What Is A Shiba?

When we picked Misaki up the breeder warned us our life was about to change a little bit. No, not just because we would now have a little bundle of crazy to add to the three other bundles of crazy to replace the quite large bundle of crazy, but also because she was a Shiba. Shibas, we were told, catch people's eye because they are relatively rare. People will come up to you and want to pet the Shiba, to ask questions about it.

This concept was a little foreign to us. We aren't the go-out-and-meet-people type, and plus we had Ruby, an Akita who was more likely to inspire people to cross the street than come over and say hi, which was fine with us.

And well, it's happened. Everyone stares at Misaki, not just because she's cute but because she's rare. We can feel the eyes as we walk by on the street and hear the conversations between people about the dog. Most people have no idea what she is.

So, be that as it is, I am taking it upon myself to give the world a crash course on what a Shiba is and what a Shiba is not, replete with pictures to compare and contrast. Enjoy!

A Shiba Is...

Shibas come originally from Japan (Misaki herself was born there) and are the smallest of six original native Japanese breeds, the largest of which is the Akita. You may note from the previous pictures of Misaki and Ruby they look very similar - this is not a coincidence. The name "Shiba" means brushwood in Japanese, a shrub that turns red in the fall. (More fantastic explanation for language geeks like me here.)

Misaki at Cannon Beach, apparently quite happy

The breed comes mainly in three colors: red (like Misaki), black and tan (sort of like a doberman, but with lighter tan and softer transitions), and sesame (a hybrid of the two). Red Shibas are by far the most popular, and even though all three colors are accepted by the AKC red Shibas almost always do better in the show ring. They do also occasionally appear all white, but that's rare. The whites also are not recognized as legit by the AKC in the same way melanistic Bengals (all black with spots barely visible, like a "black panther") are not by TICA - but are still super cool.

Shibas are compact bundles of muscle. I'm pretty sure Misaki has not a shred of fat anywhere on her body, and were she my size she could kick my tail with two paws tied behind her back. And an eye closed. They also have double-layered fur coats to protect against intense heat and cold. This also means they blow their coats a couple times a year to clear out the dead fur in the undercoat, covering your entire house in a soft layer of fuzzy.

They are generally aloof towards people not in their pack (Misaki, contrastly, likes people) and aren't fans of other dogs, even other Shibas, especially of the same gender (this is just like an Akita, too).

Originally Shibas were bred in Japan to hunt and flush birds and small game. Our little pup already has her first kill at our house in less than one month - more on that at a later date. They first came to United States in 1954 in the arms of a U.S. serviceman (I know, big shock there). (Here's some more discussion of their history.)

You will probably also hear them called "Shiba Inu" instead of Shiba. In my mind, as one with a degree in Japanese, this is pretty silly. Inu is Japanese for dog. I will never refer to a Shiba as a Shiba Inu, on the principle that it's redundant. It's funny Shibas ended up being registered as Shiba Inu with the AKC. Why? Well, Akitas are also referred to as Akita Inu in Japanese just as much as Shiba Inu (which is to say not nearly as much in modern times), but in the U.S. it's just Akita. Who knows why...but the whole point is calling a Shiba a Shiba Inu is kind of silly.

Okay, now you know what a Shiba is - let's find out what a Shiba is not.

A Shiba Is Not...An Emu

A what?! Yeah, this happened. Wifey and were taking Misaki for a hike in Hoyt Arboretum right after we got her and were stopped at one point by two women who thought she was the cutest thing ever. They asked to pet her, and we obliged. The first lady asked what breed she was, so we told her. They petted her, and then both our little groups moved off in separate directions.

As the two women walked away we heard the second ask the first about the breed - apparently she didn't hear. The first lady said Shiba, and then the second said this:

"Oh! A Shiba Emu!"

Wifey and looked at each other, not quite believing our ears - it was all we could to do keep from laughing until they were out of earshot.

"Did she call Misaki an emu?!"

"Yes, yes she did."

Now, it's likely the lady meant "inu" instead of "emu" - the vast majority of the world isn't keen to the nuances of Japanese language pronounciation. I get that. However, that doesn't mean I can't laugh about it.

