Enrico Drudi of Tisama Tosa Ken has been breeding Tosa Inu for more than three decades. He is an FCI judge who judges all the breeds in Group 2 (which includes the Molossers) as well as Group 5 (Spitz and Primitive Types), Group 6 (Scenthounds), Group 7 (Pointing Dogs) and Group 8 (Retrievers). Living in San Marino, a 24-square-mile independent republic completely surrounded by Italy, Drudi is also the president of the Kennel Club of San Marino.
Here, he talks about how he first encountered this impressive Japanese mastiff, why importing a dog from Japan is a fool’s errand, and the challenges of breeding a serious dog in a world with far too many not-so-serious breeders.
How did you get started in the breed?
Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve had dogs in my home. Growing up, I had a German Shepherd Dog, a Bracco Italiano, a Pointer, a Labrador and a Border Collie. In the summer of 1987, my Border Collie passed away. My mother was a teacher, and one of her student’s parents owned a hotel. When she returned to school in September, he told her that his parents had had a litter of puppies at the hotel. So, we went to see them together.
The puppies were huge, extremely heavy, with impressive heads and gigantic paws. I could already see how big they were going to get. We picked out a puppy, all black, and I who could see that his parents were probably of a good size. And about a year later, I learned what they were.
In July of the year I got my puppy, a Dutch tourist had come to the hotel with a male Tosa Inu. The hotel owner had a black Belgian Shepherd, what in the United States is called a Belgian Shepherd Dog. She was in heat, and in September the puppies were born – half Belgian Shepherd Dog (Groenendael), half Tosa.
The first Tosas had arrived in Europe just the year before, in 1986. So it’s likely that this Dutch tourist had purchased his Tosa that year.
And that’s where my story with the breed begins.
Mature 3-year-old female with a nice head, strong neck and body and excellent bone.
Where did your breeding stock come from?
After that dog, I continued with purebred Tosas. I purchased those subsequent dogs in the Czech Republic, from various breeders, after choosing them based on different things, including the character, quality, structure and temperament of the animals.
How long have you been breeding?
As I said, I started with that first Tosa mix in 1987 – so that’s 32 years that I’ve owned this breed. I’m not a person who has litters in order to sell puppies. My first objective is to select the best dogs to improve the breed, and so at times I might wait two, three or even four years between litters. When I find a male that I think is interesting – handsome, well constructed, imposing, with correct proportions and good structure, and if I have a female who is strong where he is lacking – and vice versa – then I plan a litter. In 30 years of breeding, I’ve only had nine litters.
If at all possible, in every litter I choose one or two puppies – one or two males, one or two bitches, or one of each – to continue my line, and to have good examples of the breed to show and use for my breeding program in the future.
But when one has to find outside dogs, whether male or female, to bring in new bloodlines every third or fourth generation to avoid inbreeding, then I prefer to reserve a puppy from a serious kennel in Europe. I never acquire a puppy at eight or ten weeks. I always prefer to wait and see if the dog has the correct traits that I require. If the puppy doesn’t turn out and lacks the qualities that I need for breeding, then I pass on that puppy and will wait another year, or even two, for the right one.
What attracted you to the breed?
When I got that half-Tosa puppy, I didn’t know the particulars of this breed. So it was a kind of research into a large breed that could be a good guard dog, and that wasn’t very active, like smaller breeds or hunting dogs could be. These were the traits that I was looking for.
But by the following year, I understood the breed. When one has a Tosa at home, one doesn’t ever change breeds. You continue with that breed, because it’s a breed that makes you fall in love with it, and it’s not possible to get any other. You might get other dogs to have with the Tosas, but the Tosas stay forever. You never leave them. It’s almost possible to say that the Tosa is a forever breed – a breed for life.
A litter of promising five-week-old Tosa Inu puppies with typey heads and expression, and dark masks.
Tell us a bit about the Tosa world community. Do breeders share breeding stock internationally?
