Baby Shiba Inus
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Photo © Isabelle Francais
Adult Shiba Inu
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An independent, fun-loving canine lies beneath the plush coat and soft eyes of this ancient Japanese breed

The Smart & Spirited Shiba Inu

By Kim D.R. Dearth

Who could resist the round, teddy bearlike face and endearing slanted eyes of a roly-poly Shiba Inu puppy? But look deeply into those eyes and you'll catch a glimpse of the dog that this charming puppy will become-a confident, independent canine that will gladly take over as head of the household, unless its owner persuades it otherwise. Shibas are fun-loving, spirited and seem to be convinced of their own superiority-they definitely are not a breed for the weak of heart!

Ancient Roots

Although its dominant personality may lead you to believe otherwise, the Shiba is the smallest of Japan's native breeds. It has truly ancient origins; it is believed the breed's ancestors came to Japan with that country's first human immigrants, the Jomonjin, around 7000 B.C. This theory is supported by archaeological evidence of small dogs in the shell mounds (archaeological remains) left behind by these earliest inhabitants.

New blood was introduced to the Jomonjin's dogs around 300 B.C., when a second group of immigrants brought their canines to Japan. The results of these matings had pointed, erect ears and curly, or sickle, tails. These dogs were keen hunters, using their noses and eyesight to flush birds and small game from the dense foliage of Japan's mountains. They even occasionally were asked to tackle the wild boar found in these areas, which they did with bravery and a fiery determination belying their small stature.

Around A.D. 700, the Yamato Court, the Japanese ruling body of the time, took a step to ensure the survival of Japan's native breeds by establishing a dogkeeper's office to maintain them as an integral part of Japanese culture. Dogs in rural areas did remain unadulterated; however, some European dogs and the Chinese Chin were imported and crossed with native dogs in the cities and towns of Japan during the 17th and 18th centuries. This led to three main types of Shiba Inu, each originating from a different locale.

World War II devastated Japan, including its native dogs. Innumerable dogs were killed in bombing raids, and most that survived died from distemper when the war ended. Two of the Shiba types-the Mino and Sanin-were almost wiped out, but the Shinshu Shibas fared better. Breeding programs established after the war combined the dogs that remained from all three strains into the modern-day Shiba.

It was many years before Americans fully realized the charms of this exotic dog. Although the Shiba first came to the United States with servicemen returning from Japan after World War II, it was not until 1983 that Shiba lovers in the United States formed the National Shiba Club of America. Nine years later the club was recognized as the parent club for the breed by the American Kennel Club. The breed was admitted into the Miscellaneous class in June 1992 and moved into the Non-Sporting Group in June 1993. Today, the Shiba Inu enjoys moderate popularity, ranking 55th of the AKC's 148 breeds, with 2,478 dogs registered in 2000.

A Teddy Bear Exterior

The Shiba is able to gain fans using its many admirable qualities, including its charming looks. Shibas, especially puppies, truly look like living, breathing teddy bears. This appearance is enhanced by the stand-off quality of the coat, which consists of a stiff, straight outer coat and a soft, thick undercoat.

Although they appear soft and cuddly on the outside, underneath that stuffed animal facade lies the muscular body of a hunter. Shibas are compact, efficient athletes: Males stand 14 1/2 inches to 16 1/2 inches and females are 13 1/2 inches to 15 1/2 inches, with the middle range preferred for each. Males average 23 pounds and females are usually around 17 pounds.

The Shiba comes in three distinct colors: sesame, red, and black and tan. Perhaps the best-known color is red, which, combined with the Shiba's pricked ears and triangular, slanting eyes, gives it a foxlike appearance. Shibas of this color should be a clear, bright orange-red, although a touch of black tipping is permitted on the back and tail. Black and tan Shibas must have clearly defined borders between the black and tan areas. The location of tan points is clearly specified in the AKC standard and includes two oval spots over the eyes, on the sides of the muzzle, on the outside of the forelegs and on the outside of the hind legs. Sesame dogs have a rich red ground color tipped with black. The tipping is evenly distributed on the head and body; however, the bridge and sides of the muzzle, eye spots and lower legs are red.

All colors have urajiro, a cream to white color, on the ventral (underside) of the body, including the chest, belly, inside of the legs and underside of the tail. Urajiro also extends to part of the face. Shibas that are cream, white, pinto or display any other color or marking not specified in the standard are severely penalized.

Above all, the standard treasures harmony and balance of form, color, movement and temperament-and what a temperament it is!

No Shrinking Violet

The AKC standard states the Shiba should exhibit "a spirited boldness, a good nature and an unaffected forthrightness, which together yield dignity and natural beauty." Potential owners should take these words seriously.

