Akita Temperament


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 temperament

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 to me.

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 to challenge.

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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 nature.  


Ninth, Akitas should have an inhibited nature They should not respond to stressful situations by becoming increasingly excited or agitated.  


Tenth, faced with a threat, they should be protective of their family.  


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.


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.

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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.

Inherited Component

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 lets go.

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 biting.

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 and louder.

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 the edges.

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 their disapproval.

Soft Mouths

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 is present.

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 can prevent.

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