The international community is, I would say, strange. There are many breeders in the eastern part of Europe – for example, the Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania and Romania. And there are others in western Europe – Italy, France, the Netherlands and one person in Spain. Unfortunately, the interactions between these breeders aren’t always cordial or close. Many, sadly, have litters once, sometimes even twice a year, solely for the purpose of selling puppies. The difference between those who have litters in order to sell them and those who have puppies in order to advance the breed – or out of pure and simple passion rather than money – is fundamental. Those whom I deal with are breeders in the latter group.
The term breeder, the way it is defined by the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI), is a person who tries to better the breed in the pure and simple interest of the breed. Many instead improvise being breeders, without having an understanding of anatomy or genetics or canine behavior. And so you have pet people with one or two dogs who have a litter and declare themselves breeders. This isn’t what I or other serious breeders in Europe are doing. And that’s the fundamental difference I was talking about earlier. So the relationships for sharing breeding stock or chilled or frozen semen or even just opinions aren’t always easy, and at times very limited because of the small number of breeders.
In Europe right now there are many breeders who don’t X-ray their dogs to check for hip or elbow dysplasia before breeding them. This is to the detriment of the breed, and brings the risk of destroying it if one doesn’t ensure that subsequent generations are of good structure, in good health and have general well-being. Unfortunately, in the last two or three years, we’ve often seen dogs with severe hip dysplasia – corresponding to grades of D or even E – used for breeding. They have litters, and when the puppies are six or seven months old, or a year – a year and a half at the most – they are at risk of dying. There have been four cases in the last eight months of Tosa puppies from various breeders that died of pain simply because they were so severely dysplastic, with bones that came out of the hip sockets. Absurd, but, unfortunately, it exists. And these breeders continue to breed litters, probably just to make money.
This is unconscionable. If you’ve never had the firsthand experience of selling a puppy that then dies because it is unsound and unhealthy, you can’t understand the anguish. And this is the sole fault of the breeders who don’t do their work with knowledge, good conscience and a minimum of responsibility.
How much interaction is there between breeders in Europe and the country of origin? Can you import dogs from Japan?
In recent years, no one from Europe imported from Japan because it was believed that it wasn’t possible to export Tosas out of Japan. Even searching on websites or general information on the breed, you will find often it written that Tosas cannot be imported because Japan prohibits exportation. As the president of the Kennel Club of San Marino, I’ve met the presidents of all the kennel clubs in the FCI countries. I had the opportunity to speak with the Japan Kennel Club, and I got to the bottom of the matter. I also wrote to the minister at the Japanese customs department to ask for information about the possibility of importing Tosas from Japan.
After the second World War, one would have thought that the Japanese would have wanted to conserve this breed, like a national treasure, and prohibit their export. Today, in reality, that prohibition does not exist. I have the written conformation from the Japanese customs department. So, anyone who wants to import a dog from Japan can do so. There are, however, some things to be aware of.
In Japan today, Tosas are not brought to dog shows to be exhibited. Tosas are bred solely and exclusively for fighting. Only males, not females, are used for this purpose. It is a tradition, like a national sport.
All the people who are involved in dog fighting in Japan have no interest in pedigrees, and almost always, if they have a purebred Tosa, they don’t have a pedigree. So if you want to import a Tosa from Japan, you import it without a pedigree. From the point of view of using a dog for breeding in the FCI system, this is worthless, and so one must wait a minimum of three generations to obtain a dog that can be recognized as a purebred Tosa. Only then can you go ahead with a valid pedigree.
So importing a Tosa from Japan means putting yourself in a situation where you have to have three generations – basically, seven or eight years – without the certainty that the subjects you’ve obtained are of good quality. Because in Japan today, what’s important isn’t the structure or the beauty or the movement of a Tosa, but simply the possibility of winning dog fights. Therefore, they crossbreed them – keeping the breed pure isn’t important. You can find Tosas that are white or tricolor or brindle, Tosas that resemble pitbulls, with muzzles like Dogo Argentinos. You’ll find them crossed with variety of other breeds because the important thing is the fighting.
Tosas, however, are not fought to the death, as they would be in clandestine dog fights. The dogs stop themselves in the moment in which the owners say certain words, or yell in a certain tone. So even if they are fighting, they are always listening to what’s being said to them. They stop in order to attack again or be repositioned or to change their hold.