"The Shiba personality is like that of no other breed of dog I have known, and as a dog groomer, I have met many different breeds," says Patricia Doescher, NSCA vice president. "The Shiba is an intelligent dog with much pride and arrogance. They love people yet hate to cuddle except on their terms. I feel they are somewhat less domesticated than the average dog."

Although many traditional hunting breeds are bred to work closely with their human partners, this was not the case with the Shiba Inu. "They are very independent," stresses Laura Payton, NSCA president. "They were bred to be independent hunters, not necessarily work for man. Back in Japan they would go off on their own to flush game, corner it and hold it until eventually their owner came to spear it.

"Whereas a Golden Retriever will ask what it can do for you, a Shiba will ask, 'What's in it for me?' "

This attitude must be kept in mind when training a Shiba. Payton points out that although Shibas are extremely intelligent dogs, they are not fundamentally obedient.

"They are problem solvers and are always thinking," Payton says. For example, a Shiba will sit and watch how the different members of the household answer the door, and it will figure out which member might leave an opportunity to make an escape.

This creative thinking means owners must be just as creative in their training techniques. Shibas bore easily, so obedience exercises must be fun and varied to keep their attention. Of course, Doescher points out, Shibas are perfectly capable of patience when it is on their own terms, such as sitting for hours focused intently on a rabbit in the yard!

Shibas are notoriously toy-crazy, and balls are usually favorites. "Shibas greet you at the door with a toy in their mouth, run around the yard with a toy in their mouth and will even carry a toy into the show ring," Doescher says. "It is comical to watch a puppy trying to figure out how to pick up three tennis balls at once."

This love of toys provides a valuable aide when training. "You can achieve more training with a tennis ball in five minutes than all the voice commands in the world," Payton says.

Shibas learn best with positive motivation; heavy-handed discipline will ruin their spirit. This doesn't mean, however, that the breed needs no discipline at all. A Shiba that is not taught proper manners and its place in the family from puppyhood and that does not have these rules consistently enforced as it grows up most likely will try to take over the household when it reaches adolescence. Doescher says Shibas should be treated like a 2-year-old child, with firm guidelines and positive reinforcement, to ensure they will mature into stable, happy family pets.

The worst thing an owner can do is get swept up in a Shiba's soft, fuzzy looks. "If a person says, 'He's such a cute, cuddly dog,' then lets the dog get away with murder, there is going to be trouble," Payton says. "The typical dog turned in to rescue is an 18-month-old or 2-year-old male or female who thinks it's head of the pack. Now the owner is trying to stop this, and the dog is growling. The owner typically has let the dog do whatever it wanted from puppyhood."

Even families who have tried to teach their Shibas proper manners may find themselves in trouble if everyone hasn't been consistent in enforcing the rules. "You can't tell a Shiba it can't go on the couch, then have Grandma let it on the couch when no one is looking," Payton says. "It's like training a child that 8 o'clock is bedtime, then letting the child stay up to 8:30. Eight isn't bedtime anymore."

Payton stresses that Shibas can be extremely good family dogs if they live with an owner who is firm, yet patient and who has a sense of humor when dealing with a Shiba's antics. "Shibas will push. If an owner is passive, he or she needs to pick another breed that won't push."

Social Studies

In addition to obedience training, Shiba puppies need lots of socialization with all types of people and other animals if they are going to be comfortable as adults with a variety of humans and pets.

"Without socialization they can become quite aloof and distrustful of people, yet they can be friendly and extremely social when properly trained," Doescher says.

Payton agrees that some lines tend to be more reserved than others. She stresses that although it is important to work with these dogs, they shouldn't be pushed. "You don't stick a shy person in front of 400 people and tell them to make a speech. Likewise, you shouldn't push a Shiba to make friends before it's ready," she says.

Although Shiba breeders stress the breed's independence, they also point out that this is not a breed that should be kept isolated in a kennel or in the back yard. "Shibas are great in apartments and in homes where they can be housedogs," Doescher says.

Shibas can adapt to a variety of home situations. They make equally excellent companions for retired couples, singles or families with school-age children. Some breeders do express concern about mixing Shibas with very young children, however.

"I would tell families with small children to avoid the breed, as Shiba puppies don't like to be cuddled and squeezed," Doescher says. "Small children pursuing a Shiba puppy under a table to pull it out and play with it may get bitten. Shiba puppies have razor sharp teeth and are a mouthy breed with the habit of play biting. They don't have a reasonable sense of the hardness of the bite as some other breeds have."

Karen Drentlaw, NSCA secretary, agrees. "Shibas don't always get along with children, especially young children around age 2. If the Shiba is raised with kids it may be OK, but it may not like the neighbor's kids. Adults must be sure to discipline the child as well as the dog to reduce any problems that may occur."

