Japanese dog breeds come in all varieties, from the massive Tosa Inu to the tiny Japanese Chin. Many of these breeds were originally developed as hunters, but a few were meant for a human lap. Is one of these dogs the right one for you? Find out more below!
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THE COMMON JAPANESE DOG BREEDS
The Akita is a breed originally created for hunting bear, wild boar, and deer in the Japanese mountains. A large, furry dog, Akitas come in many colors and color combinations. Weighing between 70 and 130 pounds, these majestic dogs are now companion animals, rather than hunters.
A Japanese breed known since at least the early 1600s, they almost went extinct during World War II as the hungry people of Japan unfortunately killed them for food and used their pelts to keep warm. But, fortunately for the survivors, a man named Morie Sawataishi spent a lifetime rehabilitating the breed and preventing complete extinction. His story is detailed in the book Dog Man, An Uncommon Life on a Faraway Mountain, by Martha Sherrill. This book is a fascinating look into not only the Akita breed, but also Japanese culture in the mid-20th century.
Akitas are intensely loyal to their human families, but very cautious around strangers. They are not dogs for families who have visitors dropping by often. Not known for their ability to get along with other dogs, Akitas need to either be only pets, or to be socialized early and often with others of their species. Because of their high prey drive, this is probably not the best breed to bring into your home if you have cats. Like many thick-coated dogs, Akitas shed quite profusely. They’ll need regular brushing to keep your home from becoming fur-covered.
Because they are so loyal, they also crave companionship from their humans. These are not dogs you can expect to stay alone for long periods of time. Naturally cold weather lovers, care must be taken in the summer so they don’t overheat. An Akita will need plenty of energy-expending exercise and a good diet, but, given those, have an average life expectancy of about ten to twelve years.
ADOPTING AN AKITA
If this sounds like the dog for you, there are several Akita rescues in the United States including Akita Rescue Mid-Atlantic Coast (ARMAC). If you’re not sure if an Akita is for you, you can volunteer to foster for one of these rescue organizations.
Another hunting dog originally from the mountains of Japan, the Shiba Inu is much smaller than the Akita. DNA analysis traces the Shiba all the way back to the 3rd Century BC. Weighing between 17 and 23 pounds, Shibas are generally red, black, or tan. Like the Akita, food shortages and a distemper epidemic during and after World War II almost drove the breed into extinction. But, again, like the Akita, dedicated dog lovers worked hard and succeeded in preserving the breed.
Shiba Inus (Inu means dog in Japanese) are similar in personality to the Akita. They love their families immensely, but aren’t too comfortable with strangers. Stubborn, and with a high prey drive, Shibas are not generally good with cats. He’ll need some early, good experiences with strangers and members of his species, to overcome a natural aversion to socialization with anyone other than his family.
Given a good diet, and regular trips to the veterinarian, a Shiba’s average life expectancy is 12 to 16 years. The oldest Shiba know was Pusuke, who died at age 26 – just a few months short of his 27th birthday.
ADOPTING A SHIBA INU
There are also several rescues organizations which specialize in this breed, like Midwest Shiba Inu Rescue. Do your research, and visit with a few individuals of the breed, if possible. If you’re convinced the Shiba is right for your household, search for available rescues online.
THE JAPANESE SPITZ
There are different types of Spitz dogs – the Japanese Spitz is always pure white. The breed is recognized by many kennel clubs, but not (yet) by the American Kennel Club. Bred in the 1920s and 1930s, the Japanese Spitz is a relative newcomer to the dog breed world. Weighing between 11 and 20 pounds, the Spitz is the smallest of the most common Japanese breeds.
Unlike a few of the others already mentioned, this Japanese dog is a true sweetheart. He loves kids and does well with them. Happy to curl up on your lap, she’ll also be ready for an active game of fetch, or a hike in the woods. Japanese Spitz’s love their families, sometimes too much. This breed is prone to suffering separation anxiety, so make sure you’ll have plenty of time for your pet before adopting one.
