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Too much human contact stressing out Akita dogs on display

Akita dogs Asuka, left, and Ako, sit with their supervisors in front of JR Odate Station, on Dec. 23, 2017. (Mainichi/Kosuke Yamamoto)

AKITA -- A lovable Akita dog at a tourist facility here has been forced to take a rest from her duties since early September due to stress-induced illness from being on display.

Tourists from a cruise ship take photos of Akita dogs in the city of Akita, on April 18, 2018. (Mainichi/Saori Moriguchi)

Akita dogs, registered in 1931 as a national treasure in Japan, have gained rapid popularity around the world in recent years. Numerous people in and out of Akita Prefecture in northern Japan visit the facility on holidays and weekends to see and pet the large dogs -- adored for their fluffy coat, curly tail and triangular ears. However, the dogs currently face problems as a result of being the main tourist attraction.

The dogs that are usually red, white, or brindle can measure a minimum of 60 to 70 centimeters in height and weigh about 25 to 35 kilograms when mature. News spread around the world after Akita dogs were given to Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2012 and Russian Olympic figure skating gold medalist Alina Zagitova in 2018 -- causing a worldwide boom.

Out of the 6,671 Akita dogs registered worldwide in 2017, 3,967 are said to be living abroad. Facilities within Akita Prefecture displaying the particular breed, accessible to the public, increased from five to 12 in just a year. At least 70,000 people, including many foreign tourists, visited two new facilities built in the heart of the city of Akita, the prefectural capital.

Meanwhile, a female Akita dog named Asuka, displayed at Akita Inu Fureaidokoro (Akita dog interacting facility) run by the Odate Municipal Government, took a rest from her duties on Sept. 1. The city, the birthplace of the famous loyal dog Hachiko featured in a Hollywood film, is considered the origin of the breed.

Asuka is 2 years old and has a brindle coat. Although very popular with tourists, she began to have diarrhea from mid-August. While veterinarians could not identify the cause, Mayor Junji Fukuhara told reporters that Asuka "might be stressed out from being petted by so many people." Asuka recovered in about a month after resting in a place away from human contact.

According to the Akita Inu Hozonkai (Akita dog conservation association), the breed is very loyal to their owners but they have a tendency to be cautious toward strangers by nature. Officials at the facility believe that quite a few Akita dogs on display are under stress because the majority of tourists like to approach and pet them.

The Odate Municipal Government has implemented "work-style reform" and cut back the opening days of the Akita Inu Fureaidokoro in a bid to alleviate the dogs' stress. The tourist facility was originally open five days a week, but changed to two to three days a week from September. Officials there are asking tourists to refrain from petting dogs that are sleeping. Some visitors were quoted as saying, "It must be hard being so popular."

An organization was established late October, in which residents of Akita Prefecture involved with Akita dogs can exchange information. "If the stress causes the dogs to bite humans, it will damage the image of Akita dogs," commented Akita Prefecture Tourist Promotion Division head Mitsuaki Narita. "We need to find a way to protect Akita dogs and at the same time entertain as many people as possible."

(Japanese original by Saori Moriguchi, Akita Bureau)

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