So I decided before I make the huge leap into creating an online shop that I’d make a rinky dink page attached to my website selling a couple of the Shiba Inu items I brought back from Japan. I’m hoping to expand my inventory & possibly stock several units of the same item. But we’ll see how it goes, it’ll be a learning experience either way.
I feel many people are confused when asked: what makes a dog breeder a reputable breeder? The answer varies depending on who you ask. Pet buyers, dog breeders, vets, and even rescues will often have a different response – heck it even differs by country!
This article will elaborate on my perception of what makes an individual a reputable breeder. For me, I think there are a few key points a breeder must possess in order to be labeled as a reputable breeder in my book. However, I understand some people may disagree or feel like there are other points to be added. I’m not the end all, know all when it comes to dogs, I’m an individual who values the purebred dog for what it is, and wants to see purebred dogs flourish because of reputable breeders who care about the breed and want to do right by their dogs. I hate the fact purebreds are constantly bashed about being less healthy than mixes because of high volume/uneducated breeders will use the term purebred as a huge selling point, not caring about common genetic issues in the breed, breeding any dog regardless if it shows qualities of the genetic diseases. Purebred does not equal well bred, a well bred animal is not only a joy to live with but also a healthy example of their breed.
Passing Health Testing
Personally I feel that the most important thing any dog breeder can do is get their breeding stock health tested. Taking a dog to the vet for a checkup, being told they are healthy, and being up to date on vaccines for example is not the same as being health tested. Purebred dogs have a limited gene pool so it’s extremely important that breeders do their best to preserve the genetic integrity of the breed by breeding only the healthiest dogs or selectively breeding dogs with issues to increase genetic diversity. The OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals) has a list on their website of health testing specific breeds should have and pass before being bred. These tests are set by the parent club of the breed and are posted on the OFA’s website. If the breeder does not health test, or offers passing scores of their dogs, then I would stay far away from the breeder. You can browse the breeds on via this link: https://www.ofa.org/browse-by-breed
Once a Shiba (or any purebred dog) has passed all the required health testing and has a permanent form of identification (microchip or tattoo), they will receive a CHIC number, which indicates the dog’s health testing.
Some breeders may do preliminaries on their dogs. OFA hip results are recorded as permanent results only if the dog has their X rays done at two years old. So if a breeder decides to do preliminaries and the dog passes, sometimes they may not choose to get ‘official’ results. In this case, I would ask the breeder to provide you with a picture or copy of the passing preliminary papers. You can also use this search to see if the dogs have been health tested. (https://www.ofa.org/advanced-search?search=advanced)
Reputable breeders sell their puppies on contracts. These contracts usually state the puppy must be altered if not of breeding quality, a health guarantee, and that if the purchaser is not able to keep the dog the dog shall be returned to the breeder. This is a responsible way to make sure the breeder is not adding to the shelter /rescue system with either homes that fall through or people who decide they want to breed a litter because they paid a lot of their dog or the dog is purebred. A breeder who does not offer a return clause or even spaying/neutering of companion puppies sets the dogs up for an uncertain future. If the breeder doesn’t take back a puppy and the owner decides that the dog no longer works with their busy schedule what happens to the dog? If it is lucky it might end up in a breed specific rescue. Usually they end up at a shelter, owner surrenders are usually the first to be euthanized (especially if the dog has a reported behavior issue such as biting or killing small animals) so the dog gets housed and killed in the shelter which takes up shelter resources. Or let’s say the new owners want to breed their bitch, they just sell the puppies to the first people who offers them money. There’s nothing to prevent those puppies from being bred, sent to a shelter, or becoming impulse buys. When people purchase a breed that is not well suited for them, it doesn’t usually work out in the dog’s favor.
The breeder shouldn’t be just breeding any dog just because they can. They should have a clear purpose for producing each litter, this cuts down on the mass producing of puppies that are unwanted, become impulse buys, or end up cluttering the shelter systems.
Ask the breeder their goals for the pairing. Is it to preserve the breed? Improve a trait? Produce better hunting dogs? Or is it more along the lines of producing a litter because their bitch has a ‘great’ temperament, or they spent a lot of money on their dog’s purchase so they want to make some money back? A breeder should be to tell you their goals for their linage/dogs. If they can’t I wouldn’t classify them as a reputable breeder.
Your dog’s breeder should be your number one support system. If you have a training question, food questions, behavior question, even a ‘is this poop normal?’ question, your breeder should be someone who will give you advice and support for you and the dog its entire life. If your breeder can’t give you local vet suggestions*, local trainer recommendations*, and information regarding the breed and their linage I would find someone else more knowledgeable.
*If the breeder is local to your area.
Questions – lots and lots of questions
An extremely important aspect of purchasing a dog, especially a purebred, is knowing if the breed is the right fit for you. A reputable breeder will have an inquiry form on their website for you to fill out via email. They might ask you questions such as have you ever owned said breed? How many pets do you have? Do you have any children? They ask these questions not to be nosy, but to see if you are indeed a good fit for one of their puppies. These puppies aren’t just a ticket for some extra pocket money. These are living, breathing creatures we made the choice to bring into this world. It is our responsibility to make sure we give them the best life we can. Just because you have the $1,800 I’m asking for to purchase a puppy doesn’t mean you’ll be getting one from me.
This to me is important but not as important as the 5 other points. Titling a dog shows you made the effort with training and getting your dog out there to qualify for a nice prefix or suffix to be added on to its registered name.
Titling takes time, money, and tears – no, I’m not exaggerating. Multiple titles means the dog has had more training put into it in order for it to excel. It’s not some sort of silly paper that allows the breeder or owner bragging rights. It a piece of paper validating all the hard work an individual put into the dog, making the dog the best the owner could, and proving that the animal has a reason to contribute to the gene pool.
Please remember that reputable breeders rarely make any money on their litters – between spending money on dog shows/hunting tests/performance events, health testing, stud fees, and whelping supplies we are more often in the red with each litter. Why? We spend money showing our dogs (think entry fees, hotels, and gas) to prove our dog’s worth of being bred. We spend hours researching pedigrees, trying to find the right dog to compliment our bitches – sometimes driving 16 hours to get her bred or spending $800 to fly her to him just to have the breeding not take. It isn’t about the money, it’s about keeping our breed around for the next generation to love and protect. Don’t be shocked if you have to wait a year or two for your puppy since reputable breeders tend to have a long waiting list. Expect to wait even longer if you want a specific color or sex.
Some other key points to keep in mind when vetting breeders are:
Is the breeder part of the National breed club (http://shibas.org/) and/or a regional breed specific club (http://www.shibas.org/clubs.html), or a local kennel club? These clubs usually have a set of rules that must be followed by members when it comes to breeding dogs in addition to being sponsored by two club members in good standing. It’s no easy feat to get into these clubs.
Do breeders allow potential puppy buyers to come to their home or kennel to not only visit and meet the dogs but to pick up puppies? It’s a huge red flag when a breeder doesn’t allow buyers to come on their property to meet the parents or pick up their puppies. Meeting in a Cracker Barrel parking lot to do a puppy drop off isn’t acceptable. What could the breeder’s reasoning be? Disease control? What is more acceptable is declining visitors when a litter is just whelped as the puppies are more susceptible to infectious diseases and have little to no immunity. Or even denying a home visit after the interested party has either gone to a heavy dog traffic area or visited another breeder/kennel. Once the puppies are old enough they should be thoroughly socialized with different people and potential puppy buyers to make sure it’s a good fit.
When do the puppies go home? If they’re under 8 weeks that is another red flag. Puppies should stay a minimum of 8 weeks with their littermates and mother. This teaches them canine manners and allows them to mentally mature a bit. Sending puppies off at 6 weeks old because they are weaned shouldn’t be accepted as an excuse. Its crucial puppies socialize with their mother and littermates to develop good dog skills later in life. Some breeders may even decide to hold onto puppies until they’re 12 weeks old, especially if they’re evaluating a litter for show potential.
If your heart is set on a purebred puppy, even if it’s just to be a pet, the reputable breeder is the way to go. It’s not always easy finding a reputable breeder when Googling ‘your state whatever-breed-you’re-interested-in breeders’ and you get bombarded by websites with adorable puppy pictures, maybe some fancy words, and a well put together website. It can be hard to see pass the façade of less than reputable breeders. That’s when you need to ask questions about health testing, titling, contracts, and life time support, if the of the information isn’t offered on the website. It’s your responsibility as a potential owner of the dog to do what’s best for the breed, for future generations, and the individual dog by supporting breeders who dedicate their lives to safeguard their breed of choice.
I had the awesome opportunity to attend not only the ShibaInuNationals where I showed Nekora, but also the NIPPO Classic East where I showed the new puppy Astrid in sweepstakes (we got 2nd in our class of 5 bitches). Most importantly, I attended the NIPPO seminar held in conjunction with the Classic.I’m publishing the notes I took in the seminar and will try my best to present them according to judge Kazuaki Iwasa’s intended contexts. Towards that objective, I have reordered some of his words to provide better flow, but I did not add my thoughts to these notes. Everything is transcribed or paraphrased.
The judge’s main goal is to select “the true Shiba” – which is the reason why the Nihonken Hozonkai was founded. During WW2 most Japanese dogs were killed or bred with dogs of different breeds. NIPPO’s goal is to keep breeds pure – to preserve the original breed before the breed was crossed with outside breeds and to exclude genes that were introduced by this cross breeding.
Until about 40 years ago NIPPO allowed cross breeding between the breeds to fix issues such as detintion. Shibas were crossed with Hokkaidos to fix the detention issue (to show in NIPPO your dog must have full detintion). Originally NIPPO was strongly against tongues spots in the Shiba Inu (a Hokkaido influence), but in the recent years they compromised to allow a tongue spot up to the size of a pinky to appear. (Now I’m assuming this means pinky tip & on the back of the tongue. I didn’t catch if this was specified or not.) There has been two schools of thought regarding tongue spots – one is indifferent to the spot while the other considers the spot negatively as a sign of crossbreeding.
Japanese dogs are judged on these characteristics:
Face (eyes and ears)
Coat (color and texture)
These are some of the most important qualities when judging Shibas.
*No tail wagging or dropping of the tail. Shibas should have a strong, high carried tail.
Body structure is also important but mixed breed dogs might also have good structure.
When the Nihonken Hozonkai was first founded, dogs were selected based on facial features and the coat. They felt these were distinguishing features of a Japanese dog. Iwasa san described the Shiba as “small dog, small body, big spirit.”
A Shiba’s eye (assuming eye ball) will look rounder up close but at a distance more triangular.
A Shiba should retain a good expression even as they get older.
Shibas should have a good stout muzzle – gives a strong impression. The nose should slightly curve up.
Ears out to the side (low set ears) do not give up a strong expression while ears set higher up (than the ones mentioned before) give a stronger impression.
Smaller ears and shorter tails may be a sign of inbreeding in a dog. Smaller ears are not the best, they are better than large ears but ears should be in balance with the face/expression.
NIPPO wants to eliminate long hair in the ears – the thought is the gene came from the Japanese Spitz. Same with fluffy tails.
Guard hairs should be hard and spikes up. No spikes in a coat means the coat is too soft which isn’t good. Soft coated dogs should not be used in breeding. Guard hairs go from light (tip) to dark (end).
Coat color must be clear. Urajiro on the tail is usually a sign of a clear red.
Red Shibas should have a white undercoat. Black and tans light grey.
Red Shibas shouldn’t be red and white – the red should fade into white. Reds also must have red under their eyes
Too many black hairs on a red dog is not preferred. This can confuse a red dog with a sesame dog, leading to the judge to ask ‘is this a sesame?’ Red dogs should not have a saddle of black hairs.
No high white socks or a thick white stripe on the tail.
White from the bow tie is spilling out into the shoulders – becoming a problem.
Eye dots should be dots, color shouldn’t spread.
White on face should be age appropriate (unlike a Japanese Akita).
The prime minster award is awarded to adult dogs due to the fact that young dogs might develop a white face as they reach maturity. NIPPO doesn’t want to award young dogs with high awards due to the fact they might not mature into good specimens.
Shibas take small steps – they don’t have much reach and drive because they are mountain dogs.
Longer hocks tend to create an unlevel topline.
The color is recessive – can only produce the cream (shiro) color. NIPPO wants to prevent what happened in the Kishu (popular sire syndrome, breed is almost exclusively white – know as cream in Shibas) from happening in Shibas
A famous sesame – Masumaru. Was considered ugly as he was very dark. At 8 years old he was a red sesame. He won a lot of awards as an older dog because of this.
Some sesame’s color matures when they are older. Usually the older the better the color the dog has. Around 4 or 5 years old a sesame’s coat is mature and will be beautiful.
What makes a red sesame or black sesame – varies by breeder, judge, and exhibitors, each can have their own definition. Sesames should be even mixed with red and black hairs.
I have had the incredible honor of meeting two very special women who have service dog Shiba Inus. I’ve been fascinated with the fact they have reliably trained their Shibas to be service dogs, a breed that is often considered too stubborn to train reliably! I kindly asked both of them to answer some question I thought of to give the Shiba Inu fanciers insight into how they’ve trained their service Shibas. To keep anonymity, I’ll use their initials instead of their full names. I was also given the amazing opportunity to interview the facility owner who helped train Mira.
RW owns Mira and CH owns Chiyo
• What was the biggest training struggle you faced when preparing your Shiba to become a service dog?
CH:There were none until recently! As a puppy, Chiyo could easily ignore other dogs lunging and barking at him in public. The challenge that we are facing is now that he’s maturing, he wants to play with these other dogs. We’re training hard to teach him that he has to ignore them like boring pieces of furniture. He’s slowly getting better considering we’re fighting Mother Nature and his instincts. But I know we will get through this passing “teenage” phase with persistence and high value treats! He’s a smart boy.
RW:Honestly, the biggest struggle I faced was myself. Mira was the first dog I’ve ever owned, so I doubted my ability to raise and train her properly. Nor was I sure how to cope with certain kinds of attention from others once Mira became a full access service dog.
A little over a year prior to getting Mira, I confided in my parents that I was struggling with PTSD. I told them that my psychologist said that I should consider a service dog, and they were incredibly supportive. After looking at different breeds and options for a year, I finally met my breeder at a show. Soon after, I put down a deposit on a puppy. At this time, only my parents and my aunt (who raises Canine Companions for Independence [CCI] puppies) knew that I hoped to make Mira a service dog.
There was definitely some internal conflict before I picked her up. I looked forward to finally having something that could help me with my PTSD. At the same time, doing so would make my struggles more public once Mira and I became a service dog team. Almost no one in my life, friends or family, knew about my disability, and I didn’t want to disclose this information until Mira actually became full access.
Again, Mira would be the first dog I ever owned, so I feared ‘ruining her’ through poor training. Fortunately, I had (and still have) a good network of supportive dog people: my aunt, who raises CCI puppies; my many friends who show their dogs in conformation; and everyone at the Pawsitive Action Foundation (PAF), where I trained Mira.
Happily, Mira swept away my anxiety a few days after coming home with me. My fears faded as we bonded. Training, while time-consuming and sometimes exhausting, was incredibly rewarding for both of us. She was a really easy puppy and I was surprised at how adapting to her training schedule helped me. There have been times when my PTSD made it impossible for me to maintain a normal schedule, due to panic attacks and fear of the same. However, with the responsibility of taking care of Mira, I found that I was better able to take care of myself. This meant that I could focus on raising and training her to the best of my ability.
This was the beginning of a tremendously positive change in my life. For the past six years, I had been unable to find the strength that I needed to take care of myself for my own sake, but I was able to find it for hers.
When Mira became a full access service dog with PAF, I was faced with a new conflict. Up until this point, I had kept my struggles with PTSD private. Having a service dog is like wearing a giant neon sign saying ‘there’s something wrong with me’ in public. Mira was helping me so much, but by acknowledging how much she was helping me, it also meant I had to truly acknowledge, confront, and accept how much my trauma affected me as well. Any attention, positive or negative, was an uncomfortable reminder of this.
I began to worry that the attention brought about by having a service dog would create more stress, anxiety, and panic attacks in public than it would prevent. I am incredibly grateful that members of the PAF with their own PTSD dogs noticed and understood what I was going through. They helped guide me through these conflicting thoughts without judgment. While PTSD isn’t something that can be cured in a traditional sense, only managed, I was able to work though a lot during this transitional period, and continued to work as hard as I always had with Mira. With her help, I’ve been able to mitigate a lot of my PTSD symptoms, allowing me to find joy in things I had been unable to for years, such as shopping by myself or attending public events with large crowds. She’s allowed me to live my life without fear again.
• What company did you use to task train your Shiba? What made you decide to use that company?
CH: We used Canine Connection, a company that does all kinds of dog training, including a service dog training program. We chose them because the trainer, Chelsea, had experience with Shibas and could come to our home for lessons, which was something we needed because it made it so much easier with my disability. Once we had our initial evaluation with Chelsea and saw how she and Chiyo interacted, we knew she had a special touch with him!
RW:I trained Mira through the Pawsitive Action Foundation (PAF) led by Norma Ross. The PAF is a nonprofit organization that primarily helps veterans by providing them with highly trained assistance dogs. They also help the differently abled population. The PAF raises and trains Golden Retrievers, Labradors, Australian Shepherds, and Goldadores (all of which are health- and temperament-tested) to be placed as service dogs. Since 2008, the PAF has successfully placed 80% of the dogs from their training programs with clients in need. The remaining 20% who are not placed as fully certified assistance dogs have still gone on to serve as therapy dogs or companion animals.
I learned of the PAF through my mother, who took her rescue dog there for training, as well as one of my conformation friends who helped produce a litter of Australian Shepherds with Norma. My friend’s pick from the litter is currently a grand champion.
I contacted Norma about a month before I had even picked Mira up. I did this to see what kinds of training programs the PAF offered. At this point, I didn’t mention that I wanted to make her a service dog, I just asked about general training. Norma was incredibly excited to hear that I was getting a Shiba, and informed me she used to own Akitas, (including one from the same breeder as Mira), and that her dogs had achieved success in areas such as obedience, agility, and conformation. There was no judgment or skepticism about wanting to train a Shiba, only genuine enthusiasm, so I was completely sold on bringing Mira there.
I chose to join the PAF’s Owner Trained Program. Here, I completed Mira’s training by participating in their classes at least once a week, as well as receiving occasional private instruction with Norma. Mira and I did this until we accomplished our goals. Mira was too young (eight weeks) to start classes when I got her, but we were allowed us to sit in and observe classes for free until she was old enough to socialize. Once we began classes, Mira excelled and progressed with her obedience training quicker than I honestly anticipated. Whatever nervousness I had about training a dog was long-gone. Every week, I took what we learned in class and continued to practice and build upon it at home. I can’t begin to describe what a joy it was to literally pour blood, sweat, and tears into doing my best to raise Mira to become a mentally and emotionally sound Shiba. Our hard work since the beginning really paid off as she started to mature. The bond between us was incredible, and Mira was consistently a well-mannered dog who wanted to please. Because of how much she was already helping me, I finally built up the courage to ask Norma if she would qualify as a service dog with the PAF when she was around six months old.
