The smallest native Japanese working breed, the Shiba Inu is perhaps most famous for its small size and fox-like appearance. Although the Shiba Inu is closely related to a number of other Spitz-type dogs native to Japan this dog is a unique hunting breed, not a miniaturized version of any other. The Shiba Inu is also a very ancient breed and perhaps one of the oldest of all dog breeds. Shiba Inus are the most popular dog breed in Japan, but have recently established themselves in America as well. The Shiba Inu is also known as the Shiba, Shiba-Ken, Japanese Shiba Inu, Japanese Shiba, Japanese Small Size Dog, and the Small Japanese Dog.
The Shiba Inu was first developed thousands of years ago, long before written records were kept of dog breeding. As a result, almost nothing is known with certainty about this dog’s history, other than it is incredibly ancient and was developed almost entirely within the nation of Japan. The Shiba Inu is considered to be a member of the Spitz-family, one of the oldest of all dog types and a group of dogs characterized by upright ears, long double-coats, curled tails, and wolf-like appearance. With the exception of a few companion dog breeds whose ancestors were imported from China, all Japanese breeds created before the 19th Century are members of the Spitz family.
Although there is a great deal of dispute, most experts agree that the dog was the first species to be domesticated and that the process was completed sometime between 14,000 and 35,000 years ago. There are many different theories as to how and where the domestication of the dog occurred, but recent studies suggest that it only happened once. Genetic and scientific studies have concluded that the dog was most likely domesticated in India, the Middle East, or China, from the smaller, less aggressive, and more human tolerant wolves of those regions. In terms of appearance, the first dogs were probably very similar in appearance to the wolf, and would likely have been indistinguishable from the modern Dingo. At the time, all of humanity was organized into bands of hunter-gatherers, living a semi-nomadic existence of nature’s bounty. The first dogs accompanied these bands, serving their human masters as hunting aides, camp watchdogs and guardians, and as loving companions. Dogs would prove so useful that they became an indispensible part of early mans survival and as early man migrated from one area to the next so did the dog. Although the exact date that this occurred is unknown it must have occurred very early in mans existence as archeological evidence provides evidence of dogs essentially everywhere that humans settled.
However, the first dogs were not well-suited to life in every climate on the planet and had to adapt. The dog was descended from wolves adapted to tropical and subtropical areas, and was thus ill-suited to life in the much colder Far North. However, different types of wolves were common during this time in these lands. All dogs and all wolves may freely interbreed, and northern wolves and dogs were crossed both intentionally and accidentally. The resulting dogs were longer-coated and more wolf-like than their canine parents, and would form the basis of the Spitz family. Spitzen would eventually be found across Asia, North America, and the Northern regions of Europe. The first humans settled what is now Japan roughly 10,000 years ago. It is commonly suggested that these people brought the ancestors of the Shiba Inu with them and excavations dating from around 7,000 B.C. have confirmed the presence of small dogs in Japan at that time. These dogs were owned by the Jomonjin, or Rope-Pattern People, named for their distinctive earthenware. Although quite possibly an early ancestor, it is impossible to say for sure what the connection is between the small dogs of the Jomonjin and the modern Shiba Inu.
The ancestors of the Shiba Inu almost certainly arrived no later than the 3rd Century B.C., when another group of immigrants began to settle in Japan. Although their nature and origin is greatly disputed, many believe that they came from northern Asia or Korea. These new immigrants almost certainly brought their dogs with them, which were probably crossed with dogs already living in Japan. Experts disagree as to whether the Shiba Inu is primarily descended from the dogs that accompanied the people of the first or second major migration to Japan, but most agree that it is the result of some combination of the two groups. This means that the Shiba Inu has been present in Japan for at the least 2,300 and at the most 10,000 years, making it one of the oldest of all dog breeds. Unlike many other supposedly ancient breeds, the Shiba Inu’s age has recently been confirmed by genetic testing (despite objections by some scientists that these tests only determined similarity to the wolf, not age). The Shiba Inu shares this part of its ancestry with five other closely related breeds, all of which have been designated national treasures by the Japanese government: the Akita Inu, Hokkaido Inu, Kai Inu, Kishu Inu, and Shikoku Inu.
