If you’ve been to my home studio for photos, you were most likely greeted by a gentle sniff from a Shiba nose before my handshake. And before we started talking photos, we most likely covered the usual Shiba intros:
“what kind of dog is that?”
“he’s a Shiba Inu.”
“is this the breed that doesn’t bark?”
“that’s a Basenji. Shibas don’t bark that much though.”
“does he shed?”
“yes. I own stock in lint rollers.”
I’ve seen a lot of articles and blog posts written about the breed tendencies of Shiba Inus, and some of them warn against getting one more strongly than some warn about pitbulls. It troubles me to see the downsides of any breed being focused on, but I do understand why it’s done: if you’re considering getting a dog you do need to know what you’re getting into. And a lot of clients who ask me questions about my Shiba are filing the info away for their own dog search.
I figured it might be helpful to some if I shared what I’ve learned from living with a Shiba for the past 4 years. But I’m not going to list his traits as breed tendencies (though some of these things are so Shiba that other Shiba owners will let out a “oh yeah girl, amen to that”). I believe each dog is an individual. Breeds do have certain tendencies toward certain behaviors and temperaments as a whole, but dogs aren’t robots and you can’t expect them to act a certain way just because most other dogs in that breed act that way. For example, my Shiba barely barks, but I’ve met other Shibas who bark like it’s a neat little hobby.
So let me introduce you to David Bowie the Dog, or Bowie for short. And like most dog owners my fiancée and I have given him a laundry list of nicknames he responds to, such as BooBoo, BoBo, Fuzzypants, Monkeyface, Chippychips, and Numbnuts. (Numbnuts is reserved for when he humps me to get his dinner or that one time he ate his own poo.) I love that dog more than just about most of the mammals I know and would give him my kidney if he needed one. I love how sometimes he’ll lightly poke my leg with his nose as he walks by, just to acknowledge my presence. And I love how his feet smell like cornchips, his snout smells like pancakes, and his breath always smells like bacon (except for that one time when he ate his own poo).
Shiba Inus are fuzzy, double coated dogs, which means he’s got a topcoat of brown fur, and an undercoat of soft, white fur, which keeps him warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The fuzzy undercoat is constantly turning over, and when the seasons change sometimes he can “blow his coat” and it comes off in huge chunks of fur every time you pet him. On average, I vacuum about twice a week if I want it to look like nothing furry sits on the couch. He is not hypoallergenic. A few people with dog allergies have sneezed on him.
Bowie is smart.
He was easy to train the basics- sit, down, speak, roll over, and stay. His best advanced trick is that he rings a bell when he has to go outside. But I’m hesitant to call it a trick… I think the things he’s learned can be put in two categories: tricks and communication. Tricks are the things he learned that if he does them when requested he’ll get a treat. And he freaking loves treats. Communication is the stuff that he learned he has a right to. He views himself as a clear member of the pack of mammals in the house and that the tall, hairless mammals will provide for his needs if he can communicate them. So he rings a bell when he wants to go out, he sits at my feet and lets out a soft bark when he wants dinner, and he paces in front of the stove when the chicken is done. (I don’t even use a kitchen timer anymore. He literally grabbed my shirtsleeve and started pulling me toward the kitchen once when some chicken boiling on the stove was done. If Lassie ever needs a stunt double on set we could just start boiling chicken.)
He also understands that the humans are mostly in charge and will stay in the house if the door opens or not jump out of the car until told it’s time to do so. This might blow some Shiba owners’ minds since Shibas are often lost because of their “door bolting” tendencies. When they see a door, they bolt. The first time a young 6 month old Bowie did that to me I put him through my own personal boot camp. Every time we went through a door I made him stop first, sit, look me in the eye, and wait until I crossed through the door and said “okay” before he could follow. It took us a long time to get out of the building, but it was worth it.
Also, like a lot of Shibas he doesn’t come when called. Most dogs come running to anyone kneeling with open arms saying “come here, boy!” Bowie just stares at you like you’re a moron.
Bowie is independent.
I had a Giant Schnauzer as a kid and used to take her for jaunts around a park without a leash- she would disappear among some trees for a bit and I would just have to say her name quietly and she’d be right back at my side. If I tried to take Bowie for a walk anywhere without a leash he would completely ignore my calls, run toward something that smelled cool, get into a cab, and try to find Baconland. If we try to pet him when he’d rather be left alone he’ll tolerate it for a little while, then stand up, walk just out of arm’s reach, and lay down again. Shibas have been described as more cat-like than dog-like and for the most part it’s true with Bowie. Whenever he’s off doing his own thing or ignoring us we say he’s got a doggie agenda. Every so often he’ll snuggle on our laps, roll over for belly-rubs or do other things a yellow lab would do 50 times a day and we’ll stop everything and scream, “Look! Quick! He’s acting like a real dog!” But he’s still my shadow for the most part and sits at the foot of my chair when I’m at my desk working or will join us on the couch for Game of Thrones.
Bowie is skittish.
