Have you ever picked up a book and within the first few pages you know it's going to change your life? This is how I felt about Dog Man. Martha Sherrill wrote a vivid human interest story about Morie Sawataishi, the man who helped to save the Japanese Akita breed from extinction. Right away I knew this book would be more than a history lesson on Akitas. It's also not a book revering a man. Morie had many undesirable traits. It's a dive into the philosophy of the human-dog relationship, stripped down and bare.
This particular excerpt hit me in my core: "Morie and his dogs were heroes every morning, and heroes again every night. With each walk into the wild, they were bold and resourceful. They were alive and alert, their senses acute, poised for the natural excitements that the rest of us must crave when we turn to flickering screens for adventures and when we ache to connect with nature and animals."
Oh Morie, how I wish I knew you! I feel like maybe we shared the same heart (don't we all on some level?). I know I can't be the only one who constantly craves life. The essence of life. Not the homogenized, nicely packaged version that we try to create within socially acceptable constraints. No. I'm talking real, skin prickling, heart fluttering, breath-catching life! Morie found this very alive version of life through his connections with his dogs in their most natural state.
Morie secretly kept his Akitas during WWII when his fellow countrymen didn't even have enough food to feed their families. Morie and his wife sacrificed their own meal portions to fatten their pups and keep them healthy. As others were patriotically selling their Akitas to the Japanese military so soldiers could line their coats with the soft pelts to stay warm, Morie was breeding them in secrecy in the mountains. At the time, there was no breed standard, but Morie knew what the dogs needed to be: dogs with traits to see them through the harsh winters of the snow region, and embody the warrior spirit. They needed to be strong enough to run, hunt, swim, and protect. They needed to be soft enough to raise puppies and stand at a dog show. They needed, above all, to be loyal. When I read about Morie's desire to keep these traits alive, I felt the deep respect he had for the true nature of the breed. This is a far cry from the AKC standards we are used to at dog shows today. Sadly, we sacrifice spirit and loyalty for a nice black saddle or perfectly placed ears.
The book lays out story after story about each amazing dog and Morie's relationships with them. The author does an amazing job of paralleling history and the changing times to Morie's dogs and how they change along with the years. As the war ends and people want Akitas as house pets, Morie pushes harder into the mountains with his original line of warrior dogs. Morie, like his dogs, wasn't easily repackaged into the societal norms that Japan strove so hard to have post-war. The more domesticated life became, the more it made him uncomfortable.
As a dog trainer, the thing I most related to was how Morie refused to place the standards of domestication on his dogs. The author writes, "He never trained them not to jump. He never trained them to 'sit' and 'stay' or 'shake' either. Those commands seem ridiculous and humiliating to him. Mountain dogs don't need to shake anybody's hand." Oh Morie... again... I get it. Dogs, even the smallest and cutest dogs, have something wild and independent, yet fiercely loyal inside them. This is WHY we love them. Our egos and desires for control push hard for "training" and forcing our dogs to fit more conveniently into our world. They serve our version of our identity. We take them and say "this is who you're going to be" rather than "how can I help you be the most awesome version of yourself." In this way, people like Morie are a dying breed - just like his line of Akitas.
The end of the book doesn't talk about Morie's death. In fact, I think he had passed prior to the original publication of this book, although I'm not entirely sure as his life/death was of far less focus than the death of the types of Akitas Morie tried to revive. By the end, the dog shows were full of smiling, smaller, softer Akitas. Akitas with perfectly curly tails and heads like teddy bears. When Morie attended his last dog show, he said he wasn't impressed by any of them. They were far more beautiful than the Akitas of the past, but they lacked the warrior spirit of the truest dogs he loved so dearly. I personally think that warrior spirit was still there, in the smallest flickers, under the layers of selectively bred floof, and months of obedience training.
I closed this book feeling both sad and hopeful. Sad for the dogs of today with their mountains of human-imposed expectations. Hopeful that we can, when we allow our wildness to show through, and their wildness to show through, still have that heart-pounding connection that is so unique to man and beast. This is my new goal in working with dogs. Not sit, not stay... but "be".