The Shiba Inu was one of the few breeds commonly found throughout Japan and not localized to one area. Its small size made it ideal for hunters across the Japanese Archipelago, as it was cheaper to feed and easier to follow than a larger dog such as the Akita. Hunting in packs, pairs, or alone the small size of the Shiba Inu did not make it any less tenacious of a hunter, and this breed was initially tasked with hunting boar and bear, along with many smaller game species. Gradually, mans conquering of the landscape would make larger game a rarity across most of Japan, and Shiba Inus were instead used to focus on smaller game in areas where larger species had become extinct. In particular, Shiba Inus were used to locate and flush birds from their hiding places. Before hunting guns were developed, Japanese hunters would throw nets to capture the birds located by the Shiba Inu. After hunting guns became popular, bird hunting grew in popularity as did the use of the breed as a bird dog. For many centuries, the Shiba Inu did not exist as a breed in the modern sense, but rather as a group of closely related landraces and types. At one point, there were probably dozens of unique Shiba Inu varieties scattered across Japan.
The name Shiba Inu has been applied to the smallest types of Japanese hunting and working dog for many centuries. However, in some areas a localized name was used, often describing a unique local variety. Inu is the Japanese word for dog, but the origin of the word Shiba is somewhat more controversial. Shiba is also the Japanese word for brushwood. It is most commonly said that either the Shiba was so named because it hunted in brushwood or that its red coat resembled the bright autumn colors found on brushwood leaves. However, it has also been suggested that Shiba may have meant small in an obsolete dialect, and that the dogs were named for their reduced size.
Japan closed itself off from outside influences for several centuries; as a result, its native dogs remained relatively unchanged. This isolation lasted until 1854 when the American naval officer Admiral Perry arrived with gunships and forced Japan to reenter the global community. Foreign nations began to export dogs to Japan, many of which became quite popular. In particular, Japanese enthusiasts enjoyed those breeds which were highly specialized, in direct contrast to the more generalized native Japanese dogs. Some of the most popular breeds included English Pointers and Setters, which were commonly bred with the native Shiba Inu to improve the dog’s bird hunting skills. Heavy crossing and a lack of breeding standardization meant that the original variety of Shiba Inu began to disappear from more urbanized areas subject to foreign influence. The breed did remain quite pure in more rural regions with reduced access to foreign dogs.
By the early 1900’s, a number of Japanese dog fanciers decided that the loss of Japan’s native dog breeds was unacceptable and began to make organized efforts to save them from extinction. In 1928, Dr. Hiroyo Saito founded Nihon Ken Hozonkai, better known as The Association for the Preservation of the Japanese Dog or NIPPO. NIPPO’s goal was to preserve the six traditional Japanese breeds in as pure a form as possible. NIPPO began to keep studbooks for these dogs as well as publishing breed standards. NIPPO also began to lobby the Japanese government for support, and was aided by the incredibly strong nationalist sentiment present in Japan in the years leading up to World War II. Japanese dog breeders began to select the purest examples of Japanese dogs for breeding in an attempt to eliminate foreign influences. In 1931, NIPPO successfully campaigned the Japanese government to designate the Akita Inu as a Japanese National Monument. In 1934, the first official Shiba Inu standard was published. Two years later, NIPPO again successfully campaigned the Japanese Government, and was able to get the Shiba Inu declared a Japanese National Monument as well.
World War II proved devastating for the Shiba Inu. Allied bombing raids killed many of these dogs, especially the ones found in urban areas. Additionally, the great hardship caused by the war brought about a temporary cessation of organized dog breeding, as well as it forced many families to give up or euthanize their Shiba Inus. Perhaps most damaging to the breed was a massive distemper epidemic that ravaged Japan shortly after World War II ended. As conditions in Japan began to improve, breed fanciers hoping to restore the breed to its prewar glory scoured rural areas for purebred Shiba Inus. Although they were unable to find many, they did find enough to reestablish the breed. It was decided to combine all surviving lines into one breed because so few individual Shiba Inus had survived the War.
