A very rare breed even in its native country of Japan, the Hokkaido are exuberant, playful, and extremely loyal to their owners. They're both a great family dog and a fun outdoor companion who's full of energy. A medium-sized working dog, this highly intelligent breed is easily trainable and thrives in a house with a big backyard for running around. Originally bred for hunting, Hokkaido love to spend time outdoors and adapt well to cold climates because of their double coat. Whether they're acting like their owner's shadow around the house or enjoying their daily walks, these little-known, joyful dogs are always eager to please the humans in their life and thrive on love, attention, and plenty of exercise.
Adult male Hokkaido dogs can weigh 44–66 pounds and reach a height of 18–20 inches. As one of the six native Japanese spitz breeds (the others being the Akita, Shiba Inu, Kai Ken, Shikoku, and Kishu Ken), Hokkaido are considered right in the middle of the pack when it comes to size, with Akitas being the largest and Shiba Inus being the smallest. You can identify this medium-sized dog by his muscular build, small, pointy ears, large paws that provide good stability during exercise, and his signature thick, fluffy plumed tail.
Hokkaido can come in many different colors including white, red, black, brindle, sesame, and wolf grey. They have a double coat with an outer coat made of protective, coarse guard hairs and a fine, dense undercoat that sheds seasonally. When they're actively shedding, they need to be brushed daily.
Known for being loyal to their families, Hokkaido desire the love and affection of their humans above all else. "Hokkaido wear their hearts on their sleeves, are honest and direct in their feelings, and don't hide their emotions," Lindsay Tompkins, president of Hokkaido Association of North America, says. In fact, it's very common for Hokkaido to stick to their owners like glue and follow them around the house constantly.
Extremely intelligent and good with tasks, Hokkaido respond well to training and can pick up commands from their owners with ease. With a long history of being bred to work alongside their handlers as large-game hunters, careful consideration and preparation should be taken when introducing this dog to other pets in the household, and make sure he has continual socialization experiences starting in puppyhood.
The only thing Hokkaido love as much as their family is playtime. A very active breed, they require regular walks and activity to burn off all their energy. "Oddly enough, they have a lot of behavior traits similar to Labrador retrievers in terms of being silly, bouncy, devoted, active family dogs that want to be very involved in family activity," Tompkins says.
An active family with plenty of outdoor space and time to spend with its dog is the ideal owner of this docile but active breed. They even make great companions on camping or hiking trips. Because of their gentle nature around humans, they do well around small children, especially if they're raised with them and receive proper socialization throughout their life. Hokkaido love cold weather and playing in the snow, so families in colder climates will provide a more hospitable environment for these dogs than warmer climates.
Because Hokkaido thrive in a house with a larger yard, they don't make the best apartment dogs. The American Kennel Club (AKC) recommends a tall fence in your backyard because they are good jumpers. They're also known to howl and make silly noises when happy or excited, which some close neighbors might not appreciate.
Because of their high intelligence and energy levels, Hokkaido need to be stimulated both physically and mentally or else they can become bored and destructive at home. This dog was bred to have a wonderful amount of energy that you can channel into many fun activities like hiking or running or more competitive sports like agility or flyball. If not properly exercised both mentally and physically every day, these dogs will find ways to entertain themselves that may not be as fun for you.
Additionally, Hokkaido want to be near their owners, so leaving them at home all day is not advised.
Generally, Hokkaido are fairly simple to groom. You never have to trim or shave their fur because it can actually damage their coat and will not keep them cooler in warmer weather. The natural oils in their skin and coat helps keep them clean, so you'll only need to bathe them every few months.
Twice a year, Hokkaido "blow" their coat, meaning their thick, dense undercoat sheds heavily for a few weeks. During this time, you'll want to give them a bath and make sure to brush them frequently to remove the excess fur. In between the twice-yearly extreme shedding periods, the Hokkaido sheds at a normal, regular rate you'd expect from most dogs.
This obedient and smart breed catches on quickly to training, and Tompkins says positive reinforcement training is very important with the Hokkaido. They also excel when they are given a "job" to do, so owners should be patient and willing to think outside the box for fun activities.
In terms of exercise, you'll want to establish a dedicated morning and evening exercise session in the form of a walk, jog, or playtime in an off-leash space. If you give them proper exercise on a consistent basis, they'll be calm and relaxed when indoors. "They can go for miles and miles and never tire but are good about settling inside when their humans are tired," Tompkins says.
Hokkaido are a generally healthy breed that can live 12–15 years on average. The most common genetic disorder you should look out for in Hokkaido is collie eye anomaly, or CEA. The inherited disease can cause vision issues, and according to the Merck Veterinary Manual, "vision is not noticeably affected unless detachment of the retina is present." A veterinarian can diagnose it from a simple eye exam, and your breeder can do a genetic test on your puppy to see if they carry the gene. Other genetic disorders to test for are hip dysplasia and idiopathic seizures.
Hokkaido crave lots of attention from their humans. If they aren't getting enough mental stimulation, they could suffer from pica, which is the improper snacking on non-food objects like rocks, or psychogenic polydipsia, which is the excessive drinking of water. As with all breeds, monitor their toys and anything else they might be chewing on for small pieces that could be hazardous if ingested.
Believed to be the oldest of the native six Japanese spitz breeds, the Hokkaido originated from the main Japanese island of Honshu and accompanied the Ainu people when they migrated to the island of Hokkaido in the 1140s, therefore giving them the name we know them by today, the AKC says. Because most Hokkaido have blue-black tongues, many people believe they could be descended from the chow chow and the Shar-Pei.
Over time, they adapted to the freezing cold climates and rough landscape, resulting in their signature double coat, large paws, and muscular build. Hokkaido dogs were crucial in the Ainu people's survival as the dogs helped them hunt bears, deer, and other large game.
In addition to hunting, Hokkaido have been used in search and rescue missions, most notably in 1902 when they aided in the search of survivors after an Army expedition got caught in a heavy snowstorm as they crossed the Hakkōda Mountains. In 1937, they were declared a Living Natural Monument by Japan's government and given their official name Hokkaido-Inu in honor of their native island.
Outside of Japan, Hokkaido are extremely rare. "Hokkaido are an endangered breed close to extinction in their own country," Tompkins says. "They are a very unique ancient breed that is in desperate need of preservation."
They are a recognized breed by the United Kennel Club and the Fédération Cynologique Internationale.
- Every spring, the town of Kutchan on the island of Hokkaido hosts a dog show featuring over 100 Hokkaido dogs from all over Japan.
- Hokkaido have gained popularity in Japan after Softbank, a Japanese telecom company, started featuring a white Hokkaido as the role of Otosan ("Father" in Japanese) in its commercials.
- Originally bred to hunt salmon and deer, Hokkaido are still used in Japan to hunt wild boars and bears to keep population under control.