Hunting with Nihon Ken

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Baron and Shigeru after successfully taking a 60kg (132.3lbs) male boar. This is probably the most dangerous size of boar due to their razor sharp tusks, the boar’s speed and mobility.

Shigeru Kato is an important member of the Nihon Ken community. He helps with the exportation of Japanese dogs to breeders not located in Japan. He has a website dedicated to promoting and preserving the six native Japanese dog breeds (JapanDogExport.com). He also has a an informational blog that includes subjects such as registration numbers in the Nihon Ken, available dogs for export, and hunting news/information (The Nihon Ken Blog).
Since I knew Shigeru was an avid hunter I asked him a couple of questions in regard to hunting with Nihon Ken and he generously allowed me to share a blog post he wrote about hunting with Nihon Ken.

1. What made you decide to start hunting with Nihonken? Were you a hunter before you started using dogs? What’s the difference between using dogs for hunting versus hunting solo?

Other than my first season as a hunter (when my first dog was still a pup), I’ve always hunted with dogs. I started hunting to begin with because I wanted to get away from eating factory farmed meat. With the increasing number of boar and deer in Japan, an aging population of hunters, and widespread crop damage, hunting was the no brainer alternative.

I’ve always loved sneaking around watching wild animals, I used to do a lot of stalking just for fun, so the first hunting season was pretty much just an extension of that, only I was carrying a shotgun now. Here in Japan if you’re going to hunt wild boar and be successful at it, you need to use dogs or you’ll never see them. They’re generally nocturnal over here, and we’re only allowed to hunt from sun up to sun down.

I’ve always loved dogs, so getting to choose a breed was a lot of fun. In the end it came down to a simple idea that the hunting breeds that had evolved for thousands of years here in Japan were probably best suited to the game and terrain.

I can’t really speak to the difference between hunting with or without dogs. What I will say is that hunting with your own dogs is an amazing adventure, and once things start to click and you’re hunting as a real team it’s quite a magical experience.

2. How do you train Nihonken for hunting?

Being a primitive hunting breed, hunting is mostly instinctual. A pup has it bred into it, or it doesn’t. More than actual training to hunt, I work on the important things to be able to hunt safely with them. You obviously want a dog that has some semblance of a recall, is socialized and not going to be aggressive toward strangers (and hopefully not toward strange dogs either, but that’s a bit more difficult with the Nihon Ken), and will hunt fairly close to you. I’m basically going through simple obedience training with pups from when they’re 2 months old, socializing them a lot, getting them used to the smells of the game we’ll be hunting, playing and walking off leash a lot, and as they get older, learning how to move around obstacles in the mountains.

As they get from 8 months to a year old, I’ll introduce them to a live boar. Since we trap nuisance animals in the neighborhood (around 70 this past fiscal year), that’s often their first experience is to see a boar in a box trap. I want the dog to be aware of the boar, wary at first, and then hopefully to vocalize a bit (but that’s not a deal breaker for the first time). If a dog gets it right away and is moving around the boar with a lot of barking, the next experience will be to take them to a facility that has boar in a large pen. Here I want to imprint on the dog that boar is definitely what we’re after, and that they are dangerous, so be careful.

Once I’ve gotten to this point, it’s just about getting out in the mountains with them a lot. Experience is the best teacher, and it’s all about repetition.

3. What in your opinion makes a good hunting dog? What do you look for when selecting a hunting dog?

There’s a term in the Nihon Ken standard, ‘Ryo-sei’. I translate it to mean a dog with a good balanced temperament. I think a dog with ryo-sei makes a great hunting companion and a great pet as well. A good hunting dog is going to help you bring back meat for the table, is going to stay out of the way of injury, and help you hunt safely (that means you and other people/dogs you meet). This dog will switch it on in the mountains, but is just as comfortable switching off back at home and curling up by the fire.

When selecting a dog for hunting, I’m looking for a curious, even tempered dog that bounces back from surprising noises quickly (but is not oblivious to them). Obviously I need a curious dog that has some drive to hunt. An even tempered dog will be a joy to own, and if the dog doesn’t work out as a hunter, finding a new home will be easy. Bouncing back from negative experiences quickly is important when hunting boar, since they are dangerous game, charge a lot, and put a lot of pressure on the dogs.

