Part 1 Akita Behavior & Temperament by Sherry E. Wallis While everyone who breeds or buys dogs probably agrees they want 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 disussion 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 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 by e-mail. 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 I just related that even they are open to challenge. 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, an Akita should be accepting of authority, that is he 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, an Akita should be accepting of non-threatening strangers, regardless of whether the stranger is friendly or neutral. Fifth, an Akita should have enough confidence to be at ease an unfamiliar setting. Sixth, an Akita should be trainable. He should be willing and able to learn behaviors that he repeats reliably. Seventh, an Akita should stable around strange noises. Eighth, to some degree, an Akita should have an independent nature. Ninth, an Akita should have an inhibited nature. He should not respond to stressful situations by becoming increasingly excited or agitated. Tenth, faced with a threat, an Akita should be protective of their family. Eleventh, an Akita should be accepting of other dogs. BITE INHIBITION Bite inhibition is a concept that, as a dog owner, you know about, but you probably pay it little attention unless and until your dog bites. Most dogs are inhibited from biting. That's what makes them desireable 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, youll also never know. When a dog bites, 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" 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. Training Not to Bite While the height of the threshold at which a dog will bite may be initially determined by inheritance, it can certainly be raised or lowered by training. Puppies begin learning it from each other and from their mother. 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. Moms react 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. 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. 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. 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 lambswool 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 a book like Terry Ryan's Alphabetizing Your Dog or Carol Benjamin's Mother Knows Best and ask that they read it before they pick up their puppy. The expense is negligible when you consider the tragedies it can prevent. ACCEPTANCE OF AUTHORITY Any dog in its relationship with other dogs and with people fits onto a scale of what is most often called "dominance behavior." At the upper end is the dog that does what he wants when he wants and enforces his will if he is thwarted--the alpha, the most dominant dog. At the lower end is the dog that seems to have no ego strength at all-the omega or most submissive one. Perhaps this component of behavior is better viewed as acceptance of authority. Many people want strong, brave Akitas and are afraid that a submissive dog will be everyone's doormat. In fact, the relationships formed between dogs themselves and between dogs and humans are very complex and very fluid, subject to change depending on circumstances. Also important to understanding the significance of such measures is the character of the breed itself. A dominant Rottweiler is a very different dog from a dominant Papillon. A submissive Akita is not the same thing as a submissive Chihuahua.