Man is dog breed's best friend

At the end of World War II, there were no more than 16 Akita dogs left in Japan. What had been, before the war, the national breed, had been slaughtered wholesale for use as food and fur for the coats of Japanese military officers.

In America, the Akita was barely known. The first Akita in this country seems to have been owned by Helen Keller, who received a dog named Go-Go as a gift from the Japanese government in the 1930s.

The Akitas of that era were very loosely defined, more in terms of their functions -- hunting and guarding -- than their physique. Pictures show some prize Akitas of the prewar era looking more like stumpy, short-snouted German shepherds than modern Akitas.

Martha Sherrill's "Dog Man" is the story of Morie Sawataishi, a legendary 91-year-old breeder of Akitas who has devoted his life to the re-establishment of the breed in Japan. His accomplishment is all the more amazing because dogs have only been Morie's hobby; in his day job, he was an engineer for Mitsubishi, building and operating power plants in the northern mountain country.

Sherrill structures her book around Morie's primary dogs: Three Good Lucks, Victory Princess, One Hundred Tigers, Samurai Tiger, Shiro. Although Morie has generally had one litter per year, sometimes two, only a few dogs have achieved the congruence of physical and spiritual values he was seeking.

Morie calls it kisho: spirit, personality, disposition, a kind of strength and life force, a dog capable of dominating through personality alone. In other words, star quality.

Morie had no interest in breeding pets. He wanted dogs that were throwbacks to their ancient forebears. He never trained his dogs to sit or shake hands, and he let them jump on him, believing it to be good for their spines. Likewise, he has never had a dog put down, allowing death to occur as a natural process. His ideal dog was one who could conceivably save someone's life.

As he aged, he went all the way and began to take his dogs bear hunting. When his dogs die, he preserves their pelts as totems -- a primal, primitive connection to an object of love.

"I touch the pelts," he says, "and I remember everything."

His commitment is such that he has never sold a dog, not once. He gives puppies away as gifts, or barters one for services, but to take money for a dog strikes him as a violation of the proper, mutually selfless relationship between man and dog, where you feel "honored to even possess such an incredible animal, much less be loved by him."

Today, the Akita is once again a flourishing breed, this time throughout the world.