4. What was/is your most memorable experience you had hunting with your dogs?

I’m not sure if they are the most memorable because they were special, or because my memory is fading, but there were two hunts from this last season that come to mind. The first was the most perfect and clean boar hunt I’ve been on bar none. I had my two Kishu with me, Baron and his daughter Karen, and within 5 minutes we were dragging out a 125kg boar. The dogs had picked up the scent immediately after we left the car, I took the high ground, and they had this mountain of a boar locked down right where he had been sleeping in thick bamboo cover. The dogs were baying and tustling together as a perfect team, I slipped in and one head shot later the boar was down.

The other hunt was a month or so later. Baron got very seriously injured this season when we were jumped by a large group of monkeys, so I had to start hunting the younger dogs more. Without much expectation I took Karen and Rin (young Shikoku female) out together as a pack, and that first day was shocking. They got on a boar right away, it got away, but 20 minutes later they were on another, and the day kept going like that. They were growing by leaps and bounds as a little hunting pack right before my eyes, and I was so proud of them. To see the dog’s genetics come through in dogs you produce is amazing.

5. Do you have any words of wisdom in regards to owners wanting to hunt with their Nihonken or why keeping the hunting “spirit”/prey drive is important for the Nihonken?

Well to borrow the words of an old NIPPO judge, a Nihon Ken that doesn’t hunt is not a true Nihon Ken. They’re a working breed, and since our goal here in Japan is preservation, that means preservation of not just the ‘look’ of the breed, but its temperament and working ability as well. To truly appreciate and understand the totality of the Nihon Ken, one must understand and respect its heritage. The traits that draw us to these breeds are there because of generations upon generations of selection, some of it human, but much of it natural, which created this magnificent, yet primitive hunter. If we are to preserve these breeds, selecting only for show will destroy them, leaving only a shell, a beautiful dog that has lost its soul.

As far as advice for owners that are thinking about hunting with their dogs, I would say it is extremely rewarding. You will experience an amazing bond as you learn to hunt together as a team. There an immense amount of joy that I feel just watching my dogs running through the mountains. They’re enjoying themselves to the fullest, free to dog. But here is where my advice comes in. Hunting is a life and death experience, for the animals you are hunting, and for you and your dog. It is a serious thing, not to be taken lightly. Make sure you’re ready to be out there physically and mentally to back up your dog, and make sure your dog is also physically prepared to be out there, and has the experience necessary to be as safe as possible.

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Two Kishu working a boar. The Nihon Ken tend to hunt well in male/female pairs

Hunting and the Nihon Ken
By Shigeru Kato

The Japanese dog is first and foremost, a hunting dog. It is often said that a Nihon Ken that does not hunt, is not a true Nihon Ken. Hunting is the sole reason these breeds were born, and it is the reason they still exist today. The entire standard for these breeds was written to preserve the traits seen in a sound working dog. Temperament should be strong and bold, but balanced with calm confidence, as the words ‘kan-i’ and ‘ryosei’ in the standard suggest. Structure should be athletic, showing strength, power, and agility, while movement should be light. And finally, ‘soboku’ describes the aura and look of the Japanese dog. It can be translated to mean an unadorned beauty, not showy or flashy, but having a natural and simplistic beauty. The hunting Nihon Ken is a beautiful animal.

Unfortunately the Nihon Ken of today is primarily bred for show, leading to a decrease in the number of capable working dogs. With the decrease in hunters in Japan, more and more dogs are bred with non-functional structure and temperaments. In Japan, the modern hunter more often than not owns one of the many purpose bred western breeds for hunting, and big game hunters often use ‘ji-inu’ which translates to ‘local dog’. These breeds are often loosely based on the original Nihon Ken, which makes sense since the 6 Nihon Ken breeds were originally formed from dogs bought (or stolen!) from mountain hunters. These ji-inu are a mix and match of many breeds, and some also include blood from western breeds like hounds.
The hunting style in Japan has also changed over the years. Gone is the ‘matagi’ of old, the subsistence hunters who hunted large game, usually alone, and often with only 1 or 2 dogs. Today’s hunter usually hunts in large group hunts (not unlike European driven hunts), with packs of dogs that flush out prey. The matagi hunted in a style known as ‘nagashi-ryo’ where the hunter and dog work together as a team, the dog keeping in close proximity to, and regularly checking in with, the hunter as they walked through the mountain, often for many miles.

