The Shiba Inu is the smallest of the 6 native spitz breeds from Japan. Historically, they were bred for hunting and flushing out small game, such as birds and rabbits.
They’re often mistaken for the Akita or Hokkaido Inu due to their curled tail and similar foxy characteristics. However, the Shiba Inu comes from a different basal bloodline.
The Shiba Inu by far the most popular Japanese dog breed due to its temperament among other things. These dogs are independent, lovable, good-natured and dignified. On the other hand, they can be aggressive, and are less suited to life with small children or other dogs.
A well-trained Shiba Inu can make a fantastic companion. They’ve been described as loyal and affectionate dogs, once they get to know you. Read on to learn about these fascinating dogs from Japan.
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Table of Contents
- Shiba Inu Basic Profile
- Origins and the Name Shiba Inu
- Shiba Inu Appearance
- Character and Temperament
- Training a Shiba
- The “Shiba Scream”
- Shiba Health & Care
- Rescue a Shiba Inu
- A Short History of the Shiba Inu
- Breeds Similar to the Shiba Inu
Shiba Inu Basic Profile
Friendliness: The Shiba Inu can be affectionate around people and its family. However, when it comes to other dogs and pets, they may not be as nice. They’ll need to be socialized at a young age to be able to live with other small pets you may have.
Trainability: Shibas are not the most eager dogs when it comes to training. You’ll really need to incentivize them to train. However, they are extremely smart dogs that are capable to learning whatever you throw at them.
Grooming: They require more grooming than your average dog because they shed so much. If you’re okay with hair around your house and on your clothes, then the Shiba Inu is just fine.
Adaptability: These dogs are highly adaptable and can thrive in almost any environment. They can tolerate both hot and cold temperatures and unlike most dogs, are okay with being left alone for periods of time.
Activity: They are companion dogs but have a lot of energy that needs to be expended. The recommendation is for them to at least go on daily walks. If you don’t have time, some running around in a large backyard will usually be fine.
- Height: 13 – 17 inches
- Weight: 17 – 23 pounds
- Life Expectancy: 12 – 16 years
- Dog Breed Group: Companion Dog
Origins and the Name Shiba Inu
Smallest of its native Japanese relatives, the Shiba Inu is well suited to the mountainous terrain they were bred to hunt in. They have thick brown/red-to-white fur, which might be the reason for the name shiba. In Japanese, shiba means “brushwood” and is the name of a shrub that turns red/brown during Autumn.
Because the Shiba Inu would hunt amongst these shrubs, it is possible that the name was attached to the breed in this way. Inu, as well as ken, just means dog.
However, an ancient Japanese dialect used the word shiba to mean small, which also aptly fits this small dog breed. A combination, “small-brushwood”, fits nicely. Nobody really knows exactly where the name derived from, though.
Shiba Inu Appearance
The typical purebred Shiba Inu is usually red with white or cream highlights. Due to their mixed heritage (see A Short History of the Shiba Inu below), there can be some variation, even with pure breeds. Some are darker, even black. The colours are sesame, red, black and tan, and white.
Shibas are the smallest of the native breeds of Japan, weighing in at about 20 pounds for the bigger dogs. Additionally, the tallest stand at about 16 inches high. Many people confuse them for Akitas but when you sit them side by side, they are quite different. The size difference is rather significant.
Their tails curl back over their bodies. Sometimes they can be sickle shaped, but most are a Danish pastry kind of shape. This characteristics of the tail is common among several Japanese dog breeds, not just the Shiba.
Character and Temperament
Shiba Inus are spirited, bold, and forthright. They hold themselves with an air of dignity that could seem haughty and aloof if they weren’t so elegant. Bred for hunting, they can be wary of people they do not know.
Sometimes they can be aggressive, especially the females. However, with good training and socialization from a young age, they rarely show these traits. Once trained to be obedient, they are generally obedient (unless you let them off the lead – see Training below).
Shibas with Other Pets
Good news for cat owners – they usually get along with our feline friends just fine. However, they do not cope too well with young children, who can irritate them and cause them to become aggressive. If they have been around little kids since they were young, Shibas are usually fine.
Small dogs can be a concern too. Shibas can get aggressive with small canines, probably because of their strong prey-drive. Small dogs look like food to a Shiba, which is a bit ironic because of how small the Shiba is.
Shibas and Children
It can take some time before a Shiba Inu is comfortable with your presence. But when they do get to know you and trust you, they will be very loyal and affectionate.
One of the reasons they are not so suited to younger children is their reluctance to be handled. Little kids don’t necessarily know how to approach a Shiba, and might grab a handful of fur.
They will probably regret it unless the Shiba has been exceptionally well socialized and trained. However, if a child is introduced to a Shiba in the right way, they will get along fine. The fierce loyalty and affection has won over many families, and if they are used to little children, they can make the best companions for a growing human.