Eight-month-old Tosa male with excellent flat skull, correct ear set, strong muzzle, and typical wrinkles and pigment.
I asked the Japan Kennel Club how many Tosas have been exported with pedigrees in recent years. They responded in writing that there were nine exports of Tosas in the last 14 years. This means that anyone in Europe who declares to have Tosas with 100 percent Japanese bloodlines is lying. Because, based on what the Japanese Kennel Club has confirmed to me, it’s not possible. And this is just babbling that is, let’s say, unfounded.
We find Tosas in Europe and in the United States that are brought to dog shows to compete and show. In Japan, instead, we have Tosas that are intended for dog fighting. They are two completely different things, requiring different characteristics, temperaments and conformation in the dogs. It’s almost like having two completely different breeds, one for dog shows, and one for dog fights.
How do you deal with this inbred dog aggression in your breeding program? Is it important to maintain it for correct breed character, even if the dogs are not used in this way outside of Japan?
I pay a great deal of attention to the character and temperament of the Tosas that I breed. Obviously, we’re talking about dogs that have to go to dog shows, so the judge has to be able to check the bite, to touch the testicles, and to get close to the dog without risking getting bitten. One has to work quite a bit on socialization starting at a very young age, and dedicate a great deal of time to obedience and to getting the dog accustomed to living together with people.
If I want to bring a Tosa to a dog show, he can’t be an aggressive dog. There is a huge difference – and one that is often confused – between a dog with character and an aggressive dog. A dog with character is a dog that isn’t timid, who doesn’t retreat and who isn’t afraid. The aggressive dog is one that at times could bite, sometimes out of fear. If a dog is brought to a dog show, whether it is a Tosa or any other dog, it should never attack or provoke a fight with other dogs. If he is provoked, obviously the Tosa’s reaction will not be to turn and run, and he won’t be intimidated. But he should never be the aggressor.
The fact that the dog should not be the one to attack first shouldn’t be a limitation on the character of the dog. One shouldn’t have fearful or timid dogs. It’s like having a Labrador or Golden Retriever that has a fear of water, or a Spanish Water Dog that doesn’t know how to swim. The Tosa is a dog bred for fighting: If they have fear of fighting with another dog, then they aren’t a Tosa. This is a part of type for the breed, a breed characteristic. So if I want to respect not just the breed standard, but also the history of the Tosa, then I can’t have a dog who is timid, or who won’t face up to another dog.
Every person can decide for themselves how to raise their own dog, with whatever habits or prerogatives to develop a temperament or character. But if we want to respect and follow the things that are the qualities of the breed, Tosas have to be fighting dogs, even if they obviously are never fought. So if in the ring another dog growls at or barks at or provokes a Tosa, he has to react. If he doesn’t react, in my view, he isn’t a Tosa. Or else he’s a dog that’s afraid, and it would be better to remove him from the breeding program. All this doesn’t mean, however, that one shouldn’t have control of the dog. They are two totally different things.
Nine-month-old female with excellent structure, proportion and angles, straight and parallel legs, and solid topline.
What is the biggest mistake people make when they get a Tosa puppy?
The biggest error that new owners of a Tosa puppy make is not having sufficient time to devote to the dog. Dogs are like children; they don’t know what something is unless they have been taught it. One has to dedicate time to teaching the dog what he can do as well as what he can’t. To give you a simple example: It’s as if a child never goes to school, and then I ask him questions about history or geography. This boy won’t know how to respond because he’s never studied those subjects. If I don’t socialize the dog, if I don’t bring him to see the train station, the store, if he never sees a stroller, an umbrella, a bicycle, if he’s not used to hearing the sound of thunder or fireworks, or an ambulance siren, when he’s fully grown the dog will be afraid of these things because he doesn't know them. In the first months of the dog’s life, I need to dedicate sufficient time to get him to know all the new things in the world in which we live. Obviously, one can’t expose him to everything, but I try to introduce the dog to as many things as possible at that early age.
A two-and-a-half-year-old female. A Tosa Inu should be muscular, with strong structure, but not at the expense of athleticism.
