History of the Akita Breed

Helen Keller with her second Akita Kenzan-Go in 1947

Helen Keller in 1947 with her second Akita, Kenzan-Go, a gift from the Japanese government.
(Source: Archives of New Zealand)

“Is your dog a Husky mix? Part Chow?” If you own an Akita, you’ve probably heard questions like these. Many people are familiar with the Akita’s cousins – Huskies, Malamutes, Chow-Chows, Norwegian Elkhounds and others – but few know much about the breed that is Japan’s national treasure. The Akita is a member of the Spitz group, which includes many northern snow breeds.

The noble Akita goes back at least 1,000 years as a human companion and helper. Originally, these dogs were bred to serve as hunting companions. All of their original “wolf” skills, from finding prey all the way through killing it, were considered desirable traits in those days, because hunting was done with bow and arrow, and the prey large and fierce. Akitas were prized because they were nearly fearless in the face of bear and wild boar, and they were extremely loyal to their owners. These traits are still true today. What today’s pet owners sometimes call “stubbornness” was then viewed as persistence and fearlessness – both very important qualities.

In the Middle Ages, the breed remained largely unchanged in character, but the Akita’s job changed. The Emperor of Japan and his Samurai soldiers used Akitas as guardians of their people and property. Only royalty could own them. The original traits of loyalty and fearlessness were again invaluable, because to do these jobs, Akitas had to think for themselves. Other breeds were needed to do only specific tasks (point, flush, retrieve), but the Akita was expected to be self-directed and persistent. Strong will and loyalty continue to characterize this noble breed today, because the genes for these traits were maintained and valued, generation after generation.

During the first half of the 20th century, Akitas came on harder times. Some were used inhumanely for fighting, while during World War II, many others were killed for their coats. Luckily, the breed was saved by a few devoted people, who hid dogs in safety at their own personal risk. They remained, and remain, a true working breed.

Akitas didn’t come to the U.S. until 1937, when the Emperor of Japan made a gift of two puppies to Helen Keller. They have become increasingly popular, though often misunderstood. There are now two recognized lines – the Japanese Akita and the American Akita, though both have the original genes. It’s no wonder that today’s Akitas are just as strong, confident and loyal to their families as the early litters, a millenium ago.

You can learn much more about the Akita breed on these websites: Akita Club of America, AKC, Wikipedia

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