The Nihon Ken is a hot nosed breed, meaning it only reacts to hot (fresh) tracks. The dog’s job is to find the desired game, and to flush and then hold it at bay till the hunter arrives. Western breeds are often bred to a single hunting skill set. In the case of boar dogs for example, they can usually be split into catch dogs, and bay dogs (dogs that either attack and bite the boar to stop it, or dogs that run around the boar barking and dodging its charges). The Nihon Ken however is a different animal. These breeds are intelligent, with a strong prey drive, coupled with a strong natural survival instinct. They also have a great capacity to learn from experience. Dogs often develop their own balanced hunting style, combing baying with nipping and catching when necessary to stop the boar from running. They will also adjust their attack based on their evaluation of the strength of their quarry. One can often see a seasoned hunting Nihon Ken sizing up its opponent even before it can see it, based entirely on the animal’s scent.
A professional hunter like the matagi had no interest in aggressive or overly forward dogs that would continually become injured when tackling dangerous game. They prized quality dogs that could be hunted solo or in pairs. More dogs means more mouths to feed, and for a matagi living in a small mountain community, feeding a large group of dogs would have required too much effort. The term ‘ichijyu ikku’ means ‘one gun, one dog’ essentially describing the matagi way of hunting. One man, and one dog, successfully bringing home meat for the table. A dog that can be hunted solo with a high success rate is a prized possession even today.
Each of the Nihon Ken specialized in hunting the type of prey inhabiting their region of origin. The Kai hunted Kamoshika (Chamois) high in the mountains of Yamanashi prefecture, which is why the breed is still the most agile of the Nihon Ken, and a terrific climber. Owners of the breed can attest to the breed’s seeming love of heights and climbing, which make it a very difficult dog to keep confined. The Kishu were big game hunters, specializing in stopping boar in the mountains of Wakayama prefecture, and to this day many in the breed retain the temperament and instinct necessary to hunt this dangerous game. The breed is confident and not overly excitable, but once they are focused on their prey, they are fearless with seemingly endless stamina. The Shikoku hunted big game as well, in the high mountains known as the ‘Tibet of Japan’ on Shikoku island. Their athleticism, high energy, and tenacity are still evident in the breed today. The Shiba was used for hunting small game and birds, which means a fast, energetic dog was preferred. The Hokkaido specialized in hunting the dangerous Brown Bear, meaning a highly vocal and tenacious hunter, with the build and strength to move quickly through deep snow, was required. They also needed enough speed to hunt the large Ezo deer native to Hokkaido. The Akita, while greatly changed today from its ancestor the Matagi Ken, was once a medium sized hunting breed, working large game in the snowy mountainous north of Honshu.

While to my mind all the breeds have their specialties when it comes to hunting, truth be told all 6 of the Japanese breeds were all round hunters. A subsistence hunter is not too particular about what he puts on the table, and the Nihon Ken of today will hunt just about anything it is allowed to. I have seen Shiba working boar, Kai hunting birds, Kishu hunting bear, Akita hunting boar, Hokkaido hunting boar, and Shikoku hunting badgers. These are intelligent, athletic, and versatile hunters.
To truly appreciate and understand the totality of the Nihon Ken, one must understand and respect its heritage. The traits that draw us to these breeds are there because of generations upon generations of selection, some of it human, but much of it natural, which created this magnificent, yet primitive hunter. If we are to preserve these breeds, selecting only for show will destroy them, leaving only a shell, a beautiful dog that has lost its soul.

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“We hunt from the high ground as it gives the hunter and dog the advantage of moving down hill. If the boar runs, the dog will often be able to stop the boar again once they reach the bottom of the gully.”
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The Shikoku is a tenacious hunter with a higher pitched bark and is less gritty than the Kishu

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