Although dozens of distinct Shiba Inu varieties probably existed at one point, only three are thought to have survived World War II in significant numbers. The modern Shiba Inu can trace the vast majority (and perhaps all) of its ancestry to these three varieties. The Shinshu Shiba was native to Nagano prefecture and possessed a solid undercoat with a dense layer of guard hairs. The Shinshu Shiba was the smallest of the three varieties, and was usually red in color. The Mino Shiba was a native of the Gifu Prefecture. This variety had thick, prick ears. Unlike the other two varieties or the modern breed, Mino Shibas usually had a sickle tail instead of a curled one. The San’in Shiba was found in the Tottori and Shimane Prefectures. The San’in Shiba was the largest of the three varieties, and most were considerably larger than the modern breed. The San’in Shiba was usually black, but did not possess the tan and white markings of modern black and tan Shiba Inus. Although all three varieties were quite rare following World War II, the Shinshu Shiba had survived in considerably greater numbers than the other two and was consequently more influential to the modern breed.
The newly saved Shiba Inu quickly gained popularity in Japan. The breed’s recovery paralleled that of the Japanese economy, and the two skyrocketed together. Although Japan was highly urbanized before World War II, the post-war years saw Japan become one of the most urbanized nations on earth, especially in the Greater Tokyo Metropolitan Area. As is the case with urbanites everywhere else, most Japanese city dwellers greatly preferred smaller dogs. As Japan’s smallest native breed, the Shiba Inu became a popular and enduring choice as an apartment dog. The Shiba Inu’s popularity and status were also greatly aided by the ever increasing popularity and status enjoyed by dogs in Japan. Although accurate statistics are impossible to come by, most estimates claim that the Japanese dog population is over 10 million, and that the only countries which are home to more dogs are China, Brazil, and the United States. By the end of the 20th Century, the Shiba Inu had become the most popular breed in Japan, assuming a role held by the Labrador Retriever in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada.
The first Shiba Inu that was known to be imported to the United States accompanied a military family returning from Japan in 1954. A few other breed members came to America in similar way for the next 20 years. However, the breed did not become established in the United States until a number of American breeders and exhibitors took an interest. Much of this interest occurred as a result of the dog’s increasing popularity in Japan, which since World War II had been developing close economic, scientific, cultural, and political ties with the United States. In 1979, the first known American-born Shiba Inu litter was whelped. As a result, 1979 is usually given as the year that the Shiba Inu became established in America. Throughout the 1980’s, increasing numbers of Shiba Inus were imported from Japan and bred in the United States. The breed’s popularity rose rapidly as a result of its small size and fox-like appearance. In 1992, The American Kennel Club (AKC) granted full recognition to the Shiba Inu as a member of the Non-Sporting Group. That same year, the United Kennel Club (UKC) granted full recognition. The UKC placed the dog in the Northern Breeds Group and also dropped the Inu from the name, giving the breed the official name of Shiba. Also in 1992, the National Shiba Club of America (NSCA) was founded to promote and protect the breeding of the Shiba Inu, quickly becoming the official parent club with the AKC.
Since the Shiba earned AKC recognition, the breed has increased dramatically in popularity in America. This dog attracts many fanciers because of its small size and fox-like appearance. By the end of the 2000’s, the Shiba Inu was considered to be a trendy breed. Unfortunately, a number of disreputable Shiba Inu breeders have begun to produce dogs solely for profit without any regard for health, temperament, or quality. Longtime fanciers are concerned about this trend although the Shiba Inu is less affected by such “puppy-mills” as many other breeds. There are some signs that the Shiba Inu’s population growth in America may be slowing down, possibly because of the dog’s strong temperament. Although the Shiba Inu probably retains a great deal of hunting ability and drive, the breed is rarely if ever used for that purpose today. Instead the vast majority of Shiba Inus in both Japan and the United States are now companion animals, a task at which this breed is well-suited provided it ends up with owners willing to meet its specialized training needs.
