Akita Inu – Origins of the Breed
The Japanese Akita is steeped in history legend and myth, and over the centuries many attempts have been made to discover the dog’s true origin. Documentary evidence, cave drawings and excavated bones have come to light and these have been studied in order to piece together a picture of how the breed evolved. Japan’s recorded history spans over two and a half thousand years but information about the Akita is sparse and the language barrier creates further difficulties for British researchers. However, there are a number of authors who have based their work on archaeological, zoological, anthropological and ethnological viewpoints, and this, coupled with the documented history and folklore, present a plausible picture.
It was first believed that people migrated to the Japanese Islands around four thousand years ago, but more recent evidence dates back to the Stone Age. Studies of fossils and skeletal remains have proved that there were domesticated dogs from this era. It is not known if these dogs had prick ears and curled tails, but it is generally presumed that they were related to the present Akita dog. By the Bronze Age there were drawings and artefacts in existence, and these portray the distinctive features of the Japanese-type dog.
The breed came to the forefront in the twelfth century when dog- fighting became a popular sport in Japan. In order to create the best competition, the Akita-type dogs were crossed with other breeds to produce a worthy challenger. When the interest in fighting waned, the dogs were again used for hunting and herding. In the 17th century a famous Japanese war lord was exiled to a fortress on the northern Japanese island of Honshu. He was an admirer of fine sporting dogs, and it is said that he inter-bred the Akita and the Russian Laika dog to produce a larger, more powerful dog with a keen spirit. His animals became highly prized among the aristocracy and enjoyed popularity for over a century. Because of the relative isolation of these northern regions, the breed retained a certain purity of type. It is generally believed that the environment had a big influence on the physical characteristics of the breed and the dog’s thick coat, strong bones and firm feet probably evolved during this period. Many Akita-type dogs were bred in different areas of Japan, but those from the northern region, known as the Akita Prefecture, were the purest bred and are the true ancestors of the present-day Akita.
In 1899 there was an outbreak of rabies and many dogs had to be destroyed. However, the mountainous terrain of the Akita Prefecture slowed up the spread of the disease, and some dogs managed to survive. In the next few decades dog-fighting became popular again, and this resulted in cross-breeding the Akita with other types, generally the Tosa breed. But famine and starvation meant that once again dogs were in danger, and many were killed for their meat and pelt. Fortunately, there were those who prized the Akita for its intelligence and hunting abilities, and so a number of dogs were bred and used to track and hunt small game such as ducks and other birds, graduating to deer, elk, boar and even the Yezo bear, weighing up to eight hundred pounds.
The hunter would set off without a gun, accompanied by a pair of Akitas (one male and one female) which would bring down the prey and hold it until it was either clubbed or speared. The versatile Akita was also used to herd cattle, act as a sight dog, pull loads and work alongside the police. There is documented evidence, found in a Shogunate’s hawk chambers, of an Akita type dog working with hawks and falcons. The dogs’ webbed feet and thick coat also made them ideal water dogs, and so they often worked with fishermen.