So here you go:

Misaki, at her home jungle

Emu (from the Wikipedia)

Not a match.

A Shiba Is Not....A Basenji

Wifey and I were at a pet store on Burnside called Meat (very cool place, and right next door to Heart Coffee Roasters, which we love) getting some treats for Misaki and probably the cats too, can't quite remember. A woman was getting some items for her own dog and was so sure of herself when she asked us this:

"That's a Basenji, isn't it?"

This wasn't a question, more of seeking affirmation. At the time I had no idea what a Basenji looked like - had to look that up later - but I was pretty sure it looked nothing like a Shiba. After we explained Misaki was a Shiba, the woman just looked confused, like she couldn't fathom the fact she wasn't staring at a Basenji.

After looking up Basenjis online they are a similar size - perhaps taller but around the same weight. They also have curled tails, but not with nearly the fluff of a Shiba, and their faces are very different as well as their coloring.

Here you go:


A Basenji

Not a match.

A Shiba Is Not...An Akita Puppy

Over and over we get asked whether or not Misaki is a puppy. People are shocked when we tell them she is six...years, not months. We call her Pups in an endearing way, but we did that with the 90-pound Akita as well. People seem to just assume because she is small that she must be a puppy, and I think a lot of that has to do with people being slightly more familiar with the concept of an Akita than a Shiba - they don't realize these two very separate breeds essentially look exactly the same.

We were walking here in the neighborhood a couple weeks back and an older lady stopped to pet her. She cooed over her, then finally asked how old she was. "Six." She was a little odd anyway, so we took the opportunity to leave while she still had a glazed and confused look on her face.

The funny thing is before whenever we'd tell anyone our dog was an Akita they never had any idea what we were talking about either. Many thought they knew, then they'd describe something very different. I would finally tell them an Akita was something like a Siberian Husky, only twice the size. Then people would be stunned trying to imagine a dog that size.

I somewhat blame the movie Hachi - starring Richard Gere - for the idea that a Shiba is really an Akita puppy. In that movie, for the scenes where Hachi - the main character, an Akita - was a puppy, they actually used an adult Shiba. I think it was probably because Akitas are hard enough to train that training a puppy would be impossible, but Akita puppies don't look anything like a Shiba adult. They are fluffy all over, with none of the crispness in coloring of an adult. Shiba puppies are the same way.

Here you go:

Misaki as a puppy in Japan (via Sanshou Shibas)

Ruby as an Akita puppy

Misaki as an adult Shiba

Ruby as an adult Akita

Not a match.

A Shiba Is Not...A Fox

This is probably the most common comparison we hear, Misaki looking like a fox. You know what? In truth, she does a little bit look like a red fox. Sort of. The shades of red and white are different (Misaki's white is a tad on the cream side) and foxes have black tips on their ears, feet, and tail. A fox tail is much fluffier as well, and doesn't curl like a Shiba's. Misaki also would kill a fox in a bodybuilding competition.

We've overheard the comparison a lot, especially with kids. Perhaps the funniest one was just the other day. We were nibbling our goodies at Mississippi Marketplace when a couple walked by with a small boy on the wife's shoulder. He was facing behind her, and she didn't see Misaki as they walked by. When he saw Misaki his eyes became as big as saucers.

"Mom, look! Is that a fox?!"

Mom was in the middle of a conversation with Dad and didn't want to really pay attention to what the kid was saying, so she did what a lot of Moms do in that situation.

"Yes, honey, it is."

The boy was literally in awe. He thought he was looking at someone's pet red fox!

The family left and I didn't see them again, but somewhere in Portland there is a small boy who thinks another family has a fox as a pet. That would be cool, but no, Misaki is not a fox. Although, sometimes when she curls up to sleep she does look like one.

Another girl, college age, was convinced Misaki was part fox. While we were in Cannon Beach I went into a place to get some ice cream while Wifey waited outside with Misaki. The girl asked multiple times if Misaki had fox in her, and was confused by Wifey repeatedly saying nope, no fox.

