“Chico,” an Akita, was the most challenging dog that Mark Harden had ever trained.
Tasked with training a dog for the movie, “Hachi,” Harden had never before worked with an Akita and had been told by the breeder who had “loaned” him “Chico” that the breed is smart, stubborn, aloof and difficult to train. Aloof? Harden had to turn this dog into the loving and loyal Hachi. For a month, Chico barely looked at him.
The Akita sneered at normal dog training techniques, and Harden knew he had to change his approach. He began to work Chico in agility not to teach him agility, but to teach him to learn.
Each new apparatus became an obstacle between Chico and a tasty reward. One day, Harden allowed Chico to start at the beginning of the course and let him complete it. Chico sprinted through the course easily and waited for his reward. Harden had broken the code and unlocked the dog’s potential. From that day forward, Chico learned his movie tricks with ease.
Chico portrayed Hachi as a young adult (a dog named “Layla” played Hachi as an adult, and a four year old Akita named, “Forrest” played Hachi as an old, dying dog). By the time shooting for the movie ended, Harden had a new problem.
Chico had been “leased” from his breeder who visited the dog frequently on the set, and there was every intention of returning him to her. Harden and dog had bonded, however, and by now, Harden couldn’t bear to let him go. Still, he returned the dog to the breeder who watched the pair play one more time. Later, as they both stroked the dog’s coat, the breeder said, “You know you have to keep him, right? Akitas don’t bond easily, and he’s so bound to you. That won’t happen again. I want you to keep him”
Chico now lives with Harden as a family pet and friend.