by Katie Asling
I'd like to discuss a subject very near and dear to me - so heartfelt that I've been reluctant to write anything because I know how tired everyone must be of hearing about it, and I'm afraid my message will be overlooked or not thoroughly considered. But the matter is so important, that I feel there is no choice. As it happens, A.K.C. judges are actually the ones that have convinced me to take this topic to the public, because they have been forced to deal with it for quite a while.
There's a dilemma currently affecting the Akita breed. In case you haven't heard, it's called "THE SPLIT"! Must sound kind of ominous, by now! There is a lot of dramatic propaganda being spread on this issue, from the infamous and impotent "I heard..."s, to the somewhat more malicious intentional misquotes regarding the procedural steps, as well as the outcome, of a split. These are designed as scare tactics and deliberate attempts to make the issue appear much more complicated than it really is. In my opinion, there is one definitive statement that sums up the intent of, and the need for, splitting the Akita breed into the Japanese Akita and the American Akita. That statement is... "The original Akita breed has evolved into two distinctly different dogs on two distant continents, and each one deserves to be preserved, protected and honored without those efforts being at the expense of the other."
We are not talking about fads in a breed; we are talking about the fact that the Akita was originally imported into this country by servicemen returning from Japan after WWII. At that time the Akita in Japan was heavily influenced by the addition of western breeds, partly for their dog fighting capabilities and partly because German Shepherd type dogs were generally the only ones whose lives were spared during the war. That was the type of Akita we imported and with the closing of the AKC stud book in 1973, that type of dog was the foundation for our breeding programs as well as our breed standard. For the subsequent fifty years, our Akita has evolved accordingly.
Meanwhile in Japan, as the chaos following WWII was beginning to subside, the Japanese set about restoring the original Akita and ridding it of the western influences. They have spent the same fifty years doing this and their breed has evolved accordingly. The biggest difference in what they have produced vs. what we have produced involves structure, type and color. The Japanese Akita is quite a bit smaller and slighter than the American Akita; both in height and width. They have less substance, less bone, they are squarer in proportion, and they have a totally different head type; fox-like almost, with almond shaped eyes. The American Akita is, as specifically demanded by our A.K.C. standard, "large with much substance and heavy bone". AKC Akitas have a big broad head with a well defined stop, a deep muzzle and small triangular eyes. And ANY COLOR is welcomed! That means black or brown or red or white or fawn or silver, etc. The only stipulation, according to our AKC standard, is that the color be brilliant and clear. That black mask that is so much 'the look' of Akitas here is a disqualifying fault in Japan and all FCI countries. They allow red or white Akitas and some brindles. Reds and brindles have to have "urajiro" markings, which is white on the face, cheeks, inside of legs, underbelly and under the tail. Even our lovely pintos are a disqualifying fault abroad.
There's nothing wrong with the direction Japan has taken with the evolution of 'their' breed, in fact it should be commended. They had every right to do it and, unlike the U.S., they had the means. If you think about it, most Japanese breeds (Shiba, Shikoku, Kishu, Kai, Hokkaido or Ainu dog, etc.) are very similar, with size being the major distinguishing factor. But both countries have worked diligently to develop, strengthen and protect the Akita breed as they knew it, and neither of the two distinctly different breeds that have resulted should be diminished or compromised - or faulted for their difference.
I love my big dogs. I love my brightly colored litters. I love my black masks, especially with a white blaze. I love my pintos with a passion, and I love my bear heads. These qualities are what attracted me to the Akita. God knows I've worked long and hard in an effort to establish and perfect those qualities. The Japanese must feel even more strongly about their preferred size of dog, their stunning and exotic faces highlighted with a white mask, their selective coloring... and they are indeed a beautiful breed, but they are not the same breed as my dogs - or the vast majority of Akita dogs in the U.S. However, if we do not act prudently and separate these two breeds now, in five years I could be searching for a compatible stud dog only to find that the dogs available are crosses of Japanese and American Akitas; crosses that have neither look - just a muddled mixture. The 'cross advocates' are already calling the traditional American Akita 'overdone'; obviously they want and intend to change it.
The A.K.C. re-opened the stud book in 1992 and several Japanese Akitas have been imported, but those fanciers truly interested in the breed for its own sake quickly realized that interbreeding will usually do nothing but produce a hybrid - not one or the other. Genetic odds dictate there may be phenotypical examples of either type in a large enough litter, but if Japanese type or American type is what a breeder was after, they wouldn't be crossing the breeds in the first place. Now there may be a handful of people that like the look of the hybrid, but do we really have the audacity to suggest to the Japanese that their breed should now be bastardized? That it should be diluted with characteristics they have spent fifty years eradicating? Or do we tell the American fanciers they should be following the Japanese direction; that the black mask should be excluded and dogs with it considered pet quality? That 90% of our colors are now a disqualifying fault? That the size and substance we so cherish is no longer desirable? Bears are out, foxes in? Will the AKC standard be thrown by the wayside? Or the Japanese standard? Because obviously you can't have it both ways - even if you want a hybrid.
