In 1945, Japan had only 16 Akitas.
Eaten by starving Japanese families, their pelts lining the coats of Japanese military officers, the beloved, ancient breed became more important dead than alive.
Akitas were lucky. Morie Sawataishi, a Mitsubishi engineer from northern Japan, took an interest in the dogs and began breeding, raising, and showing them. Today, there are thousands of Akitas all over the world.
But other breeds don’t fare so well. They become less popular and eventually disappear.
Wikipedia identifies 40 extinct dog breeds from the Abyssinian Sand Terrier to the Welsh Hillman.
Do breeds still matter? After all, a mutt is as loving as a pure breed. And mongrels are being recruited more often to fill working dog roles.
The first argument for breeds is that knowing their inbred, core characteristics makes it easier for humans to find dogs to work with them.
Some poodles may have the ability to herd sheep. But if you want to be more certain, find a border collie. And while you may know a mixed breed who likes to play fetch, if you’re going to spend thousands of dollars training a dog to retrieve game, you’d probably be smart starting out with a Chesapeake Bay retriever.
But I’d argue that dog breeds are less important for their practical considerations—is this dog or that dog more likely to retrieve, herd, or follow a track. Instead, breeds are important because they’re a sign of how much humans wanted to have dogs beside them.
Think about it. When wild canines came close to human settlements around 14,000 years ago, they were acting in their best interests of survival. And the humans who decided not to chase them off but to allow them to stay close were doing the same thing.
But when a human decided to encourage mating between two dogs that were good guards, he was no longer just an opportunist looking to improve his chance of survival. He was forming a partnership with the dog and committing to a life together.
And that’s what breeds really are.
They are the historical reminder that people want to live near dogs. And that they’re willing to learn something about genetics to make it more likely to happen.
The golden retriever came about when Lord Tweedmouth of Scotland wanted a dog that could hunt all day but settle in by his side indoors at night instead of being kept outside in a kennel.
I see remnants of hunting lines in Honey’s behavior. She’s a natural retriever. She’ll go as long as we do. And she shows no fear at loud noises.
But the stronger part of her nature is her willingness to settle by my side when I’m working. No matter how boring it may be.
Modern Akitas bear little resemblance to the mighty Samurai dogs who would rather die than back down from a fight.
The breed’s savior, Morie Sawataishi, despaired over people who bred Akitas for their looks instead of their character. But their continuing existence is still important to the Japanese people. And the Akita breed tendencies of loyalty, tenacity, and strength express virtues that tie the Japanese to their past and their culture as well as to these beautiful dogs.
So I’d argue that breeds do matter.
Not for winning ribbons at a show. But as a reminder that humans have made dogs what they are today. And dogs have made humans what we are.
Your Turn: Do you believe, like I once did, that dog breeds are entirely unnecessary? Or do you think they have a purpose or meaning?
Read about Morie Sawataishi’s work championing Japan’s Akita breed in Dog Man: An Uncommon Life on a Faraway Mountain (affiliate link). I reviewed Dog Man for Pet Travel Tuesday at A Traveler’s Library.
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photo credits: (Akita) - aldenchadwick via photopin cc, (dog breeds) - perpetualplum via photopin cc. Click on the images to learn more about the photographers.