Lacking the stubbornness of either the Shiba or the Akita, Japanese Spitzes are easily trainable. They only want to please. Grooming, however, is imperative for this girl, unless you want your carpet and furniture to look like it’s been snowing (long, hairy snow). Because they are double coated, they lose most of their undercoat in the warmer months – and they’ll lose it in chunks. Regular brushing is a must.
The Spitz is generally a healthy dog with a lifespan of between 10 and 16 years. As with all pets, regular visits to the veterinarian, a good diet, and sufficient exercise are imperative. Give your Spitz all these things, and he’ll be a wonderful addition to your family.
ADOPTING A JAPANESE SPITZ
Although I could find no organization in the U.S. which rescues only Japanese Spitz dogs, if you search online you will find individual dogs of the breed available for adoption. There ARE other types of Spitz dogs, including a German and a Finnish variety.
And, now, for something completely different. The Japanese Chin was also bred to hunt, but this one is hunting warm laps, soft pillows, and the life of luxury. Various sources attribute this breed to China, Korea, or Japan, but, given its name, I’ve chosen to include it here. Ownership of this small dog, the only Japanese dog to be exclusively a companion animal, was restricted to the nobility for a very long time.
The Japanese Chin is a true companion dog. Friendly and outgoing, it also has amazing balance and agility. It is not at all unusual to see a Chin on the top of a piece of furniture, to get a better view. Sociable with humans and other animals, including cats, the Chin will bark surprisingly loudly to warn of visitors. They are intelligent little dogs, but tend to be a bit stubborn. With proper training, however, they make loving and entertaining house pets.
The Chin is the smallest, by far, of all the Japanese dog breeds. Full grown, they weigh about only 4 to 9 pounds, and are 11 inches tall at their tallest. Because of their flat faces, they have difficulty with heat. They will need a harness, rather than a collar to prevent damage to the trachea when walking. Because they are so little, their exercise needs are also small, and Chins do well in apartments or townhouses.
ADOPTING A JAPANESE CHIN
There are a few rescues which specialize in these little guys – Japanese Chin Care and Rescue is one. They also sometimes find their way into general shelters and rescue – searching on Petfinder is your best bet.
THE UNCOMMMON BREEDS
Another rare Japanese dog breed is the Kai Ken. Originally developed in the mountainous region of Kai, the Kai Ken was bred for hunting. It is still known as a fearless hunter. There are documented cases of these dogs climbing trees in pursuit of their quarry.
The Kai Ken is considered one of the purest of Japanese dog breeds, due to the isolation of the area in which it first appeared. Because of this, it is preserved under Japanese law. Their brindle coloration earns them the nickname of Tiger Dog.
This breed is not yet recognized by the American Kennel Association, but will be once the population in the United States reaches 150. That is how rare they are.
These dogs are rare, even in Japan, so not much is known about their personality inside the home. What is known is that they are very intelligent, and love to please their owners. Because of this they’re fairly easy to train. They are said to be good with both children and other dogs.
Kai Ken have a life expectancy of between 14 and 16 years, weigh between 30 and 50 pounds. They need only moderate exercise. Because of this, they’ve been known to adapt well to apartment or townhouse living.
ADOPTING A KAI KEN
This will be difficult, if not impossible. You may find a breeder who knows of a Kai Ken who needs to be rehomed, but that would be a lucky find indeed.
The Tosa Inu has a sad history, as it was bred for dog fighting. Unfortunately, dog fighting is still legal in Japan, so their suffering has not stopped. They are also often exported to Korea where they are considered livestock and sold as “meat dogs”. Many countries, including Great Britain, require a special license to own one, as, due to their fighting history, they are considered a dangerous breed.
Tosas are loyal to their owners, but can be difficult to handle around strangers and other members of their own species. Early socialization can help with this, but this is certainly not a dog for a first-time dog owner. Anyone owning a Tosa needs to be firm and consistent.
Tosas are a type of Mastiff. Weighing between 80 to 130 pounds, their average life expectancy is 10 to 12 years.
ADOPTING A TOSA
I could not find any rescues strictly for the Tosa Inu. However, Gentle Giants Rescue in California does have some adoptable Tosa Inu dogs.