Some of those opposed to a split of the breed have suggested the Japanese Akitas are just a another 'range of type' and that you already see so much diversity in the Akita ring that one more 'type' does not warrant separate breed status. I take serious issue with that. There is only ONE correct type according to the A.K.C. standard. There are certainly varying degrees of correct type, but the mere fact that there are poor examples of our standard does not imply they are, or should be, acceptable! And certainly not that even more divergent types should be welcomed and encouraged! It is beyond me how anyone can say there is already such diversity from the standard that we should encourage more diversity, yet that is what is being argued! Sometimes I think it is the unsuccessful breeders that have decided the more they can muddy the waters, the better their chances are of sneaking in some success! Really! That's how it appears to me, especially after reviewing the 'credentials' of most of the people against a split. Yes, one can sometimes find pretty poor specimens in the Akita ring. Yes, there are a lot of people out there breeding and many of them justify breeding any bitch to any dog, believing they can come up with a winner. But how that rationalizes throwing a whole different breed into the mix I'll never understand. Seems to me the 'diversity in the breed' argument would work in favor of a split. There is already so much mediocre 'interpretation' of the standard that the LAST thing we need is a total departure from what our Akita is and was meant to look like.
Originally there were two arguments to splitting the breeds. One is: I may want to breed to a Japanese dog someday and I don't want to close any doors. Friends, for God's sake, these are not 'parts dogs'! They are not here in the U.S. idling their lives away, totally non-competitive in shows, waiting to see if some breeder some day decides they want to try a 'bit of foreign' to spice up their breeding program! How self serving can anyone be?
The other 'argument' is that we as Americans don't 'have to' follow the dictates of the Japanese or the FCI! Wow! That is so anti-logic, even racist, that there really is no answer. It's the Ugly American syndrome in all its glory. Wake up. The world is round. We are not omnipotent. We have to be able to function in a world community. It's give and take. We cannot dictate to Japan, the country of origin, who has already split the Akita breed. We should be damned grateful that they have seen fit to recognize as a separate breed the Akita we developed from their 1940's western-influenced stock. They didn't have to! They could have left things the way they were, with all American type Akitas being disqualified from FCI shows. In certain countries, France for instance, American type Akitas couldn't even be registered. But this year history was made at the World Dog Show in Mexico; the first FCI show to recognize two different breeds! So I feel we owe the Japanese a HUGE debt of gratitude.
Recently a third argument was presented by those opposing a breed split; that the gene pool for our Akitas is so small and problematic that our dogs will self-destruct without new blood from the Japanese dogs. Well... not only is that the total antithesis of these same peoples' original arguments, it is preposterous and totally nonsensical. First of all, the Japanese Akitas suffer from the same genetic problems as the American Akitas. Secondly, there is no shortage of quality in our gene pool! The poor quality dogs are the result of poor breedings, or people selling pets for the show ring! Now if you want to see some problems, imagine adding 70 lb. male Akitas with totally different structure and head type to our gene pool... THEN you'll see some problems. What we need to do is look at the situation with some intelligence and integrity, some selfless concern for the future of both Akitas, and act in their best interest by doing what the Japanese have done; split the breed into two. No one should want to destroy what the Japanese have spent 50 years recreating, and the Japanese are aghast at the concept of us breeding their beloved medium sized red dogs to our big, black and brown American dogs. Of course they are! The notion is ridiculous. It's not right. We lose and they lose. And we end up with a mixed breed, or 'blend' as the anti-split people now call it. I don't know about you, but I don't want a blend! I don't want my breed to evolve into a blend.
We need to take a cue from our AKC judges. They have seen the foreign dog in their rings. They have systematically ignored them except on very rare occasions. Yes, since 1992 a handful (FOUR in almost eight years) of imports have actually finished their championships. (At what cost, I'll leave to your imagination.) I have to applaud the wisdom and foresight our judges have shown. No matter how beautiful these Japanese dogs are, they are NOT competitive in A.K.C. rings, against Akitas bred for fifty years to conform to the A.K.C. standard. That standard is what we have bred toward - and what we should continue to breed toward, regardless of the inescapable truth that the standard does not fit the Japanese dogs. So we are left with two options. Split the breed, as FCI countries have done, and give each dog the chance to be protected and perfected and showcased, OR leave things as they are with a couple hundred Japanese dogs in this country being used to dilute the American dogs at the whim of a few who stand to benefit, or to be kept isolated by owners that will not crossbreed and will wait for the day they can compete in A.K.C. rings - when 'their' Akita has its own ring. Well, I think that day has come - in fact it is long overdue.
There is a lot of history that can be used to explain this situation, but the current problem and its solution doesn't seem all that complicated to me. The American and English Cockers successfully dealt with a similar problem, as did the English and Welsh Springers, and recently the Norfolk and Norwich Terriers... and you know, the sky never did fall.