When a dog then grows up, he of course then knows these things don’t pose a danger. He’ll know that it isn’t dangerous if he sees a bicycle. He’ll be used to going into the water to swim. He’ll know the river, the streets, the sounds of the truck and the bus. He’ll be accustomed to the civilized life in which we all take part.
Anyone who thinks about getting a puppy and keeping him at home without bringing him out is like keeping a child locked up in the house, never giving him the opportunity to know the world outside. The first time he leaves, he’ll be frightened.
Another mistake is not correcting a Tosa if he does something wrong. For example, say there are three people in the household. One lets the dog go on couch, but the other two don’t. The dog doesn’t understand which is the correct command, and which isn’t. This creates confusion. The important thing is to always be consistent. A dog, no matter what the breed, learns quickly what makes him comfortable and happy, and it’s difficult to break these habits. And this is the mistake one encounters very often among new owners.
What is the biggest mistake judges make when judging the breed?
When judges judge the Tosa at a show, they should know the breed. But many judges don’t have the chance to see many examples of the breed, so while they may have known some, they haven’t seen enough to appreciate the differences and variations in type. Any judge can read the standard ten times, 20 times, 100 times. But if he hasn’t seen a number of real examples of the breed, to be able to compare them to each other and see the principle differences between one exhibit and another, it’s difficult to judge the breed correctly.
At times, unfortunately, at a show in Europe you’ll find only one or two Tosas entered. If he doesn’t know the breed well, the judge often will give the rating of Excellent to the dog, even if he isn’t. This is the most common mistake that one encounters. Later, when that same dog is judged by a more expert judge, or one who has more of an understanding of the breed because he’s judged more of them, and this judge gives him a lesser rating – Very Good, or Good, or a disqualification – the owner certainly isn’t happy because the previous judge rated the dog Excellent, and this judge hasn’t.
If a judge hasn’t judged enough examples of the breed from which to make comparisons, he or she can pick up a book on the breed, or ask breeders to do a kennel visit in order to have a better idea of the characteristics of the breed, and of the details the dogs need to have, which sometimes aren’t written in the standard.
An adolescent male Tosa at 14 months, with an excellent head and bone. Note the correct body proportions and angulation.
Can you name some breeds that have been influential in the development of the Tosa Inu?
The Tosa isn’t a breed that was obtained through simply breeding dogs of an existing native breed. Instead, the Tosa was developed through pairings of other breeds to modify an existing Japanese dog and render it unbeatable in combat. But in terms of what can be known with certainty and precision, there isn’t anything. There are only hypotheses. Even the Japanese Kennel Club cannot verify this, because even they aren’t certain about what other breeds were added to better the characteristics sought after in the Tosa breed. What they sought to achieve with the Tosa was a fighting dog that might be unbeatable against any other dog.
On the internet, there are some sites that hypothetize about what breedings might have been done with the original native breed, which is the Shikoku-ken, with other Occidental breeds, and the various dates when these breedings began.
The Shikoku-ken, a Shiba Inu-like dog original to the island of Shikoku. It was crossed with other Western breeds to create the Tosa Inu.
If one is looking for a reliable date, we know that when the English arrived in Japan in 1852, they had English Mastiffs with them. They English were fans of dog fighting, as were the Japanese, and they started to have fights between the dogs. It happened that the Mastiffs prevailed over the Tosas, because of the fact that they were much bigger and heavier. With the passing of years, however, the English started to obtain the best results by crossing their Mastiffs with these original Tosas. And it’s said around 1862, added to the mix was an English Bulldog, which in that period was a much leggier dog than the Bulldog of today. It’s also believed that around 1864, the German Shorthaired Pointer was introduced to add agility. In 1924, there were reportedly crosses to Great Danes to increase size.
Other sources say that the Saint Bernard was also used to add size and the Bull Terrier for aggressiveness and hardness. But there aren’t any dates or periods of reference for those two breeds. The presence of the Saint Bernard seems a bit improbable, as this is a Swiss breed used for mountain work, and it’s unlikely it would have arrived as far as Japan.