The Hokkaido dog is rare outside of Japan. Traced back to the 1100s, like most of the early Japanese breeds, Hokkaido dogs were bred to hunt. Fiercely loyal to their owners, they will take on animals much larger than themselves. Hokkaido were first bred by the aboriginal peoples of Japan, and still retain their popularity on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. They are just now beginning to make their way into private homes as family pets.
Since they are relatively new to life as a pet, none of the following information is definitive. They are known to be brave, loyal, and extremely food motivated. The food motivation helps make them somewhat easy to train. They have also been shown to get along with other family pets, including, surprisingly for a hunting breed, cats.
Good with kids, the way to a healthy, happy Hokkaido is to provide lots of exercise. These are not dogs for apartment or townhouse dwellers, as their energy levels are too high for such a confined life.
Hokkaidos have an average life span of between 11 to 13 years and weigh 45 to 60 pounds. They need regular grooming, trips to the veterinarian, and a healthy diet to prosper.
ADOPTING A HOKKAIDO
Due to their rarity outside of Japan, there are no US rescues specializing in them. You may be able to find one to adopt through an Internet search, although the choices will be extremely limited.
The Shikoku dog was, like most of the other Japanese breeds, originally bred for hunting. Similar in appearance to a small wolf, they weigh between 35 and 50 pounds and have a life expectancy of 10 to 12 years.
Like many of the breeds mentioned above, good socialization early is necessary to overcome a natural suspicion of strangers. Shikoku’s generally do well with other dogs, but they are hunters and will not co-exist with smaller animals such as guinea pigs and hamsters. They need daily exercise to prevent boredom, and a fenced in yard to prevent wandering.
ADOPTING A SHIKOKU
Although some Shiba Inu rescues also accept Shikokus, it will be very difficult to find one of these dogs up for adoption.
Another dog bred mainly for hunting, the Kishu, like the Kai above, has been known to climb trees to follow prey. Developed at least 3,000 years ago in the mountainous region of Kyushu, the Kishu is rarely seen outside Japan. Kishu can have white, red, or brown coats, and are double coated. This means they’ll need quite a bit of grooming as cold weather turns to warmer and their undercoats shed.
With similar personalities to many of those breeds mentioned above, the Kishu is loving and loyal with its family, but regards strangers with a dubious eye. No cats or small animals for this fellow either. He’s a hunter first and foremost. Should you get a Kishu, she’ll definitely need something to do. Any sort of job, or agility training, or lots of exercise is required to keep this breed happy and healthy.
Kishu’s average life expectancy is about 11 to 13 years. Weighing about 45 pounds when full grown, the Kishu is a nice medium-sized pet.
ADOPTING A KISHU
This won’t be easy. Check with other Japanese breed, or primitive breed rescues for an occasional prospect.
A relative newcomer, the last of the Japanese dog breeds is the Japanese Terrier. Rare even in Japan, these terriers are thought to have descended from Dutch dogs brought to the country during the 17th century. Other sources say they came from dogs owned by English sailors. (Nagasaki was the only port open to the West at that point in history.) These guys, too, served more as companion and lap dogs than hunters, although they were occasionally used to keep down the rodent population.
These are friendly dogs, easy to train, and needing little in the way of exercise. They love to play and generally get along with both dogs and cats in the home. Be wary, though, if you have pocket pets (guinea pigs, rats, hamsters) as terriers are bred to hunt rodents.
Another tiny dog, weighing 6 to 9 pounds, Japanese Terriers live, on average, about 10 years. They’re easy to groom and are generally healthy dogs.
ADOPTING A JAPANESE TERRIER
Very difficult if not impossible. There just aren’t that many of these terriers around. Still, worth a search on Petfinder.
JAPANESE DOG BREEDS
These are all of the breeds that still survive today. There were a few others who, due to lack of preservation, have been lost to history. Each culture has spent time and energy producing dogs which suit the environment, and the needs of the time. All that history, patience, and time, has given us the modern breeds of dogs which are so precious to us. And they’ve all lent their genes to the mutts (mixed breeds, for the sensitive), we all love.