Payton screens which families with children will get a Shiba. "If I see that the parents are in control of the family, then I don't have a problem," she says. "But if the kids obviously have no rules they have to follow, then I assume the dog will be raised without guidelines as well."

Payton's puppy contract requires owners to take their new Shiba through obedience classes during the first six months after they acquire their dog. "I recommend the youngest member of the household take the dog through class. This way the Shiba will see that the lowest member of [its] new pack, the child, is above [it] in rank."

Many breeders also have caveats when placing Shibas in households with other pets. Due to their hunting instinct, Drentlaw doesn't recommend mixing Shibas with small preylike pets such as birds, mice, gerbils or rabbits. Cats are usually not a problem if the Shiba is introduced to them as a puppy; an older Shiba that has never been around cats and suddenly finds itself living with one may pose a danger to its feline housemate.

Because dog aggression can be a problem in the breed, especially between intact members of the same sex, if an owner wants more than one Shiba, Payton recommends raising dogs in male/female pairs. The problem can often be avoided altogether by spaying or neutering before sexual maturity. "A lot of aggression is hormone-related," Payton says. "If you spay or neuter between 4 and 6 months you often can avoid the behavior. If you wait, while altering may take away the stimulus for the aggression, you still may have to retrain the behavior."

Drentlaw feels with the proper socialization, Shibas can learn to at least tolerate another dog, regardless of gender. "I have a total of nine dogs, and they all live in the house and get along just fine. They also know who's boss-me."

Although getting a Shiba to adapt to certain housemates may be a challenge, the breed is very adaptable when it comes to environment.

"A long walk in the evening, morning or both is sufficient to keep the Shiba in good shape," Doescher says. "They make good apartment dogs as well as great pets in large spacious homes."

Shibas also are adept at self-exercise. "Turn a Shiba loose in an apartment with a ball and it will play on its own and keep itself entertained," Payton says.

When playing outside the house, a Shiba always must be in a contained environment. Payton urges owners to remember that the Shiba is fundamentally a hunting breed. "Try to walk your Shiba off-leash in a park and it may take off after anything that catches its eye, whether that is a squirrel, a bird or even a plastic bag floating by," she explains. Once a Shiba is hot on the trail of something interesting, it is very difficult to call back. "Shibas are intent when hunting," Payton says. "They won't hear you calling, whistling or desperately crying for them to come back."

Although it is apparent that Shibas require a fenced yard if they are to be off-leash, Payton says even a fence may not be enough to contain this breed. "They are escape artists. I've seen Shibas climb over or dig under fences their owners thought were secure. I've even seen a Shiba leap a 6-foot fence from a standing position. Shibas shouldn't be left in a fenced yard unattended. If they spend any amount of time in a kennel run, the run should be covered and stand on concrete to prevent your Shiba from escaping out the top or the bottom."

A Cat In Dog's Clothing?

Shibas display many behaviors (including climbing) that are more catlike than canine. They are a very clean breed and are practically born housetrained. They are relatively easy to groom, with a good brushing once a week keeping them neat and tidy, but they do require a little more attention twice a year when they blow their undercoat.

"When you see the first tufts of fur poking out, give your dog a warm bath," Payton suggests. Most of the loosened undercoat will then come out easily with a shedding rake.

The Shiba's independence also strikes many as a feline trait. "Shibas cannot be trained to come on recall like some breeds, but rather act like cats when running free," Doescher says.

Shibas also exhibit the superiority complex often seen in cats. They tend to feel that everything in their domain is theirs and often don't understand the point of sharing. This is particularly true when it comes to their favorite resting spots, including the couch and your bed. "They are like cats in this regard," Drentlaw says. "You can't keep a cat off the furniture either."

Shibas also are capable of catlike maneuvers. Their athleticism and agile moves make them excellent candidates for the sport of agility. The constantly changing obstacle courses set up for this sport also appeal to the breed's love of a challenge.

Of course, the Shiba's background also makes it a natural for tracking. As mentioned earlier, Shibas can do well in obedience, but only if their owners keep the training fun and varied.

"Shibas think traditional obedience work is boring, and most don't really care if they please you or not," Drentlaw says. "It's not easy putting an obedience title on a Shiba. If you do, you've really accomplished something."

Because most Shibas love balls, flyball may seem like an ideal sport for an athletic Shiba to pursue. Payton says you must really know your dog, however, before attempting this sport. "Flyball can be a problem because of the off-lead aspect. While most Shibas love to play any sport, in most cases they must be in an enclosed area, or they may take off. Know your own dog and its personality, understand its limits and use common sense."

Health Issues

The athleticism of the Shiba leads it to live a healthy average of 12 to 15 years. But, like all breeds, it can experience genetic maladies that can have a negative impact on its quality of life.