In Japan, the first dog fights took place in the province of Kōchi with dogs that were native to the area. Typically, these dogs were silent wrestlers. The name Tosa Inu was given to this breed, which evolved over the years specifically for dog fighting, in 1878 during the Meiji era, under Emperor Mutsuhito, on the island of Shikoku. The name derives from the city of Tosa, which is on Shikoku. “Inu” in Japanese means “dog.” So Tosa Inu is, literally, a dog from the city of Tosa.
After World War II, were other breeds crossed with the Tosa, as they were with the Akita?
After the second world war, there weren’t any other changes to the breed, and no crosses to other breeds. The Tosa breed was fixed by 1925 or so. From then on, successive generations were bred from this type of dog. So there aren’t any influences from other breeds after that.
What are the most important aspects of type in the Tosa?
As the FCI standard says, the general aspect a Tosa must have is to be a dog of great size, dignified, with a robust structure. One should look for a square muzzle, good structure with balanced angles front and rear, a level and solid topline, and a strong head.
When one sees a Tosa, one must have the impression of an imposing dog, robust, dignified and self-confident. “Imposing” means of good construction, robust and muscular but not fat. So “imposing” doesn’t mean big – which often could be confused with a dog that is big because he’s heavy. A Tosa shouldn’t be a fat pig, or a cow that one drags around the ring. It must be a dog that is athletic, with good musculature, strong bone of good dimensions, and good construction.
Two-year-old female with a lovely and typical expression that is strong while still feminine. The proportion of muzzle to skull is ideal, as are the lips, pigment and ears.
Can you share the most important aspects of head type in the Tosa?
Important facets of head type include a large skull and a well-developed stop. This means that the dog can’t have a moderate stop, as in some breeds like the Central Asian Shepherd Dog. The stop should be not just developed, but rather abrupt, and in many dogs the stop isn’t what the standard asks for.
Continuing the list, we want a large, black nose and a moderately long muzzle with a nasal canal that is straight. “Moderately long” can’t be precisely defined because the standard doesn’t say what the proportion between the muzzle and skull should be.
Over the last seven years, at both dog shows and visits to other kennels, I’ve taken the measurements of 186 Tosas that were of the quality to obtain an “Excellent” rating. The result from all these measurements was a database with a lot of information that up until today hasn’t been known. I wanted to have a kind of snapshot of the Tosa breed as it exists today in Europe.
The median values calculated from both male and females heads regarding the relationship between the skull and muzzle are as follows:
In the males, the proportion between the muzzle/skull is 7/10. In other words, the median length of the muzzle is 70 percent of the length of the skull. In the females, however, the length of the muzzle is slightly longer in comparison to the males, with a percentage in relation to the skull of 77 percent.
The eye must be sufficiently small, dark brown in color, and with a dignified expression. In Japan, dark eyes have always been sought after, because light eyes were considered unlucky, and light-eyed puppies were often culled.
The ears are relatively small, preferably thin, set high on the sides of the skull and hanging close to the cheeks.
Try to resist: A month-old Tosa Inu puppy.
What are the challenges in having a breeding program?
Keeping in mind that the perfect dog doesn’t exist, obviously some dogs in a breeding program can be of excellent type, but also have faults. Every dog has some faults, or better said, has some trait that could be improved on. After several generations, when a kennel manages to fix the style of dog they are seeking, it’s easy to identify those dogs and their pedigree by sight, even if you don’t know their names.
Logically, to get to this point, one has to have a relatively expert eye. The characteristics that one wants to maintain in the breeding program, once one manages to fix a style of dog and in later generations those same qualities are found again in the puppies, then one needs to focus on correcting weaknesses and acquiring strengths so as to keep breeding toward a dog that is ever closer to the standard.
The more a breeder succeeds in arriving at and fixing an identifiable style of dog that comes as close as possible to meeting the standard, the better the quality of the breeding program.
As a result, one shouldn’t just talk about a single dog from a kennel being an excellent example of the breed, but one should seek to have an overall quality of dogs in the kennel that meets the requirements of the standard. This is the target that every breeder should aim for.
Unfortunately, not everyone can reach this level in their breeding program, because it involves sacrifices, substantial expense and unexpected results.