It's a Fox, It's a Cat, It's a Shiba Inu

The Shiba Inu, the iconic Japanese dog with pointed ears and a curly flourish of a tail, is a magical creature. It is a dog possessed of almost feline characteristics, fastidious, quiet, sensitive, refined, elegant, and somewhat aloof. There is nothing slobbery about the Shiba, no rolling around in shit. On walks, puddles are delicately avoided. Its stature and proportions are those of a much larger dog, but in a house dog sized body. It's insanely cute, without ever being silly. Everybody thinks it's a fox. And have you ever seen the Shiba puppy cam?

Shibas in the Garden. Momo (L) and Toro (R). 

When we got our first Shiba (Toro) eight years ago, Shibas were a relatively new phenomenon here in the U.S. Nobody knew just what he was, and countless people asked about him when we were out and about. We heard "he looks just like fox!" everywhere we took him. Once we were strolling through a small park at the base of Mt. Shasta, the volcano towering above us and rainclouds in the sky as dusk approached. The park was almost empty, except for us and little boy and girl with their mother.  After we passed them we could hear their children's voices arguing. "It's a fox," said one. "No, it's dog," said the other. "No, it's a fox!" 

Maybe it's because we rarely go out anymore, having become hermits in our life of ramen and toddler mayhem, but it seems people ask about the dogs a lot less now than they did five years ago. I think breed recognition has grown significantly, so fewer people feel the need to comment on their foxy looks. Now I see Shibas around all the time here in the Bay Area. Two years ago, I had dinner with a friend in New York, who told me she'd never seen a Shiba there. But it's definitely a question of whether or not you're looking. The next morning I went out to do some exploring, and spotted five of them in the Lower East Side, all before lunch! 

When we made the abrupt, almost spontaneous, decision to start our ramen business two years ago, the Shiba Ramen name was all but set. Just hours into the project, we were confident enough to buy the domain name shibaramen.com as our very first corporate act. We never really talked about other names. We just kind of understood this was it. And of course this was it! What other name could there be? We're just wild about our dogs.

Let's learn a bit more about this amazing animal and companion, from its ancient origins to the ideal orientation of its majestic tail.

Japanese Dogs

The Shiba Inu is the smallest of six native Japanese breeds of spitz-type dogs, the others being the Shikoku, Kishu, Kai, Hokkaido, and Akita. It has its origins in prehistory, its ancestors coming to Japan with immigrants from the Asian mainland beginning in around 7000 B.C. By 200 B.C., continued interbreeding of the ancient dogs with more recent immigrant breeds produced a dog similar to the modern Shiba: small size, pointy ears, curly tail. In the 7th Century A.D., the imperial court established a dogkeeper's office to help maintain the native dog breeds as an important part of Japanese culture. Through the medieval period, Shibas were bred by Samurai for hunting deer, wild boar, and small game. Three regional sub-breeds of Shiba ultimately evolved: the San In Shiba, Mino Shiba, and Shinsho Shiba. 

Six Japanese Dogs. Clockwise from upper right: Hokkaido, Kai, Kishu, Shikoko, Shiba, and Akita. All are named after the region of origin, except the Shiba.  Image from http://obaka.atja.jp/. 

World War II almost made an end of the Shiba. Due to bombing, food shortages, and a post-war distemper epidemic, the breed was almost wiped out. The surviving members of the three Shiba strains were bred together to produce the modern Shiba Inu. 

Modern Shiba. After WWII reduced the Shiba to near-extinction, the survivors of the three regional sub-breeds were combined to give us the Shiba we know today.  Image from http://myfirstshiba.com/shiba-inu-history/.

What a Tail!

In our Shiba Ramen logo (which you now understand is not a cat!) we chose to emphasize two features of the Shiba: it's pointed ears and curly tail. These twin traits stand out when you see a Shiba for the first time, the tail especially. According to the American Kennel Club breed standard, the Shiba's tail "is thick and powerful and is carried over the back in a sickle or curled position. A loose single curl or sickle tail pointing vigorously toward the neck and nearly parallel to the back is preferred. A double curl or sickle tail pointing upward is acceptable." I now appreciate what this means. Our younger Shiba, Momo, has the "preferred" tail, a loose single curl that drapes elegantly along her back. 

Our older Shiba, Toro, has the latter (i.e., merely "acceptable") kind of tail. It's tightly curled, sits up on his back, and resembles a cinnamon bun. It's high on cuteness factor, but it can't fully unfurl and has a limited range of motion. When he wags his tail, the wound-up tail clicks back and forth on his back. His tight tail was at least one reason the breeder didn't keep him to show. Nevertheless, it is a pretty amazing emotion-conveying tool. When he drops his tail 90 degrees, such that it hangs parallel to the ground with core still coiled, it's a sure sign he's nervous.

The Shiba ears, meanwhile, are incredibly soft and velvety, and are at least as expressive as the tail. They can lower into a high-cuteness airplane-like position or, like a satellite dish, they can rotate around a vertical axis to pick up sounds coming from behind. 

Our abstract logo fails to pick up on one significant Shiba feature: it's coat and markings. The Shiba comes in four color varieties: red, sesame, black & tan, and cream. Red is the most common. If you've seen a Shiba, odds are it was red. The first three colors are the only ones accepted in competition. According to the AKC, cream coloring "is a very serious fault and must be penalized." Good grief, I say to that, but whatever. The apparent issue is that the cream Shiba doesn't have urajiro markings--i.e., white color on the underside of the dog from the muzzle through the tail.

Four Flavors of Shiba. Black & Tan, Red, Cream, and Sesame (L to R).  Photo credit here.  

Toro, My Personal Stalker

The Shiba temperament is different from the other dogs I've experienced. There's an aloofness and independence in the Shiba; it is not a lapdog. But that doesn't mean it doesn't want to be close. It wants to be next to you, not on you. It wants to interact on terms of its own choosing. When Toro arrived as a four-month-old puppy, he was unlike any puppy I'd met. Cautious, nervous, even depressed by his changed circumstances, it took a long time before he warmed up to us. Eight years later, he still only allows himself to be handled in certain ways, but the strength of our bond is undeniable. He is near me almost all the time. He's the most needy kind of aloof you can imagine. 

Momo is a bit different. She's not the nervous type, and doesn't need to be in the same room. But she enjoys--and sometimes even initiates--physical affection. In a demure Shiba sort of way, she'll come up and poke you with her nose, inviting a pet. Where Toro was something of a basket case when he arrived, Momo bounded out of the crate and got straight to the good times. Where Toro doesn't bark, Momo thrusts out her chest and runs around the house and yard throwing around her tough girl bark at every squirrel and passing dog. Not uncommonly for Shibas, both dogs arrived as 3-4 month-old puppies essentially housebroken. Shibas really want to be clean.  

What a Stud! Taro, father of Toro and grandfather of Momo. Great logo inspiration.  

The personality difference we see in our dogs may be a reflection of male vs. female Shibas generally. Toro has had a lot of anxiety issues over the years, and under certain circumstances can be prone to dog-dog aggression. Last year when my mom's male dog visited for a couple months, Toro was aggressive with him when food was around, especially when my mom was doing the feeding. But as soon as we learned Toro needed to feel like the alpha around her (he already was with me), so he should be fed first, the problems diminished. There are lots of reports of male Shibas being difficult. Momo, on the other hand, isn't prone to mood swings or any type of aggression. Her personality is light and eternally good-natured. Toro's foibles aside, both dogs are remarkably gentle around people, kids included.  

To learn more about the Shiba Inu, click here, here, here, or here.