He loves meeting new people, but not in the way most dogs love meeting new people. Instead of excitedly jumping on them, barking, licking their faces, and sniffing crotches, he’s more likely to slowly investigate the new, tall, hairless mammal in his presence with some quiet sniffing. Out of instinct most people reach down to pet dogs when they’re being sniffed by them, but when a newbie goes to pat Bowie on the head he dodges the hand and backs off. Most people feel awful for scaring him and I have to explain that they shouldn’t take it personally. Like most Shibas he’s not aggressive when he doesn’t want to be pet, he just dodges it and backs off. Part of me thinks it’s some kind of con… he knows that humans will feel bad if they scare him, and when humans feel bad for a dog they’ll give him bacon. But another part of me has seen Bowie try to run away from floating plastic bags on the street, leap in the air when someone sneezes, and stop at the threshold of a doorway when carpeting turns to tile as if he thinks he can’t walk on the tile or his paws will burn off.
He’s especially terrified of children. I think it’s because they’re just like adults but a fraction of the size and they move very quickly and erratically so he can’t seem to figure them out. Which makes me feel like the biggest ogre on the planet when we’re out for a walk and an 8 year old asks to pet him and I say “you can try if you go slowly but he’s really shy and might run away,” which is exactly what happens. Since most dogs love kids and accept their hugs and pats on the head like manna from Heaven, when kids see a dog run from them like they have the plague they’re dumbfounded. There isn’t much out there more heartbreaking than the look on a young child’s face when a dog doesn’t want their snuggles.
But of course, not all Shibas are this skittish around children- many who grow up around them are used to them and play like normal dogs with them. Bowie just doesn’t have as much experience with them. But when he’s in the same room with kids for more than an hour I’ve seen him warm up and accept some gentle pettings and stop bolting to my legs and sitting on my feet for reassurance. One of my proudest moments with him was when we were in line at the AT&T store and a little girl hugged him and put her tiara on his head and he took it like a champ and didn’t move.
One of my least proudest moments with him was when he ate his own poo.
Bowie doesn’t stink.
Again with the cat-like qualities, Bowie grooms himself incessantly. His fur is also kind of waterproof and it’s like trying to hose down a duck to give him a bath. Thankfully he only needs baths if he rolls around in something gross or goes for a swim in the lake. He can go months without a bath and still smell like roses, unlike most dogs that smell like, well, dogs. Also he HATES baths and having his nails trimmed and anything else that’s forced grooming. He does tolerate having his teeth brushed, however, because the doggie toothpaste tastes like chicken.
Bowie doesn’t bark.
Much. He does bark, but it’s not usually like an average dog bark that sounds like “ARF!” or “BARK!” or “RUFF!” It’s more like talking. He’ll let out a solid “ARF!” if there’s a knock at the door, but he’ll stop at one. It’s like he knows one bark is all he needs and he doesn’t have to keep repeating himself. Unless he’s hungry or wants to play, then he’ll keep making noise until he gets his way. During those moments instead of barking he does something closer to talking. Like “Aroo roo roo.”
Bowie is a purebred. And a rescue dog.
I knew I wanted a Shiba Inu before getting one and I also knew there were plenty of breed-specific rescue associations out there filled to the brim with good dogs that needed good homes. A friend of mine knew she wanted a Dachshund and followed a Dachshund rescue for a few months until they got a dog that was perfect for her. I got lucky and checked out a local Shiba Inu rescue association at the exact moment they had Bowie up for adoption. He was 6 months old and in foster care for his shots and neutering, after being rescued from a puppy mill at 3 months old. The puppy mill was breeding puppies to sell in pet stores for Christmas and the puppies that don’t get bought by this mill would be destroyed if rescue associations wouldn’t step in to beg and plead to take them off their hands. (Actually let’s change that word “destroyed” and not sugar-coat it: the mill was known for taking puppies behind a shed and shooting them.)
I’ll never chastise anyone who goes to a reputable breeder because they want a specific type of dog because it’s not my place. But I will say that rescue dogs are the best dogs in the whole world. Especially when you can get a purebred or equally awesome mutt for a fraction of the price and he or she will already have all the necessary vaccinations and been spayed/neutered. And rescue groups who spend so much time, effort, and money to spring dogs from the klink who are literally on death row are absolute angels. I owe so much to the individuals at the group that nabbed Bowie who volunteer so much of their resources to save Shiba Inus from mills, city pounds, and step in to help Shiba owners who want to give up their dogs and make sure they get a loving home. Without them I wouldn’t have my Bowie and I can’t imagine life without his fuzzy little face.
In a nutshell, I hope this better explains the Shiba Inu breed to those of you considering adding one to your family. I had a client come by for headshots a few months ago and she said she was looking for a dog that would fit in with her lifestyle and Bowie was so chill during the photo session she thought a Shiba would be perfect. But when I started to explain other parts of his personality her face sank a little- she was looking for a more snuggly dog that slept all day since she worked so much and couldn’t come home after a long day at work to a fetch-aholic. I told her to look into retired Greyhounds and she thought I was nuts, “they’re greyhounds! That’s so much energy, they run so fast!” I said, “not anymore!” A retired greyhound is usually only 2-3 years old and the laziest dog on the planet. They were bred for short bursts of energy and long periods of rest so they sleep like 22 hours out of the day and just want to lay on the couch with you and snuggle for their 2 hours spent awake.
But again, every dog is an individual and I’m sure someone out there is saying, “I’d love to finish reading this but my Greyhound is humping my leg for his dinner and running in circles trying to get me to play fetch.”