by   David Hancock

 Any mention of hounds in the Western world conjures up immediate images of elegant smooth-haired sighthounds, strongly-built tricolour drop-eared scenthounds or rough-haired Griffons out of France. A prick-eared dog with a bushy tail curled over its back doesn’t quite fit the bill, but the hounds of Japan are highly individual and deserve recognition. Two of their hunting dog breeds, the Akita and the Shiba, have become established here but as show dogs not sporting ones and neither classified as hounds or sporting dogs by our Kennel Club. 226 Shibas were registered here in 2011 and over a thousand Akitas, of both types, mainly the ‘American’ type, with only 50 of the Japanese Akita variety featuring, for me, a regrettable differentiation. The KC breed standard for the Akita, mentions its role as a hunting dog on black bear, wild boar and deer and for the Shiba, describes its role as a hunting dog, mainly of ground game, but used to track larger game such as boar and deer, then classifies both, with remarkable perversity, not as hounds, but in its Utility Group.

 I have long been intrigued by the native breeds of Japan, sparked initially by learning that genetically Japanese dog breeds, with one exception, originated from a common ancestral type, in which both A and B haemoglobin alleles were present, whilst the European breeds originated from a different ancestral group in which the A allele was absent. My interest in one of their breeds, the Akita, was heightened on reading that the late Joe Braddon, arguably the greatest show judge of the late 20th century here, rated a Japanese Akita he judged in Norway, the best dog he ever saw. In a thirty year career as an international judge, he must have gone over hundreds of thousands of dogs in the ring. By our definition a hound, the Akita is an impressive breed, having a  tangible presence, an imposing self-assurance, almost a natural grandeur about it. The Japanese Akita weighs around 70-80lbs but now there is a variation in America that weighs well over 100lbs.

 The international kennel club, the FCI, recognises a number of Japanese hunting dogs: the Akita, the Ainu, the Kai, the Kishu and the Shiba, often after the localities where they developed, with the Akita also named the Akita Matagi Inu or dog that hunts bears. The Ainu is also called the Hokkaido Dog, as it was favoured in the mountainous regions of Hokkaido Island. The black brindle Kai Dog was also called the Tiger Dog, because of its coat colour. The usually white Kishu was used as a hunting dog on the large island of Kyushu, with the Shiba Inu (or small dog) developed on Honshu Island, and now very popular in Britain. With over 200 a year being newly registered, the Shiba Inu seems well established but I know of no one using one as a hunting dog here. (There is a similar but slightly taller breed called the Shikoku, used to hunt deer, but not I believe known in Europe.)

 The Shiba is an enchanting fox-like little dog with a hard thick coat, sparkling eyes, an alert posture, attentive manner and inquisitive nature, so valuable in a hunting dog. They are used extensively on rabbit in Japan but are great ratters too, being determined, quick and extremely agile. Local varieties were named after the locality that favoured them, rather like our terriers of old. You hear of Mino Shiba, Shinshu Shiba, Sekishu Inu and so on; they were used to hunt small game: hare, racoon dog (tanuki), fox, weasel and birds. I have been very impressed by their soundness when viewing them both at English dog shows and overseas shows. This may be because to judge the breed in its native country you need demanding training and extensive experience. It was good to read a show judge’s critique in 2010 stating : “Always remember the purpose and origin of the Shiba. A small hunting dog, very nimble, agile and able to leap from rock to rock, in its pursuit to hunt small game in the mountains of Japan.” It would be good to hear of their use hunting rabbits here.

 The strong brindle colours of the Kai Ken, its versatility in the hunting field and their sheer charm as a breed have made them immediate favourites outside their home country. There are two bloodlines in the breed that determine their physical characteristics: Dairo and Kaikuro; the first being lighter and used on deer, the other stocky and used in the boar hunt. It has been claimed that three Kai Ken can bring down a full grown boar. They are very much mountain hunting dogs, agile, sure-footed and very determined. Increasingly popular in the United States and Canada, they are valued as companion dogs more than hunting dogs.

 Far better known here is the Akita, although the division in the breed causes much confusion away from the show rings. At a championship show in Germany a few years ago, one of Japan’s leading experts on their native breeds, Kosuke Kawakita, gave this advice on breeding them: do not overdo the white markings, especially on the face. Make use of brindle dogs to lessen the pale colours that occur prevalently in this breed. Conserve the characteristic facial expression of the breed which mainly relies on correct ear placement. Breed for a strong lower jaw, look for a rounded appearance when viewing the jaw from the front. He stated that the original breed standard was based on hunting dogs, not ornamental ones. I have seen some impressive Akitas in Britain but some have displayed temperamental flaws, probably from being owned by the wrong people – they did become ‘status dogs’ for a while. In Japan, just after World War II, three types of the breed emerged: the Matagi Akita or bearhound, the Fighting Akita or Kong-go dogs with mastiff blood and the Shepherd Akita, used as a flock protector. The first type is the true one, the second one is to be avoided. The Akita was always intended to be a hound.