The Shiba Inu is quite primitive looking, and is famous for its fox-like appearance. The Shiba Inu is a small breed, but not a tiny one. Most male Shiba Inus stand between 14½ and 16½ inches tall at the shoulder and weigh 18 to 25 pounds. Most female Shiba Inus stand between 13½ and 15½ inches tall at the shoulder and weigh between 15 and 20 pounds. The Shiba Inu is slightly longer than it is tall. Male Shiba Inus are usually about 10% longer, and females are usually about 15% to 20% longer. The Shiba Inu is one of the most wolf-like of all dogs in terms of appearance. Everything about this breed should be balanced and average, without any major exaggeration. This breed is neither thick nor slender, but is sturdy and capable. The Shiba Inu’s legs are proportional to the height of the dog and should not look overly shortened or modified. The tail of the Shiba Inu is of medium length. This tail is usually held tightly curled over the back. Some Shiba Inus have sickle-shaped tails that point upward. Although rarer this tail type is completely acceptable in the show ring.
The head and face of the Shiba Inu are very fox-like. The head is proportional to the size of the body, although it is somewhat broad. While distinct from each other, the head and muzzle blend in fairly smoothly. The muzzle itself is round, of average length, and ends in a black nose. The muzzle tapers enough to enhance the fox-like appearance but not so much that it becomes snipey. The black lips are quite tight fitting. The eyes of the Shiba Inu are roughly triangular-in-shape, with the corners slanting slightly upwards towards the ears. The triangle-shaped ears of the Shiba Inu are small and quite thick. These ears stand erect but with a slight forward slant.
The Shiba Inu has a double coat, meaning that it has a soft and dense undercoat and a stiff and straight outer coat. The outer coat is roughly two inches long over most of the body, but is considerably shorter and more even on the head face and legs. In order to be shown, all Shiba Inu must exhibit a series of markings known as Urajiro. Urajiro markings are either cream or white in color. These markings must be found on the sides of the muzzle, on the cheeks, inside the ears, on the under jaw, on the upper throat, inside of the legs, under the abdomen, around the vent, and on the underside of the tail. The hair on the tail is slightly longer and sticks out more.
Shiba Inus come in three acceptable colors; red, red and sesame, and black and tan. Red dogs should be as bright red as possible. Solid red is preferred but some black tipping on the back and tail are permissible. Red and sesame dogs have red and black hairs interspersed with each other so that black does not predominate in any area. The sesame color may form a widow’s peak leaving the muzzle a solid red. Black and tan Shiba Inus are black with a slight brownish cast. These dogs have clearly defined tan markings which must be found above the eyes, on the sides of the muzzle, on the cheeks, on the fore chest, on the ends of the legs, and the underside of the tail. The tan markings must be between the black coat and any white markings. In addition to Urajiro, all colors of Shiba Inu may, but are not required to, possess a number of white markings. These markings may be found above the eyes, on the tip of the tail, as a blaze on the throat and/or the chest, on the front legs up to the elbows, and on the hind legs up to the stifle joint. Shiba Inus are occasionally born in other colors or with improper Urajiro and/or white markings. Such dogs are ineligible in the show ring but still make just as good of a pet as other breed members.
The Shiba Inu has a very primitive temperament, meaning that it is more like earliest dogs than it is to most modern breeds. This temperament is very appealing to many fanciers because it makes the Shiba Inu more independent and cat-like, but can often cause problems with training and aggression. This breed is quite independent and prefers to do its own thing. Most Shiba Inus greatly enjoy the company of their families, but from across the room rather than constant physical contact. While most Shiba Inus are affectionate, this affection is decidedly reserved. Shiba Inus have a strong tendency to become one person dogs, and many breed members select one person to give most of their affections to. This breed will form bonds with others, but ones that are usually substantially less close than those it shares with its favorite person. Although small, Shiba Inus are not recommended for novice dog owners because they can be quite challenging of authority, as well as being somewhat slow to train.
