saw an unexpected opportunity to get to the strange male and as Tommy wrestled him back into the run, Widow-Maker delivered a minor bite on the shoulder; a retaliatory statement for which the other employees teased him all  week.  Sachmo once strongly discouraged a break-in to our truck.  The second time he used teeth, it literally saved my life as attested to by the sheriff's deputy who refused to go into the cornfield after my assailant! There was no tougher dog than the #1 Sire of all Working Dogs, yet he was a gentle pillow for his little Japanese Chin buddy.

 

To those who think the breed should be changed, I can only invite them, vigorously, to go mess up another breed.

 

Here are some tips to keep you and the dogs relaxed:

DO NOT make initial contact from the rear or side of the dog.

DO NOT grab an Akita by the head, cheeks, or foot.

DO NOT “bounce” the dog’s topline, shoulders, or rear quarters or press down on his shoulders. (Dogs place their heads or paw over another dog’s shoulder to test for dominance.  A mature Akita, male or female, will wonder whether to take you seriously or just excuse your ignorance.)

DO NOT ever force an exam on a shy or panicky Akita.  If it is a puppy, pass him by and come back later when the handler has him together.  If it is an adult, excuse the dog.  If a second attempt fails, he is mentally unsound and in a hundred pound dog, that is a problem.  Use your “judgment” according to the circumstances but do the breed a favor and get him out of the ring.

 

So whether judging or breeding, we can forgive an Akita for being aggressive towards other dogs as long as it is controlled.  If we select a self-confident, assured, courageous Akita, we will preserve a dog capable of standing between his family and an intruder.  That dog, because of correct temperament, will capably and with great tenderness, baby-sit the children.  Why would we seek to change that dog?

 

Reference Information:  Judging The Akita Breed Standard: Head To Tail

{1} Akita Breed Standard

{2} The Akita Club of America

1998 http://www.thejudgesplace.com/Judging/Akita/Temperament-bja-11998.asp

 

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