I often don’t give Akiko enough credit for her ability to make her own decisions, which I find is something I developed from owning and working with non-Nihon Ken breeds in the past. My childhood dogs were a Labrador Retriever and a Border Terrier, and I own and worked with French Bulldogs too. There’s a stark contrast between Akiko and these other dogs that I don’t always acknowledge, and something I’ve certainly failed to appreciate.
‘Independent’ is a word regularly used to describe Nihon Ken, and after a few years owning my Kai, I don’t like it. I don’t think they are truly an independent breed, especially given their history as hunting dogs where they work closely with their hunters. However, I think they are, and regularly refer to them as, independent thinkers. They are rustic breeds which have retained their natural instinct and ability to solve problems and make decisions, which I think is where the common feeling of ‘stubbornness’ appears (another word I dislike to describe them).
When I’ve owned and trained other breeds, I’ve found that once you tell or show them something, they tend to take it at face value. (Note, this is entirely based on my experience with my own dogs and those I’ve worked with, so it does not speak for all dogs, just my experience in contrast to my Kai.) My French Bulldog in particular, seems to be incapable of making smart decisions and relies on me to make those decisions for her. My Labrador was very much the same. They also seem to take their experiences at face value. My Frenchie loves ALL people, she has never met a stranger, but she absolutely despises all dogs. She doesn’t seem to make individual opinions of each person she meets, and just loves them all equally. In contrast to Akiko, who carefully forms opinions on each person she meets, and remembers them. She doesn’t dislike people by any means, but she wants to form an opinion of them before she decides how she wants to act with them, be it engaging or ignoring.
I think that this decision making and independent thought is what makes recall difficult with these breeds. They are a hunting breed, so people may be inclined to assume they should have good recall! The truth is that Nihon Ken hunt mostly through instinct, rather than being trained specifically for it like some western breeds are. Their job is to seek out and flush the game, so it’s certainly natural for a Kai Ken to want to wander off alone after prey when off leash, that’s what they were bred to do. The thing is, I don’t think recall is impossible with these dogs, but I don’t think people realise quite why it can be difficult, and why it’s justified to accept that your dog may not be good off-lead and it shouldn’t be forced.
When I let Akiko off leash and call her back, before she returns I can see her making those decisions on whether or not it’s worth it to come back, you can almost see the cogs turning. She knows if she returns, she will get a reward. But she also knows that if she doesn’t return, she gets to continue exploring, continue hunting for whatever it is she’s on the trail of (usually squirrels, which she is far too slow to catch).
It’s difficult to completely reinforce that decision to recall when Akiko is choosing every time, rather than basing her decision on what she’s been taught at face value like my other dogs have. She analyses the situation at every recall, and makes an independent decision on whether or not she wants to follow the command. The majority of the time, she will wait a moment, looking at me, and then come back. It’s rarely instant, and sometimes she will choose to take a few steps, sniff, and then return to me, but usually she will choose me over what interests her, unless it is prey, which she then tries to flush towards me anyway.
The most important thing is not to set them up for failure, which can be very easy with a dog who thinks for herself. Like with all dogs, you need to make yourself more appealing, but it isn’t as simple as reinforcing it, because she will make a decision each time, and not base it entirely on her past knowledge that recall means reward.
I think that this is something our dogs definitely develop as they age. A year ago, if I had let Akiko off-leash, she would absolutely choose to run up to a strange dog to instigate play over coming back, even if that decision could get her hurt if the dog is not friendly. This is why I stopped walking her off-leash all together for a while, it wasn’t something worth the risk. As she’s aged, she doesn’t make that impulse decision to run when she sees another dog. Instead, she stops, evaluates, and then chooses to return to me. This isn’t something I’ve made a conscious effort to teach, but something I do reinforce when it happens, and that seems to have worked for her.
Allowing them to make their own decisions without setting them up for failure or enforcing bad habits goes a long way with these dogs, and it’s something I hadn’t considered until I saw Akiko grow and develop into the dog she is now.