How to Handle a Shiba Inu
Children should be told that the Shiba will get angry if they are touched when they are asleep or eating. These dogs can also be food-aggressive, meaning they should not to take their food away.
While Shibas can be very playful, they are also very protective of their belongings, and can interpret a playful fight over a favored toy as genuine aggression, so make sure the kids know not to take it too far.
Shibas are a primitive dog breeds, and are not used to living in and around humans. Their lives would have been spent outdoors, fending for themselves, until it was time to hunt. Pure Shibas are still the same. Extensive socialization during their early months can make them much easier to handle in later life, but some of that haughtiness never goes away.
The Japanese sum up the Shiba Inu personality with three terms: kan’I, ryosei, and soboku. This means: spirited boldness, good nature, and alertness. Most Shiba owners know this best.
Training a Shiba
The fierce independence that makes Shibas so appealing is also their weakest trait when it comes to living with humans. They are not dogs you should experiment with off-leash situations. As much as they might love you, if given the opportunity they can go and never come back.
Always remember that Shibas are hunting dogs, after all. A purebred Shiba is a working dog that does not have more socialized genes from other breeds to temper its independence. Given the chance, many will leave you at a moment’s notice.
Training Shibas can be difficult because they are stubborn, sometimes to a fault. They truly have a sense of self and want you to know that too.
You cannot expect to train a Shiba in the way you would, for example, a Border Collie. They weren’t bred to take commands like that, and the look of disdain a Shiba can give you is something you won’t forget.
Housebreaking a Shiba
However, the Shiba is very easily housetrained. They are fastidious and need to keep themselves clean, often licking themselves like a cat does (a surreal sight).
They will find a place to do their business that is as far from their bed as possible from a very early age. It’s instinctive to them. Shibas can hold on for a long period of time and much prefer to go outside – a relief to dog owners who have had dogs that could care less!
That said, their bladder control is less impressive and takes a bit more patience to help them get it right. Once trained, they will stick to it as long as they live. Some Shibas do not even need house-training, they are simply too proud to do their business on the doorstep.
Shibas as Guard Dogs
A Shiba Inu makes a fiercely loyal companion, as they will guard you and your family very well. Their mixture of a distrust for strangers, aggression, and protectiveness means they are the first to alert you to any danger. Shibas will not bark all night like some guard dogs. Make sure you keep them well enclosed or they will be off.
Final Thoughts on Training
Shibas are fiercely protective of their possessions, and will defend their toys and territory fiercely unless they have been trained extensively. Some owners admire this characteristic, many wish it wasn’t so pronounced.
No matter how well you train a Shiba, they cannot be let off the leash. They are hunters, through and through, and will bound off into the distance. Retrieving a Shiba is very, very difficult.
True story: my college roommate’s Shiba once escaped while we were having a get-together at night. We spent the entire night looking for Aki, the Shiba. It took several hours and after deploying what seemed like advanced tactical strategy, we caught her.
The “Shiba Scream”
Shibas are not yappy dogs and they don’t bark very often. However, they do have a really freaky sound that they make when they are unhappy. Confusing as it is, they also make this sound when they are really happy.
This is known as the “Shiba scream” and this vocalization can sound like they are being strangled. It is a sometimes comical, often distressing experience. YouTube has loads of videos, check them out when you’re finished with this guide.
Usually, they only scream when they really need to tell you they are unhappy. Try clipping their nails and you will find out just how proud they are with this horrifying vocalization.
Where the Shiba Scream Comes From?
Breeders think that the Shiba scream is a remnant of their wolf ancestry. The Shiba Inu is a very old breed and are genetically closer to wolves than many other breeds. As a basal breed, they aren’t “ancient” but they’re close to being categorized as such.
Because of this close relation to their wolf cousins, they still retain some wolfish characteristics. Bizarrely, the Shiba scream is one that stayed, even after hundreds or thousands of years of breeding. It probably stuck around because it is a very efficient way of telling their human something is up.
When it Happens
Some find the Shiba scream endearing, the rest find it something they just have to put up with. It is a unique characteristic that sets them apart even from their close relatives in other breeds.
Visits to the vet, dog vaccinations, trimming nails, and giving them a bath is probably going to set your Shiba off. Be prepared, don’t react or rise to it, and stay calm or it will get worse.
You can also expect a good Shiba scream if you go away for a while and return. They are loyal dogs and love their owners, but have a strange way of showing it.
Shiba Health & Care
For a purebred, Shiba Inus have relatively good health. They have not suffered from the genetic bottlenecks of Dalmatians or other popular breeds.
Shibas maintain healthy breeding and live long lives, usually between 12 and 15 years. If you exercise them regularly, they will have healthy lives right into old age. One got to the ripe old age of 26 and was the oldest dog alive by the time of his death.
The health problem that is most commonly reported with Shibas is allergies. Lots of dogs get them, Shibas are no exception. Talk to their vet about what you can do about it.
