While everyone who breeds or buys dogs
probably agrees she wants dogs with "good" temperaments, exactly what
that means is left to the imagination more often than not. Each party
assumes that he is talking about the same thing. Unfortunately, huge
discrepancies may lie between their concepts of what constitutes good
For instance, many years ago, a group of us attended
a party given by the owner of a champion male. He was outside when we
arrived and remained there despite inquiries about him. Finally, a few
of the guests prevailed on our host and were taken out to see the dog
Several told me that later that they wished they hadn't
been so insistent, Initially, the dog growled and snarled at them, quieting
down after a few minutes but remaining very alert and wary. One visitor
said, "One wrong move and you'd have been fair game!"
The owners later told me that they felt the dog's temperament
was very correct for the breed and were quite proud of what they considered
a properly protective nature. If he growled at a few judges in the ring
and couldn't be petted by spectators, that was okay with them. They
hadn't bought a poodle.
Is this good temperament? I don't think so, but it is
certainly an "eye-of-the-beholder" question. This discussion of temperament
was originally published in Akita Dog, the newsletter of the
Akita Club of America, and later in Akita World magazine.
It contains what I consider the essential components of good temperament
for an Akita, why I think they are important, how to tell if you have
problems, and how to strengthen weaknesses.
This material is garnered from my own experience, education,
and opinion, and I welcome input from you. Your suggestions, comments,
or (perish the thought!) criticisms should be directed
The priority of this list is rather loose. Some components
are equally important; others depend on an individual's preferences.
For instance, many people would rank protectiveness much higher than
I have, but almost everyone would agree on the first few. However, I
know from experiences like the one just related that even they are open
This article is very long, and I've
provided several ways for you to move through it.
- Buttons on the left provide
links to individual pages.
- At the bottom of each page are buttons to move back
- To access an individual topic, click on the appropriate
section in the list below
- Use the main drop down menu at the top of the page
to reach any page in this section or in the site.
RECIPE FOR GOOD TEMPERAMENT
First and foremost, every dog, not just an Akita, should
be bite-inhibited. He should be so reluctant to bite, that he does so
only under the direst of circumstances. Even then, he should bite only
once, and damage from the bite should be very minimal.
Second, they should be accepting of authority, that is
they should be submissive. Between and within breeds, the degree of
submissiveness varies. The Akita's independent nature may well modify
its willingness to cooperate.
Third, an Akita should like children. Just as retrievers
like sticks and balls, this breed should have an affinity for children.
Fourth, dogs should be accepting of non-threatening strangers,
regardless of whether the stranger is friendly or neutral.
Fifth, the dog should have enough confidence to be at
ease an unfamiliar setting.
Sixth, he should be trainable. He should be willing and
able to learn behaviors that he repeats reliably.
Seventh, he should stable around strange noises.
Eighth, to some degree, Akitas should have an independent
Ninth, Akitas should have an inhibited nature They should
not respond to stressful situations by becoming increasingly excited
Tenth, faced with a threat, they should be protective
of their family.
ACCEPT OTHER DOGS
Eleventh, they should be accepting of other dogs.
Did I actually put loyalty last? I don't believe
it either, because it is the essence of Akita character.
INHERITANCE OF BEHAVIOR
Research on all sorts of animals, including humans, tells
us that the basic composition of our temperament is inherited. It is
constructed of building blocks we receive from both parents. Although
we have elements in common with each, the material we receive is unique
to us. The exception to this, of course, is identical twins. Studies
of twins separated at birth have confirmed the inheritability of temperament,
just as studies of identical twins living together show the powerful
influence of environment on these elements.
Similarities between the former are eerie in their consistency.
For instance, one set of twins separated at birth were phobic about
water but wanted to swim. Independently, they arrived at the same solution
to their fear; they backed into the water! Another pair lived in neighboring
towns and were both firemen. They both did woodworking in their spare
time and had built identical benches around trees in their back yards.
On the other hand, most of us have met identical twins
living together who work at differentiating themselves from each other.
Often, these pairs are like two sides of the same coin with complementary
personalities--one is extroverted, the other shy; one likes science,
the other arts; one is bold, the other cautious.
Inheritance gives each of us a set of building blocks
that represent our basic nature. Our experiences, interactions with
others, and environment determine how those blocks are arranged. With
almost the same components, one structure may have a good foundation
and great stability, while another is likely to topple into disarray.
The foundation of a dog's temperament is laid early and
will influence his behavior throughout his life. The structure is dynamic
and reacts to outside influences so long as the animal is alive. We
can reinforce strengths and shore up weaknesses in the dog's nature.
We must be careful not to undermine strengths and encourage problems.
Bite inhibition is a concept that, as a dog owner, you
know about, but you'll probably pay it little attention unless and until
your dog bites. Most dogs are inhibited from biting. That's what makes
them desirable companions.
A few people seem not to mind living with an animal that
might inflict serious injury on them. They buy lions, tigers, wolves,
and dogs that are likely to bite, often and hard. They probably also
like bungee jumping and parachuting. While these all have a large element
of risk to the individual who likes living on the edge, only the first
presents a hazard to others.
Bite inhibition begins before birth, since it is partly
inherited. Unless you are a telepath, you have really no way of knowing
how quickly a dog might reach its flash point. It may have a good reason
for biting, but, again, unless you're telepathic, you'll also never
know when and why it is triggered to bite.