A truly independent breed, most Shiba Inus are very aloof with strangers. When properly trained and socialized, the vast majority of breed members will be perfectly polite with strangers, even if they do not see the need for company and would prefer for it to be elsewhere. Shiba Inus will make friends with new people in their lives such as a roommate or spouse, but this process generally takes quite awhile and those bonds which are formed are often not especially close. The Shiba Inu is not a human aggressive breed, and severe aggression is not a very common problem. However, without proper training and socialization, this breed’s aloof nature can lead to aggression. One of the biggest problems that this breed has is that many Shiba Inus do not like to have their personal space invaded without prior approval, and are willing to respond if they feel their space has been violated. Shiba Inu are generally quiet but are also extremely alert, making them excellent watchdogs. However, this breed lacks the size or aggressiveness to make a good guard dog.
Much like the wolf, Shiba Inus are extremely possessive. Fanciers commonly say that if these dogs could say one word, it would be, “mine.” This breed has a tendency to claim everything: toys, a place on the sofa, owners, mates, backyards, and most especially food. Once claimed, a Shiba Inu does not like to share anything. Without the proper training or control, this tendency can get quite out of hand. Shiba Inus are often willing to defend what is “theirs” with force, which means biting. Even the best trained breed members can be slightly unpredictable when it comes to “their stuff” and owners must take special caution with other dogs and most especially children.
This breed has a very mixed reputation with children. When properly socialized, this breed gets along just fine with children who respect its personal space and claimed property. Unfortunately, very young children usually do not understand how to behave properly around a Shiba Inu, and consistently try to pet/hug/hold the dog, especially when it is eating, sleeping, or playing with a toy. No matter how well-trained, almost no Shiba Inu will tolerate rough-housing of any kind. For these reasons, most breed fanciers recommend that Shiba Inus only be placed in homes where there are no children under the age of 6 or 8. Even those Shiba Inus which are perfectly accepting of their family’s children may need to be confined elsewhere when other children are around, due to the inherently unpredictable nature of children rather than the dog itself.
Shiba Inus often have major problems with other animals. Dog aggression is extremely common in this breed, and the majority of Shiba Inus do best in a home where they are the only dog. Most Shiba Inus are quite tolerant of a single member of the opposite sex, but this is not always the case. Shiba Inus exhibit all forms of dog aggression; territorial, dominance, possessiveness, predatory, and same-sex. As is the case with all dogs, Shiba Inus generally accept other dogs with which they have been raised and formed a “pack” with. Proper training and socialization greatly help the Shiba Inu, but cannot eliminate its inherent tendencies. Although the males of most breeds are considered the more aggressive sex, the opposite is true of the Shiba Inu whose females exhibit the most dog aggression.
Bred for untold centuries as a hunting dog, Shiba Inus exhibit an incredibly high prey drive. This dog both likes to hunt and is very good at doing so. Breed members left alone in a backyard will almost surely bring their masters “presents” of dead animals, including cockroaches, lizards, mice, and squirrels. Leaving a Shiba Inu unsupervised with a pet such as a gerbil is essentially the same thing as giving that animal a death sentence. Most Shiba Inus can be trained to tolerate household cats that they have been raised with. However, some breed members always chase cats even those that they know well, and most will chase and potentially attack strange cats.
Shiba Inus are considered to be highly intelligent, and this breed is an amazing problem solver. However, this breed is often infamously difficult to train. Most breed members want to do what they want to do, not what anyone else wants them too. Shiba Inus can be absurdly stubborn and are frequently openly willful. These dogs often refuse to learn a new command, and almost as frequently ignore or deliberately disobey a command that they know well. In particular, the Shiba Inu is virtually impossible to call back when it has sensed something that it wants to chase. This does not mean that it is impossible to train a Shiba Inu, but it does mean that training them requires a great deal of extra, time, patience, work, and dedication. A dog with a true what’s-in-it-for-me attitude, Shiba Inus are most trainable if there are food rewards involved. It is absolutely imperative that Shiba Inu owners remain in a constant position of dominance. This breed does not want to obey anyone, and it will absolutely not obey someone who it believes is in an inferior social position to itself. Unfortunately, maintaining dominance over a Shiba Inu can be a constant effort as this dog seeks to become the leader at every opportunity.