Other medical conditions that Shibas are known to get are: entropion, hip dysplasia, luxating patella, cataracts, and glaucoma. However, the general health of the Shiba Inu is good, and if you buy from a certified breeder, you can expect to have a healthy dog.
Shiba Inus have thick fur suited to cold, thin mountain air and spending time outdoors. They shed, a lot. When they swap between winter and summer coats, expect to find their fur everywhere and to spend at least half an hour a day grooming them. Otherwise, they like to keep themselves clean and tidy.
They like being brushed by people they are familiar with, but make sure you get their consent as they don’t like to be surprised.
You can use a hair dryer with a Shiba if you give them some time to get used to it. The best time is to start young, so they develop a routine with dryers. Most of them enjoy it.
It is a good way to get under their thick coat and get out all the muck they’ve collect on their adventures. Generally, you don’t have to do much grooming, once a week is ideal. By doing this, it helps to distribute their skin oil and keep their fur in good condition.
Nails, Teeth and Tips
A common characteristic of Shibas is a strong dislike of getting their nails trimmed. Even if they have had their nails cut regularly since they were little, they still hate it. If it gets too much, you might need a professional. It will probably stop them from resenting you, too!
Shibas teeth need brushing a few times a week like any dog. Check their eyes and ears every week for discolouration, weeping, and bad smells.
Shibas can get cataracts and glaucoma. Make sure you know the early signs as they can be treated if caught early. And if you don’t know these signs, you can consult with your dog’s veterinarian.
Feeding A Shiba Inu
Shibas have a reputation for being a bit picky when it comes to their food. Whether this is well deserved or not, it isn’t exactly clear. However, it will help if you get high quality food and treats. They are working dogs and are full of energy, so you need to keep them well topped up.
Lots of Shibas will eat anything you put in front of them, so it really is the luck of the draw. Some Shibas can get fat or at least a bit chubby. If they like to eat at lot and do not get enough exercise, they can easily become overweight.
Exercise your Shiba
Shibas don’t go mad without exercise, such as a Belgian Malinois, but they definitely need daily walks. They love being outside and can go for a long time before getting tired.
Generally, Shibas will not destroy your home if they are left inside for long periods, but they do not like being separated from their pack (that’s you). Many Shibas can tolerate being crated, even if you are at home. Despite their tolerance of these things, it’s still vital for them to get their daily exercise if you want a healthy dog.
Rescue a Shiba Inu
Because of their specific needs and forthright temperament, a lot of owners find themselves unprepared for a Shiba Inu. Their need of daily exercise, intense socialization early on, and their reluctance to be trained can make them unmanageable for some owners.
The sad result of this is a lot of Shibas being put up for adoption or being given away to kennels. If you are looking for a Shiba, the rescue pound is probably your best bet, sadly.
A properly bred and certified Shiba can save a lot of problems but there are loads of Shibas who need a loving home. So give your local breed club or animal shelter a call to see if there are any floofy bundles of joy who need your love.
A Short History of the Shiba Inu
One of the traditional working breeds of Japan, the Shiba Inu come from the mountainous Chubu region of Honshu, the main island of Japan.
After Japan opened up to the rest of the world, the Shiba Inu breed came under the threat of extinction. Imports of dog breeds from the West were often crossed with the Shiba Inu to create new breeds. By 1926, there were hardly any purebred Shiba Inus left.
The efforts of hunters and breeders kept the breed from dying out entirely, even in the face of disease and starvation during World War II. Eventually, only three pure Shiba Inu bloodlines were left.
If you have ever meet a purebred Shiba Inu, they will be descended from one of these three lines. Each came from a different area in Japan: from the Mino, Gifu, Tottori and Shimane provinces and prefectures.
The Mino dogs had sickle-shaped tails, thicker ears that pricked up. The San’in Shibas were bigger than most and were usually dark without the lighter colouring found on other Shibas. Shibas from Shinshu had a thick undercoat and many guard hairs. They were often smaller and much redder than the other breeds.
The Standard Shiba in America
Finally, a standard breed was established in 1934 which combined all three breeds. This was known as the Nippo Standard and was recognized as a National Monument of Japan.
The American occupation of Japan brought in thousands of American families with the men working in the economy. In 1954, one such family brought a Shiba Inu back home at the end of their tour. By 1979, they were successfully breeding in the United States, where they have steadily grown in popularity.
In Japan, the Shiba is the most commonly owned companion dog. In America, they are now ranked 44 in terms of popularity, and the number is quickly growing.
Breeds Similar to the Shiba Inu
The two dog breeds most similar to the Shiba Inu are the Akita Inu and Shikoku Inu. Many people have claimed that the Shikoku and Akita are, respectively, the medium and large versions of the Shiba. Physically, they also resemble the Hokkaido Inu.
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