When a bite occurs, the family's first impulse is to
find a good reason for their dog's behavior. Most people love their
dogs deeply and feel hurt, guilty, defensive, and protective when it
transgresses. "He was protecting his owner, was abused by the former
owner, was startled, had a bad day, . . ." The list of reasons is only
limited by the owners' imaginations
You will seldom be in a position to judge the accuracy
of their reasoning, and if you like the dog, your regard may shade your
opinion, too. Because the willingness of the dog to bite a person has
a genetic component, the safest option in breeding is to select dogs
that have never done so. Simply stated:
Don't use any dog for breeding if it has bitten a human.
Learning Not to Bite
Learning the Limits: When puppies
play with each other, they engage in biting behavior. The strength with
which they bite is tempered by the response of their playmates. The hurt
puppy protests with a loud, high-pitched scream, and the offending puppy
Likewise, nursing puppies can bite their mother once
their teeth come in. Mom reacts by moving away from the puppy, pushing
it away, or, in extreme cases, by growling at the biter. She may also
intervene in the puppies' play should one puppy prove too aggressive
to his siblings.
In these ways, puppies learn to set limits on the force they exert when
Time To Grow Up: Social
interactions are very important for the developing puppy not just for
bite inhibition but for learning proper doggy manners. The lessons they
learn here will remain with them all their lives which is why leaving
the litter together past the traditional six weeks is vital.
At six weeks, puppies are just beginning to play with
each other, with toys, and with their mother and other dogs. Taking
them away too early can deprive them of valuable lessons in life.
What Does This Mean To You As the Breeder?
You and the rest of your household should jump right in with the rest
of the puppies, teaching them that humans are very delicate beings.
You will be bitten because that's how puppies test their world. As soon
as a puppy mouths you, even if he does not bite hard, you should mimic
his littermates and give a high-pitched yell. The puppy should immediately
let go and will probably lick a couple of times. Give him a warm "thank
you," and wait for the next time. If he doesn't let go scream higher
Very young puppies will continue to bite, but the bites
should get progressively softer until they disappear altogether. Extend
your indications of discomfort to bites on your clothing as well. If
you walk among the puppies in a long night-gown, scream when they bite
This technique is highly effective and will work with
young dogs even more quickly than it does with puppies. All children
should be taught to deal with nipping puppies and young dogs this way
since they rarely have the social standing to correct the dog by indicating
Many Akitas have soft mouths, probably from crosses to
native dogs that were retrievers. Their bites may be more like nuzzles
and may never cause you pain. As adults, soft-mouthed dogs may have
the same toys for years. They may never cause problems to your furniture
or shoes. Don't be fooled, though. They can still inflict serious damage
on people or other dogs, because when they want to bite hard, they can.
Because their bites don't hurt much, soft-mouthed dogs
in a mixed litter will be the least likely to truly learn bite inhibition.
When you are working with a litter, therefore, it's very important to
teach all the puppies not to bite, even the ones that hardly touch you.
Otherwise, the dogs when they do bite are likely to bite as hard as
they can because they never learned to temper their bites.
Hard-mouthed dogs have a slightly different jaw structure,
so few Akitas have the same bite strength as a German Shepherd or Rottweiler.
If your face is being bitten, however, this distinction will be of little
concern to you. All bites hurt.
Is Bite Inhibition Important?
The owner of the dog may be faced with huge legal fees
and damage awards to the victim. Most of these suits are covered by
homeowners insurance. However, the unfortunate owner may find himself
out of a policy and unable to secure a new insurer so long as the dog
The impact of a dog bite extends far beyond its effect
on the people involved, which can be devastating by itself. Very few
people actually die as a result of dog bites, but the physical damage
can be horribly disfiguring. Medical treatment can range from simple
cleaning to multiple surgeries. Even worse, the bond between dogs and
humans is based in part on trust, and part of that is eroded once you
are bitten. If the victim is a bystander and not a dog owner, he is
likely to be lost forever to any relationship with dogs and may become
hostile to them. Hostility coupled with activism can sound the death
knell of a breed. Does this sound extreme to you? If so, you
need to learn more about the animal rights activists and their effect
on animal welfare.
Strengthening Bite Inhibition
You can strengthen bite inhibition throughout the dog's
life. Not letting him bite you or your clothing is the first and most
important step in doing this. If you currently roughhouse by offering
your arm as a target, switch to a lambs wool or rawhide toy, a towel,
or a ball. Throw it or drag it for him and then let him play with it.
You can pick it up (few Akitas will actually bring it back, so don't
be disappointed when your dog proves to be a "getter" but not a "returner")
and throw or drag it along the ground. Any time the dog tries to play-bite
at you, switch him over immediately to one of these toys.
If your dog has a firmly entrenched habit, yelping may
not work. As an alternative, you may firmly take your dog's muzzle
off your arm or clothes if he puts his mouth on you. Hold his mouth
shut, but don't try to hurt him, and with a very low, growly voice,
firmly tell him, "No." Don't strike the dog or shake him. You
may also be battling a dominance problem, which is covered in another
section of this discussion. Trading aggression for aggression may get
you into an escalating spiral that can cause the very problem you're
trying to avoid!
Insist that your children and any visitors not play chase,
allowing the dog to pursue them. If dogs could talk, they'd probably
call this game "Chase the Prey." Given the right set of stimuli--the
right movements, the right sounds, the right smells--this can become
pursuit in deadly earnest.
When you send your charges on to new home, you don't
need to scare your buyers to death, but you should make them aware of
appropriate behaviors. Give them couple of books. One should be Turid
Rugas's, On Talking With Dogs: Calming Signals,
and the other one a book like Alphabetizing
Your Dog or Carol Benjamin's Mother
Knows Best. Ask that they read these before they pick up their
puppy. The expense is negligible when you consider the tragedies it