The most common genetic problem seen in the Shiba Inu is patellar luxation, or a dislocated kneecap. Severity can range from no symptoms at all or a slight hitch in gait to extreme lameness and conformational abnormalities such as bowed legs. Severe patellar luxation requires surgery to enable the dog to live more comfortably.

Although hip dysplasia appears more frequently in larger breeds, it can occur in the Shiba. This progressive, degenerative joint disease, in which the thigh bone does not fit correctly into the hip joint, ranges from mild, asymptomatic cases to severe cases that cause serious pain and/or debilitation. All dogs in a breeding program should be X-rayed and evaluated by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, the Institute for Genetic Disease Control in Animals or the PennHIP® system and determined to be free of this condition. Treatment ranges from medical therapy to surgery.

Cataracts can occur in Shibas, and they may lead to blindness. The form of cataract Shibas tend to get usually occurs around age 2 and sometimes later. Bitches and dogs intended for breeding should be certified clear of all eye diseases yearly by the Canine Eye Registration Foundation.

Allergies are being seen more frequently in all breeds, and the Shiba is no exception. Perhaps the most prevalent is flea allergy dermatitis. Although advances in the flea-fighting arsenal are controlling this problem, dogs with severe cases in flea-infested areas of the country may need cortisone shots to relieve their itching.

Other problems that have been seen in the breed, but only on a limited basis, are kidney failure, liver disease, thyroid disease and heart murmurs.

Finding A Shiba

The best way to find a healthy Shiba is to purchase one through a reputable breeder who is associated with the national breed club.

"Buyers should make sure the parents of a litter are screened clear of hip dysplasia, hereditary eye disease and have their patellas certified clear," Doescher explains. "A buyer should insist on receiving a copy of such health tests with his or her new pet. The puppies themselves should have been examined by a veterinarian and be certified clear of heart defects, bite problems such as teeth misalignment and to have solid patellas. The pups should also be up to date on inoculations and be wormed if necessary."

Finding a Shiba with a stable temperament is just as important as finding a physically healthy pet.

"As far as mental health is concerned, a Shiba puppy should never be raised in a kennel," Doescher says. "A Shiba pup needs to be handled from birth on and through its formative weeks until going to its new home. Lots of socialization is essential to a good, healthy puppy."

Cost of a puppy will range depending on geographic area, with dogs typically being more expensive on both coasts. In general, a pet-quality Shiba will cost about $700 to $800, with show-quality Shibas ranging from $1,200 to $1,500 and up. A dog imported from its native Japan will cost substantially more due in part to the cost of shipping and the paperwork involved.

"Sometimes you may be able to get an older retired dog or a 6-month-old that didn't work out for a slightly lower price," Payton says. And, of course, rescue is always an excellent option for obtaining a dog that needs to be rehomed.

Chances are, the Shiba's cuddly good looks attracted you to the breed. But if you can look beyond the adorable exterior and appreciate this independent, intelligent animal on its own terms, you just may be deemed worthy of the love of a Shiba.

Kim Dearth writes about issues concerning dogs and cats from her home near Sioux Falls, S.D. She is the recipient of two Dog Writers Association of America awards and has published several breed-specific books. She, her husband and their new son live with one canine and two feline research assistants.

There are several theories concerning the origins of the name Shiba Inu.

  • Shiba means "brushwood" in Japanese, and the dogs may have been named for the brushwood bushes found in their hunting haunts.
  • The popular red coloration of many Shibas is the same hue as brushwood leaves in the fall.
  • An alternative meaning of Shiba, now obsolete, is "small."

A combination of these meanings is often used, and the Shiba is referred to as the "little brushwood dog."

National Breed Club

National Shiba Club of America,

Club Information

Liz Kinoshita, 2417 Ramke Place, Santa Clara, Calif. 95050; (408) 246-6660; e-mail:

Breeder Referral

Dave Boykin, 944 S.W. Mark St., Newport, Ore. 97365; (541) 265-8301; e-mail:


Shiba E-News, Ken Tracy, editor, 13025 S.W. Riggs Road, Powell Butte, Ore. 97753-1514; (541) 504-1088.

Shibas USA, c/o Tanacross Enterprises, 5271 Hillside Drive, Warrenton, Va. 20187;


Maureen Atkinson, The Complete Shiba Inu, IDG Books Worldwide, Indianapolis, Ind. 1998.

Gretchen Haskett and Susan Houser, The Total Shiba, Alpine Publications, Loveland, Colo., 1997.

Richard Tomita, Shibas, T.F.H. Publications, Neptune City, N.J., 1998.


The American Kennel Club's Shiba Inu breed video, AKC Video Fulfillment Department, 5580 Centerview Drive, #200, Raleigh, N.C. 27606; (919) 233-9767.

Copyright © 2001 DOG WORLD Magazine, Primedia Enthusiast Group, a PRIMEDIA Company.