Loyal, courageous, and dignified — adjectives used to describe the temperament of a hardy breed of dog originally from Japan, the Akita. Fitting words also used to describe the Akita’s best friend this side of the Mississippi: Dorie Sparkman.

Sparkman never had children of her own; her children were the Scout troop she led for 25 years, the dogs she rescued and trained for over 40 years, and the students she taught with special needs for 30 years in the Duval Public County School System. In short, she’s given her life over to dogs, specifically Akitas.

As owner and operator of Emerson Kennels (a boarding house specializing in large breed dogs) and matriarch of the Akita Rescue Society of Florida, Sparkman has dedicated her life to be being a protector and an educator. For more than 30 years, Sparkman taught children with a wide range of special learning needs in the Springfield neighborhood. Since 1974, she’s spent her nights and weekends teaching canine obedience classes at Emerson Kennels (she still teaches a class on Tuesday nights).

The original owner of Emerson Kennels — a German Shepherd breeder to whom Sparkman refers with respect in her voice as “Mr. Mac” — taught her what he knew about dogs. In 1979, Sparkman and her husband rescued their first Akita from a gentleman who was keeping too many of the dogs in a shed near the kennel. Shortly thereafter, she showed them in obedience and conformation shows all over the nation. In 1985, she incorporated the Akita Rescue Society of Florida, forfeiting any salary in exchange to house the Akitas at Emerson Kennels. Following Mr. Mac’s death, Sparkman bought the kennel from the family in 1997.

“Dorie is the least selfish person I know,” says Courtney Krug, an Akita volunteer and adopter, as she sits with Sparkman. The obvious bond, based on an affinity for the breed, connects the two women. Krug and her husband have adopted three Akitas from Sparkman, and volunteer at the kennel on their days off work.

“She dedicates her life to the dogs, making sure they get the right home and that when they do have that home, they have the support and the owners have the support they need,” says Krug. “Dorie is always there, no matter what; that phone doesn’t stop.”

Sparkman smiles, holds the phone up and interjects, “I have it on vibrate right now.”

Krug recounts a story about Sparkman sleeping in the kennel with one of the dogs that the Krugs finally adopted. “She refused to leave him. She doesn’t give up on them, that’s for sure.”

Sparkman serves as den mother to more than 50 volunteers around the Southeast (and beyond). The Akita Rescue Society of Florida serves a range of areas from Miami to Charlotte to Shreveport, and Emerson Kennels acts as the financial anchor for her passion of rescuing and finding homes for Akitas.

More than 200 shelters around the Southeast call Sparkman if they have an Akita. A call begins the process of arranging one of her volunteers to go to the kennel to evaluate the dog for adoptability. If everything checks out, they arrange transportation to get the dog into rescue.

“We never have, and we never will, charge a cent to anyone adopting a dog, because I feel like that money is the thing that gets in the way between the adopter and the shelter adopting the dog,” says Sparkman. “You asked how we have such wonderful volunteers willing to do so much. I ask of them a lot more than the $50 or $100 you’d ask for an adoption fee, and I ask them to become fundraisers, I ask them to become dog-walkers, transporters, evaluators at shelters. When they adopt from our shelter, they become a part of our team.”

After purchasing the kennel, Sparkman and her husband moved from a comfortable house in San Marco into a trailer that sits adjacent to the kennel.

“I’ve also managed to save money over the years, and I bought up everything around me. It’s all paid for,” Sparkman says with a joyous grin. “Nobody can move in and have a problem with the dogs.”

In addition to the 40-plus dogs currently in the kennel, Sparkman has her own Akita that stays in her trailer. Tyra the Honey Badger is an Akita with esophagus issues, rescued from South Carolina. Sparkman says she purposely takes the one that nobody wants. “Who’s going to adopt a dog that throws up all the time?” she asks as she strokes Tyra.

“Everything I did was geared for rescue. My whole life was planned around that, so to do rescue work, you need to have a long-term plan. If I take in a puppy tomorrow, that dog is going to live another 12 years. That means I have to do rescue work for the next 12 years because I’m never out of rescue until the last dog I have in shelter is dead,” Sparkman says. “So I think that would be the lesson that other rescuers should know: that it’s wonderful to volunteer with a rescue, but unless you’re in it for the long-term, don’t start rescuing dogs unless you can follow through.”

Sparkman fixates a loving gaze on the Krugs’ two canines. ”Look at those dogs,” she says. “Dogs that could be dead. That’s my paycheck right there.”


For those interested in finding out more, becoming a financial sponsor, and/or thinking about adopting an Akita, go to arsf.org.