He might be Perth’s most difficult rescue dog, but he’s still someone’s ‘baby’

Akitas were bred in Japan to hunt and track bears and wild boars and to be guardians of people and property.

You can see why not many people own them 1000 years later in contemporary Perth, Western Australia.

Kuma the Akita and his adopted “sister”.

The long-haired Akitas, cousins to huskies and malamutes, can be 80 kilograms, aggressive and possessive of the family member they are most bonded with.

Kuma the Perth Akita was attacked three years ago by two other dogs, who failed to get through his fur to hurt him, but it made him lose his trust and become aggressive to both humans and other dogs.

His original family was unable to handle him as they had other small dogs and were aiming to surrender him.

Perth woman Jo Alexander is a dog lover and had owned two Akitas before. She contacted the family to give them advice and let them know how to safely introduce Kuma to prospective families and let him “choose” an owner.

But Kuma “chose” Alexander.

“I just love big dogs; the fun, the adventure, the play,” she said.

“He can put me on the ground and one lick covers my face.”

Still, Kuma has been a challenge.

Alexander took him several times to a dog psychologist to get his aggression under control – he has never bitten anyone, but “asserts his dominance strongly”. She had to find him a specialist vet after being rejected by the first one she tried.

Kuma has settled into his new home, though it did take some time.

Kuma eats about half a kilo of dog biscuits a day (kangaroo and fish-based only, being allergic to other meats) working out to about $200 a month.

He needs a $50 groom once a fortnight. He is only walked with a muzzle on or in an on-leash area, or at antisocial hours (Alexander is a shift worker so this works out well; plus she is not worried about getting mugged). She has bought a property in a rural suburb outside Perth at which Kuma and her daughter’s huskies can run off-lead.

Alexander says Kuma is now beautiful and gentle.

“It took about two years for him to really settle and for us to trust each other, and know that we would protect each other, but he is my baby,” she said.

After my research for this series showed WA was undergoing a spike in dogs being surrendered and euthanised, partly because of the rental crisis, and a boom in backyard breeding of high-priced puppies, I began to wonder.

What if people took those thousands they were paying, adopted a larger and/or older rescue dog and used the money saved to pay for assistance with walking, washing, training or even therapy, if needed?

When I exposed these fledgling ideas to the cold light of day, Alexander’s story came to light.

But so did a bucketload of conflicting opinions.

Correspondence on a dizzying number of platforms revealed bitter division between different schools of thought on sourcing, training, breeding and even the feeding of dogs, with several people declining to talk publicly for fear of being trolled or even threatened.

Fiona Cowie training other dog trainers for the Institute of Modern Dog Training, Perth. Credit:IMDT

One person told me perfectly eligible and suitable prospective owners willing to take a chance on a shelter dog can’t convince a shelter to take a chance on them.

A shelter representative told me they just want to match the right dog to the right person, for life, and they are happy to advise and work with prospective owners from all walks of life.

One industry insider observed there were very few purebred dogs in shelters, and said backyard breeding needed to be stopped; they believed dog surrendering would actually lessen if people chose ethical breeders producing dogs with reliable backgrounds, health checks, and more predictable breed characteristics.

A breeder told me that the government’s recently passed anti-puppy farming legislation lacked enforceability and would not stop backyard breeding; that people should ensure a breeder was a member of their relevant breed’s national association, would give a full health guarantee for life with regard to genetic conditions, and would have their own vetting process for prospective owners.

Fiona Cowie, the Perth dog trainer I spoke to, who is a representative of the Institute of Modern Dog Trainers Australia, said it was hard for the general public to know who was doing the right thing and who was doing it for profit.

A good breeder, as well as the health testing, would do proactive socialisation for puppies, exposing them to other animals, people, noises and textures, she said.

Some did food training, crate training, toilet training and acclimatised puppies to being left alone for a while.

“Breeders doing that sort of preparation are doing a lot of work. So if people are going to spend that much on a puppy they need to ask what the breeder is doing in that regard, and if the breeder is looking at you blankly, maybe move on,” she said.

She said puppies were not easy and there was definitely value in “seniors for seniors”; people needed to consider their own circumstances first.

Fiona Cowie with Baci, another rescue dog success story.

“What kind of time, training and commitment you have … what the breed was bred for and whether you can meet those needs,” she said.

“But don’t forget the old seniors, they are the ones that really deserve that ‘own bed’. Be honest with the shelter and ask lots of questions and tell them honestly what you can provide for the dog … it might actually be a goldfish that you need.”

She said modern dog training was about developing a relationship or partnership, based on rewards and positive experiences, with plenty of give and take.

It certainly seems it would pay to be wary of backyard breeders “playing God” and producing “just one litter” that turns out so lucrative they make many more, without much idea of the science or ethics behind it all, and ticking only some of the ideal boxes. It seems seeking the most professional possible breeder, even if more expensive, is a more ethical choice.

I can’t help wondering, though, if there is a problem causing suffering and death for helpless, sentient beings, even if the problem is not directly of our making, but is the result of a culture we belong to and shape, what is our responsibility to help fix it or reduce the harms?

Is it ethical to buy any new dog when we know we could instead save the life of a sentient being, created and discarded with no voice or choice?

Is another positive course of action to contact your MP and ask them to campaign for better control of dog breeding, to keep spending on prevention as well as grants to help shelters operate?

It is worth asking yourself these questions, even though your answers might be different to mine. I am not even sure what my answers are.

But I do think people believing a fur-baby is less problematic than a real one might be mistaken.

At least I know exactly where my toddler came from.

If you’re going to get a dog, do research. When you’re done, do more. Ask hard questions. Consider all options. Take your time. And (try) to resist your impulses.

Resources for dog seekers and owners

WA Consumer Protection on avoiding online puppy scams 

DogsWest’s key questions to ask when choosing a puppy

RSPCA smart puppy and dog buyers guide

The IMDT Trainers Directory: Find a Perth dog trainer 

Fiona Cowie’s recommended training books: Easy Peasy Puppy Squeezy and Easy Peasy Doggy Squeezy by Steve Mann

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