Few breeds are as adaptable to disparate amounts of exercise as the Shiba Inu. This breed is quite active indoors and generally spends its days wandering the house. Partially as a result, most breed members only require a long daily walk. The average committed family will have few problems providing a Shiba Inu with the exercise it needs. It is absolutely important that this dog is provided the energy outlet it needs, otherwise it will likely develop health, emotional, and behavioral problems. Although this breed is unlikely to demand much exercise, it is extraordinarily physically capable. A Shiba Inu in good health can walk for hour upon hour without stopping, and this breed makes an exceptional hiking companion. For this reason, the Shiba Inu is a popular choice with urban dwellers who do not have the time to spend two hours a day exercising a dog, but enjoy doing so on the weekends.
Shiba Inus are among the most infamous escape artists of any breed. These dogs almost never reliably come back when called and so should be kept on a leash at all times when not in a properly secured enclosure. Any enclosure which holds a Shiba Inu must be incredibly secure. Breed members are smart enough to figure out any possible escape route. These dogs are amazing climbers and can scale fences of great height. This breed is such a good climber that many fanciers and trainers recommend putting chain link fence across the top of the enclosure forming a roof.
Shiba Inus are considered very cat-like. They are extremely fastidious, and regularly groom themselves. Even those breed members that spend a great deal of time outdoors are generally cleaner than most other dogs. This dog is also considered very quick and easy to housebreak. Shiba Inus are also normally quiet. They will bark, but generally do not do so frequently or excessively. They do make a very unique sound known as the “Shiba Scream.” This is a very high-pitched howl that can be deafeningly loud. Normally only made when the dog is in distress, it can also be a sign of extreme excitement or interest.
The Shiba Inu has very low grooming requirements. This dog never requires professional grooming, and instead only needs a thorough brushing once or twice a week. It is also advisable to bath this dog only when absolutely necessary as it is naturally clean and baths remove natural body oils. Shiba Inus do shed, and they can shed a great deal. Most Shiba Inus are light to moderate shedders for most of the year that will leave some hair on furniture, clothes, and carpets. Two or three times a year when the seasons change, Shiba Inus become incredibly heavy shedders. These dogs entirely replace a substantial portion of their coats during these periods, and leave large piles of hair wherever they go.
The Shiba Inu is widely considered to be a very healthy breed. Shiba Inus not only suffer from fewer genetically inherited conditions than most breeds, they also suffer from lower rates of those conditions that are found. The Shiba Inu has benefitted not only from an ancient and comparatively large gene pool, but also because its body and features are very wolf-like and thus more natural. The Shiba Inu is one of the longest-lived of all dogs, with a life expectancy of between 12 and 16 years.
One of the most common problems experienced by Shiba Inus, and domestic dogs in general, is hip dysplasia. Hip dysplasia is caused by a malformation of the hip joint. This malformation causes the bones to connect improperly to each other, a problem that worsens with time. Hip dysplasia leads to discomfort, pain, arthritis, difficulty moving, and in extreme cases even lameness. There is no universally accepted cure for hip dysplasia, but veterinarians have begun to work on several. Hip dysplasia is a genetic condition, but the timing of the onset of and the severity of its symptoms can be influenced by environmental factors. There are several genetic and physical tests for hip dysplasia, and most reputable breeders have been working to eliminate it from their lines. Unfortunately, many irresponsible breeders either don’t test or don’t care.
Because skeletal and visual problems have been known to occur in this breed, it is highly advisable for owners to have their pets tested by both the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF). The OFA and CERF perform genetic and other tests to identify potential health defects before they show up. This is especially valuable in the detection of conditions that do not show up until the dog has reached an advanced age, making it especially important for anyone considering breeding their dog to have them tested to prevent the spread of potential genetic conditions to its offspring.
A full list of health problems which have been identified in Shiba Inus would have to include: