The Shiba’s Place in the Dog World
The author explores the roots of this ancient Japanese primitive-spitz type hunting breed
In 1993, the American Kennel Club “recognized” the Shiba Inu. To the fanciers of this ancient breed, such an act parallels the “discovery” of America by Columbus as contemplated by the indigenous Native American Indians who were already here. Not everyone was enthralled by the move (see “AKC plans hostile take-over,” DOG WORLD, February 1992 issue, p. 121) and purists lamented the fact that the AKC wrote its own standard for “their” new breed, contrary to the country-of-origin standard, the standards of the Shiba Ken Club, and the Shiba Club of America, or even that of the club the AKC conveniently set up as its “parent club,” the National Shiba Club of America. After considerable struggle with the AKC, Shiba purists regained control over their breed, its true Standard, and the club.
What is this breed called Shiba? What are its origins, similarities and differences compared with other breeds more familiar to Americans? The very beginning of the Shiba’s long trek to the present era is widely held to be somewhere in the vicinity of Mesopotamia, surrounded by what is known today as Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq. In this, scholars agree with the Biblical account of the origin of the “first” dogs—i.e., the new beginning of the species after the Great Flood. Whether Noah had separate accommodations for wolves and dogs, or to put it another way, whether Canis familiaris, Canis lupus, and similar dog-wolves had diverged long before that, is of little concern.
We’ll assume here a common ancestry.
Wolves and dogs spread out from this epicenter and, because the canid has such a “plastic” gene collection, there quickly developed different types: It is most likely that Canis lupus pallipes (the extinct East Indian or pale-footed Asian wolf) gave rise to most of the Dingo group and, by back-breeding with Canis lupus (represented by America’s timber wolf and Europe’s northern grey wolf), to many of the spitz-pariah types. This group includes the various feral (pariah and street) dogs of the Middle East, Africa, India, Southeast Asia, Australia and the Orient. Recognized breeds also in this category and geography would include the Canaan, Basenji, Telomian, New Guinea Singing Dog, Dingo, Chow Chow, Korean Palace Dog and its nearly identical successor the Jindu, and the Japanese native breeds from the large Akita to the small Shiba.
Neither civilization nor settlement nor the spread of canine type proceeded in one period or in a continuous fanning out from point of origin, be it named Eden, Ararat, or Babel. Instead, people set out from home in many waves over periods of many thousands of years, some returning, some not. Breed types developed by alternating isolation with cross-breeding. Even the most pure—those isolated for extremely long times, such as the Basenji and the Dingo—may have had some minor “crossbreeding,” although in most cases the introduction of a few specimens of other “breeds” would have negligible effect on large numbers of dogs of somewhat pure strains.
The Fertile Crescent (which I believe to be the canid’s and man’s geographical origin) became the crossroads of commerce as many attempted to bring their discoveries back home. This coming and going had an effect on re-blending of breed types, but since some of the travelers settled in hard-to-reach places, separation into breed types also occurred.
A small- to medium-size progenitor of the Basenji was brought to central Africa, while cousins were carried across the Indian subcontinent and/or the Indian Ocean to Southeast Asia. Here, perhaps more than 15,000 years ago, the Southeast Asian Dingo type was planted. The oldest complete Australian Dingo skeleton is dated at 3,000 years ago, but there is hard evidence of the existence of Dingoes about 7,000 years ago. However, both of these dates are after the aboriginals were established there. It is likely that the trading tribes of the Indonesian and East Indies islands brought what would become the Dingo (or most of the stock) to Cape York, the northernmost peninsula of Australia. Many small islands dot the Pacific between that cape and what is now Papua-New Guinea; the giant canoes of the period undoubtedly carried dogs for commerce as well as companionship and even a food source.
While the Dingo spread across the Australian continent as the companion of the aboriginal tribes, its ancestors were spreading across the Pacific “highways” and the land trade routes, and developing into similar yet different breeds. Unlike the Dingo, which remained quite isolated (perhaps through later hostilities between peoples), the relatives were occasionally crossbred and selected for certain traits. The Basenji-like Telomian in Indonesia, Dingo-like dogs in Indo-China, and others ran into each other with some degree of frequency. At least one canine family became established in the Chosen peninsula (Korea) and developed into the Korean Palace Dog, raised for hundreds of years on the Chindo island (as late as this generation, South Korean president Sigmund Rhea had some, but the last one apparently died several years ago).
Other breeds survived elsewhere and exist today, in spite of (or perhaps because of?) older Koreans’ propensity toward raising dogs for food. Meanwhile, the Chow Chow (name given because it was listed on European vessels’ inventories as miscellany, including various foodstuffs) developed further south in China with emphasis on fighting and hunting. Ancestors of the Korean dogs possibly came over to Japan via a land bridge, spreading across the long Japanese peninsula before that was separated into several islands and isolated from the continent by rising ocean levels—and/or submerged by continental drift. Later landings of the Chow’s ancestors via the sea combined these with their ancient cousins and the “Japan Native Breed” was begun.
The Akita also received some European dog genes in later years of its development. The basic native breed inherited the spitz characteristics (sharp face, erect ears, curled tail) of most of the greater family we have been discussing. The earlier “Japanese Dog” was larger than what is now preferred for the Shiba, but not as large as the Akita. This latter breed, developed by the wealthy or powerful warlords primarily for the sport of dog fighting, combined the feisty, combative, independent nature of the ubiquitous smaller dog with the power of the Tibetan Mastiff, Chow Chow and any other “secret ingredient” any men felt might give an advantage over another man’s dog.
Meanwhile, the dogs used for hunting in the brushwood continued (with minor regional differences), much as it was when it landed on or crossed over to ancient Japan. A feudal system and natural barriers such as mountains and seas helped this “breed” to split into several breeds or varieties. Today we recognize the names of Kai, Shikoku, Kishu and Hokkaido as well as the Shiba, all having minor distinctions, but all obviously from the same root stock. It has only been in the past 60 to 90 years that the Shiba began to develop as a smaller dog than its present five cousins.
Because the Australian Dingo has been preserved in much its original form by isolation, we can use that breed for comparison with the Shiba. Both are primarily red dogs, with some black-and-tan and some cream-colored individuals, although the cream dogs are not given a second look in Japan; they are destroyed or sold to unsuspecting gullible Americans. Both breeds can carry black-and-tan as a recessive trait with some of these showing it as a “red sesame” appearance (tips of some hairs are black). Both commonly have these white or lighter parts: markings on chest, tail tips and feet as well as shadings of cream or light color on the cheeks, underside and eyebrows.
Hound breeder, practical geneticist and veterinarian Leon Whitney showed that voice is clearly inherited, and we see (or, rather, hear) similarities in vocalization in these two breeds. The Dingo seldom barks; the Basenji is known as the “barkless dog”; the Shiba barks some, but shares certain sounds with both of these plus the New Guinea Singing Dog. The Shiba chortles and warbles, at times sounding remarkably like a bird. I have heard my Shibas give the same soft, whispery “Woof!” that I have heard from Dingoes.
The forward, hooded earset and characteristic ear carriages to show emotions are almost identical. The Shiba, being adapted to extremely cold temperatures, has developed smaller ears to conserve heat and a smaller and more compact body style for the same reason. Shibas also have a thicker coat than most Dingoes. The southern, mountain Dingo has a double coat, but not as thick or upstanding as the Shiba’s. The Dingo has one estrus annually, and many, if not most, Basenjis and Shibas also come into season but once a year. Both Dingoes and Shibas prefer to be solitary hunters rather than pack animals, though this is not to say they won’t cooperate in the hunt. They have extremely similar body language and play mannerisms.
Watching and playing with many Dingoes from various parts of Australia, I could almost see in my mind some of their ancestors getting out of the canoes from the equatorial islands, and others being traded and trotting toward that far-off land (in terms of time and distance) whence came at long last to our homes and hearts, the Shiba.
Judges and others interested in gaining a basic view of the Shiba can consult the AKC or UKC Standards as introductions, and then follow with a study of the Shiba Club of America “Judging Resolutions” (you may have to search old periodicals such as back issues of The Shiba Journal for these). They are expanded and detailed discussions necessary for fuller understanding of the breed.
Judges especially need to be educated as to the relative importance of gait. Because AKC stresses standardization of just about everything under the sun, including ring procedure, its judges tend to get into the habit of moving all dogs the same way (or nearly so). If a judge develops expertise in a breed which should move differently (ambling Old English Sheepdogs, pacing Fila Brasileiros, etc.) that’s great, but the fact is that very few know enough about the Shiba at present, and most are judging them the same way they judge the other breeds. In the AKC, UKC, Canadian Kennel Club, and most FCI and other organizations’ rings, dogs are judged with much emphasis on the trot. But this is not the gait used by many breeds in the performance of their work. It is not only acceptable, but necessary for judges to use a standard approach in looking for soundness vs. movement faults, but once that is out of the way, they should concentrate on the much-misunderstood importance of TYPE.
The Shiba is not a herding dog, despite its superficial resemblance (to the novice) to such spitz breeds as the reindeer-herding Samoyed and its arctic sled-dog cousins. This is a “hunting hound/spitz” type much closer in nature and ancestry to the Dingo, Chow, Shar-Pei, Telomian, Jindu and even the Basenji. The action of the Shiba should reflect its function: The lightness and springiness of its gait should denote its ability to jump straight up like a grasshopper, enabling it to see over the brushwood, grasses, rocks and other obstacles to low-level vision. Spotting its prey, the Shiba should be able to “bounce” with great power upon the very next contact with the ground, even if it means nearly a 180-degree turn before landing. It should be able to jump high into the air and actually nab ascending birds that it has flushed while using its remarkable nose.
While chasing hares or other running game, whether on broken or open ground, the Shiba should be able to “turn on a yen.” The moderate angulation of the Shiba (not as straight in the stifle as the Chow or most terriers, nor anywhere as bent as long-striding breeds) is important in yielding that springiness and ability to change direction quickly. It also helps in fighting the captured game, should it be necessary, because a dog that can keep its feet beneath its torso is a dog that is stable and cannot be easily overturned during combat.
Breeders and judge-selection committees should emphasize the need to preserve the Shiba type (form) based on function, stressing that the Shiba with power and nimble gait should not be considered less desirable than the one with a more ground-covering stride. Incidentally, males often look more powerful and bitches more light on their feet, but the differences are slight. As long as two dogs being compared both have soundness and angles within the range of correctness according to our standard and judging resolutions, greater reach should not be given much if any importance. What are more important are the dog’s attitude, dentition, color, coat, tail, eyes, ears, markings, structure, and all the other factors that relate to its history and function.
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