Here you go:

Misaki, all curled up asleep

Red Fox (via wildlifeonline)

Not a match - almost, but not quite.

A Shiba Is Not...A Cartoon Character

It surprised me the first time, but it's happened so many times since it barely registers. People come up to Misaki and say something along the lines of "she doesn't look real." This isn't meant as a negative; it's a compliment (or, at least, we think it is). She has also been referred to as a cartoon character, which I also took to mean not quite real.

I think it's because of her expressions, because of how she looks like she's trying to convey something to you. It makes her seem almost mystical, like a being capable of things that cannot be explained. Or, as we usually call it around here, "crazy."

Shibas are represented quite often in Japanese anime and children's books, usually as a symbol of a protector (however, I urge you to practice restraint when Google Imaging "shiba anime" - remember the first rule of websurfing that all things lead to porn, some faster than others).

Here you go:

Misaki, looking very zen and "not real"

Shiba Wanko (from Andrea's Random Lil' Blog)

A Shiba Is Not...A Vegan

Not sure I need to cover this again - 'nuff said.

A Shiba Is Not...A Coyote (update 8/9/10)

Covered that here.


  1. Excellent summary.
    I laughed when I read "shiba emu". Hilarious!

  2. Yes, the visual comparison of a shiba inu and an emu was an great touch. I'm still giggling.

  3. Wonderful post! Gotten all of those - the Basenji one flipped me out for a long time. I couldn't believe people know Basenjis, but not Shibas. Huh? We also get questions if Zuko is a Jindo.

    Love the compare / contract pics. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Thanks for stopping by and checking out the world of Misaki! Thoroughly enjoy your blogs as well!

  5. w00t. :D i think they used a small Shiba to act as an Akita puppy in the movie "Hachiko". Because it definitely looked like a Shiba Inu, not an Akita pup. O:

    ... And, wtf, a Basenji looks nothing like a Shiba Inu. >_>

  6. Where did you get her? I live around Portland as well, I'm hoping to get a Shiba Inu sometime in the future...

  7. @ cottonball - We actually bought Hachi because it came out on video right at the time our Akita's time with us was ending (sad!). In one of the extras on the disc (if I recall right - maybe I read this online somewhere) they talked about the dogs they used in the movie and they definitely used Shibas to pass off as the puppy Hachi. Cute, just not accurate. :)

    @ Anonymous - Sanshou Shibas - http://www.sanshoushibas.com/

  8. For every single area you covered, I had almost the same identical experience with my two Shibas in Washington, DC.

    The most impressive one in my mind is the "is that real?" comment. It happened when I was walking Hoshi to obedience class and I was so surprised, I could not answer right away...

    And here I thought I was the only one with the "emu" experience! That must have something to do with the challenge of the breed name. From my observations, the term "shiba inu" seems to be a tongue twister for many. I've heard things like "Shubi Anu" and "Shuba Emu". Now I can see it becoming the viral Shiba owners' special joke. ;)

    What is great is that on any given day you don't know what response you'll get from people. Sometimes it will be repetitive ("is that a fox?") or sometimes you'll get a jaw-dropper. :)

  9. Danielle - Someone on the internets mentioned their Shiba was called a Shamu Emu once. Wow.

    The first "Is she real" comment we got we literally were speechless. What's the appropriate response? No, I'm pulling a stuffed animal around on a leash? That walks?

    Or is no - she's really a magical fairy?

    Maybe the sarcasm should be kept to myself...

  10. Hi Jason. I'm here checking out your blog for the first time. I've heard all of these as well, plus "German Shepherd puppy" (numerous times! WTF???) and "that barkless dog."


  11. German Shepherd puppy? I have not heard that one...sounds like an addendum is needed.

    Barkless dog - that's funny. :) But, at least in Misaki's case, totally true.

  12. Jason - for the number of times shiba owners get the "is that real" question, you should publish a book of responses. "no. It's a rare cat." "no, it's a hologram" "no, I just programmed my kid's stuffed animal to walk" "no, it's a new toy I picked up in Tokyo". Feel free to add to the list!

    Robin - just north of Seattle & no, it's not real either