My first dog as an adult is Motoko (もとこ), the Japanese Akita my husband and I adopted last October. Purebred and a princess, she is the sweetest most affectionate dog I have ever met. Akitas are typically aloof and cat-like but our girl loves anyone she encounters. She sits on their feet and sticks her head up, whining until they have no choice but to pet her.
Dogs are relatively common in Japan; you often see people carting around their tiny pooches in special dog strollers.. But oddly, despite their ancient Japanese heritage, large dogs like Akitas aren’t as common.
Finding a Pupperoni
My husband is an avid dog person, but growing up I was a serial lover of cats. That changed after a serendipitous encounter near Shinjuku Station. An animal therapy group was camped out in the crowded walkway letting passerbys pet their therapy dogs. One such dog was an adorable black and tan Shiba Inu. That little Shiba won over my heart, but we wanted something bigger, so when when we decided to get a dog, we settled on an Akita Ken.
Tracking down a purebred Japanese Akita can be a challenge. The puppy mill industry is alive and well in Japan as represented in the numerous pet shops lining the streets here. Taking the humane route, while trying to find an Akita breeder with limited Japanese knowledge was no easy feat.
There are multiple Japanese dog breeds but the Shiba Inu and the Akita Ken are the most common.
I came across the Japanese website Dogoo, which has a myriad of dog information as well as puppy sales. I inquired about the first listing for Akita puppies I came across on a website selling puppies. It took me an hour to carefully craft a formal email in Japanese (with kanji!) briefly detailing myself and my interest in the puppies, which read thus:
Hello, my name is Vanessa. Nice to meet you. I have interest in a female puppy. Thank you.
The breeder, an older woman who was not overly formal, immediately responded with pictures of puppies. The breeder referred to one of the puppies as tora (虎), which means tiger. This turned out to be a name for the pattern and color of fur this particular puppy had, which is a rare coat color. I was told multiple times she would make a great show dog. Good to know, I suppose?
Neither my husband or I had any experience getting a purebred from a breeder. We were keenly aware it could be a money-making shtick, and the puppies might not be well cared for. Fortunately, that was not that case. The lady was clearly passionate about Akitas. She was more concerned about whether the puppy would go to a loving home than she was about money.
I knew I wanted to give our new puppy a Japanese name before we even showed up and decided on Princess Motoko due to the Akita’s history of only being owned by royalty, as well as a tribute to one of my favorite Japanese icons: Major Kusanagi of Ghost in the Shell.
When we met Motoko at barely six-weeks old, she weighed less than ten pounds, but felt like pure muscle. It was love at first sight. We spent over an hour at the breeder’s place playing with Motoko and speaking to the breeder with a little help from our friend Google Translate.
On the ride home, Motoko didn’t make a peep till we started playing heavy metal in the car. Much to our disappointment, our puppy is still not a metal-head.
That first night, she howled and howled searching for her pack mates. We were told to ignore this, so the first few nights my husband and I simply clung to each other in bed while our sweet puppy tried in vain to call her old family.
One time, she managed to escape in the middle of the night and roamed around downstairs, leaving little messes wherever she went. We put her back in her play area, and she lasted maybe five minutes before attempting to escape again, getting her head caught in the fence and shrieking at the top of her tiny lungs. After that we dismantled the fence, since it was effectively forever useless.
She also commits “furveillance,” a tongue-in-cheek term my husband and I came up with. Our baby wolf looks out the window and growls when she sees people walking around. Now we keep the blinds closed, because it’s quite startling waking up abruptly by growling and sharp barks.
We decided from the beginning to give Motoko commands in Japanese. Here are a few we use the most:
- Matte 待って – wait
- Dame ダメ – stop
- Suware/osuwari 座れ / お座り- sit
- Tachi 立川 – stand up
- Fuse 伏せ – lay down
- Yoshi よし – good
- Ikou 行こう – let’s go!
- Kite 来て – come
- Hanase 話せ – drop it
- Taberu 食べる – eat
It amazes me every day how wolf-like Motoko is. I remember seeing a diagram about wolf characteristics versus domesticated dogs and Motoko definitely has her fair share of the wolf ones. Many Japanese dogs have curled up tails, a trait bred into them over generations. When Motoko is alert, which is most of the time, her tail remains drooped downwards.
Upon first glance, Akita eyes appear black but they are actually a deep wine brown color. They are very intelligent and clearly assess situations around them with an unusual level of clarity.
While Akitas are appealing for all the reasons I love Motoko for, they are not always recommended for first time dog owners. Their personalities are naturally stubborn, defiant, and self-serving. For that reason, training them can also be difficult. They do not like learning tricks and commands.
The puppy life was incredibly difficult and we both Googled I hate my puppy multiple times as we grappled with the difficulties. We were consoled by the fact that we were certainly not the only ones struggling with puppy life with an Akita, and wouldn’t trade Motoko for the world.