A customs inspector strolled by, casually looked at the dogs, did a double-take, then stopped dead in his tracks.
He looked at me and sternly said, "That isn't a fox, is it?"
I sighed and went through what would become akin to a tape recording in the days to come: "No, they're not foxes, they're Shiba Inus, a Japanese dog breed, and this is as big as they get."
The customs inspector grunted, stuck his finger in one of the cages and Bandit gladly licked it.
"Cute," the inspector said.
My husband and I still get a good laugh out of that. We got more laughs out of our cross-country road trip from Los Angeles to Maine with our Shibas. It seemed that everywhere we stopped someone asked, “What kind of dogs are those?”
So, what are Shibas and where do they come from?
SHORT SHIBA HISTORY
Shibas are a native breed of Japan and have been around for over 7,000 years. The word "shiba" originally referred to something small, and a literal translation of “shiba” is brush, which may refer to the red coloring of most Shibas and how fast they run through the brush, or grass. Shibas lived mainly in the mountainous regions of Japan and were used as hunting dogs for small game and birds, as well as companions.
After 1868, there was crossbreeding of the Shiba with English Setters and Pointers. It got to point where pure Shibas became rare. By 1928, the government of Japan became concerned enough with preserving the Shiba breed that the Japan Dog Preservation Society was formed. The search began for pure Shibas to start a breeding program and by 1934, the Shiba was once again a “pure” breed. In 1936 the Shiba was designated a “precious natural resource” of Japan.
Shibas range in color from red (red with white markings, similar to a fox) to black and tan to red sesame (red with black guard hairs and white markings) and white. The most common color is red, although black and tan is a clearly favored second.
BACK TO THE LITTLE RASCAL
If you own a Shiba, expect questions and stares. Expect people to refer to them as “baby Akitas.” And don’t forget the fox resemblance.
Susan Macre of Snowood Shibas shares this story:
“There was a young Shiba named Oscar. One day, his owner went to work and left him in the kennel with his brother and sister. When Oscar's owner returned from work, she discovered Oscar wasn’t in the kennel - the lock was still on the door, but Oscar was gone! She called the dog warden. No answer, so she left a message. She called the police. No dogs had been reported hit by cars, so she waited, and waited. Finally, she got a call from the dog warden. They had no reports of a “Shena Ebu,” but a red fox wearing a blue collar had been seen. The owner quickly drove to where the collar-wearing fox had been seen, and was happy to find Oscar there.”
(Which leads us to fences):
“Determined to find out how Oscar escaped, his owner put him in the kennel. When she went into the house and looked out the window, she saw Oscar on top of the doghouse with his head through the top of the fence. She ran outside, put Oscar in the house and went to the store. After purchasing 50 feet of cotton clothesline, she entered the kennel, laced the fencing down (eliminating the escape route) and put Oscar back in the kennel. When she returned to the window, she was amazed to see Oscar on top of the doghouse again, trying to find his way out. When all possibilities were exhausted, he turned around, sat down and BARKED at his owner. He then turned his back on her and didn't look at her for three days.”
Shibas love to climb and jump and run. Shibas are not off-leash dogs. You let them go and they’ll keep running. Shiba owners either have a fenced-in yard or large kennel for them to run around in. But you’d better make sure the fence is high enough and secure enough, or you’ll end up with a “fox on the loose,” too.
Shibas make strange sounds. Sure, they bark and whimper like other dogs, but they’ll try to talk to you, making these warbling sounds, some call them chortles. I call them the sounds Taun-Tauns made in The Empire Strikes Back movie (remember on Hoth, the ice planet and the creature Han Solo rode in the snow?). They also make odd grunting sounds when they play or if you scratch them in just the right place. My husband can make our white Shiba, Guin, sound like a pig, which entertains our guests to no end.
Shibas are very catlike - they’re independent, but will cuddle and lay on your lap when they want to (Bandit throws himself on my lap at night, turns upside down and gives me a pitiful look until I scratch his head and belly); they clean themselves constantly and hate being dirty, but love to romp in the rain and snow. They’re highly intelligent, almost spookily so - Bandit knows the difference between right and left (shaking hands and directing him in the backyard or telling him which car window to look out of); I can say a complete sentence to him like “Go get a toy and play with your puppy (Guin)” and he will; if I tell him we’ll do something “soon,” he’ll patiently wait and remind me in a few hours with what I can only describe as a gruff, low bark; and he helps me in the garden - he knows the difference between my flowers and plants and weeds and pulls the weeds! They become bored easily, so you need to keep them busy (we have a basket of toys and chase them around the yard on a regular basis). Although some Shibas hate to be hugged and kissed, some love it - Guin plants herself in my lap each night in a certain position to be petted and won’t budge; Bandit will come up to me when he wants his “loving,” then I’ll kiss and hug/squeeze him while he “complains”. But he enjoys it, and will paw at me if I stop too soon.
“They have a great sense of humor, yet are unusually perceptive,” Laura Perkinson of Taichung Shibas says, then explains how. “My first Shiba, Willow, surprised me in 1992, when I had surgery that left me paralyzed from the waist down. I was in the hospital and very depressed - I wouldn’t speak to anyone or eat. My daughter put Willow in a gym bag and brought her in my room and shut the door. She put Willow on the bed and Willow ran over to me and kissed me, ran around the bed, then kissed me again. I cried and cried - all the while Willow was giving me hundreds of kisses and she NEVER does that (nor has she again)! It lead me on the road to recovery, both mentally and physically - I can now walk with a limp.” Precious as they are, Shibas aren’t for everyone. If someone wants a dog that follows them everywhere, that they can walk with off-leash, that always comes when called, and are dependent on their owners, forget it.
“They’re independent, stubborn and head-strong,” agrees Susan Macre. “They’ll move into your home and take over (sitting and sleeping where they want when they want is one example) , but they’ll allow you to continue living there, as long as you remain at their beck and call.”
If Shibas are brought into a home as a puppy, they’ll get along with other pets in the household and they do love kids, but won’t put up with having their tail or ears pulled, so it’s highly suggested that any children are old enough to understand this. When a Shiba wants to stop playing, they just stop; if they’re pushed, they will growl as a warning, just as if you were a fellow Shiba. If an adult Shiba is brought into the home, they’re best being the only dog in the house, or a puppy can be introduced later on. Shibas are a lot like people - each has their own personality, quirks, and moods. You need to live with your Shiba for a while to understand them. . .and give them a chance to understand you.
Pretty amazing for a dog who stands around 15" tall at the shoulder and weighs under 30 pounds.