Mira and I met the qualifications with the PAF, and from this point on I trained her as a PTSD service dog. There is no official service dog registration or certification under the American Disabilities Act (ADA). However, I chose the PAF because they have their own organizational requirements that an owner-trainer has to complete before their dog is considered a fully trained assistance dog. Their service dogs are held to very strict and high standards if they are to become full access. Their dogs are also highly respected in our local community. Mira was ‘in-training’ for a long time, and only became a full access PTSD service dog with the PAF after we attended public outing training classes, completed our AKC Canine Good Citizen, AKC Canine Good Citizen Advanced, AKC Urban CGC, and PAF’s Public Access Certification. Through this process we customized her training so that she would be able to help me mitigate my PTSD.
• What lead you to your decision to have a service Shiba? Where there any biases from the training company when you mentioned the breed?
CH:I decided on a Shiba because even though I had loved many breeds growing up, I had bonded very deeply with my neighbor’s Shiba Inu, Nikko, in a way that I hadn’t with any other dog before. I used to baby sit him when his owners went on vacation, and I absolutely loved his energy. I knew a Shiba was for me. Also, I knew I couldn’t handle a large breed. I needed a smaller dog, but one still tall enough to reach me for the retrieval tasks that I need. Then there’s also the fact that Shibas are a primitive breed, one that is known to be highly intelligent. I needed a dog that would be able to use its own decision making skills to help me in the event I could be unconscious. Shibas have that intelligence that separates them from the average dog. Our trainer had experience with Shibas as well, so she knew exactly what to expect from my little puppy and had no negative bias against his breed
RW:As I’m sure you can imagine, I took the question of what breed would best be best suited for me very seriously. Any breed can be a service dog, but there is a reason that Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and crosses of the two breeds make up the majority of the service dog population in the United States. Both breeds are highly trainable, possess stable temperaments, and have the stamina to perform a wide variety of tasks in any environment (especially public areas where other breeds might tend towards being too shy or aggressive). I considered these breeds as options, but did not feel that they would fit my own personality, temperament, or lifestyle.
I continued to do research and considered my options for about a year, but deep down I think I knew that I had committed to getting a Shiba pretty early on. What attracted me the most toward the idea of a choosing a Shiba is that they are mostly a ‘one-person dog’, and they usually develop a fierce loyalty toward the person they have bonded with. It was pretty hard for me not to fall in love with the idea of an intelligent, confident but quiet, naturally clean, and athletic dog with energy levels similar to mine. One who would be loyal but not clingy once I earned their respect. Breed size was another large draw. I plan on returning to school in August to pursue a PhD, and a bigger breed simply wouldn’t be realistic with the associated lifestyle or housing. I made sure I also understood the potential negatives of owning a Shiba and prepared myself for how I would handle certain behaviors if I were to encounter them.
As mentioned earlier, I went to the PAF before I had even picked Mira up to see if I wanted to train with their organization. I was aware that there is a stigma about Shibas being ‘less trainable’ than other breeds, so I asked Norma her opinion on the subject. She did joke that problems can arise when people own dogs smarter than them, but believed that Shibas and other Inus are perfectly capable of successfully participating in any dog activity, and can excel when they have good communication and trust with their handler.
While I didn’t receive any negative bias from the PAF, I did receive plenty of (reasonable) warnings from knowledgeable friends against owing a Shiba as a first dog. I can’t imagine the reactions I would have gotten if I had told people I was getting one with the intention of making it a service dog. Fortunately, my gut instinct about my compatibility with the breed proved to be correct. I personally did not experience any major difficulties, Shiba-specific or otherwise, while raising and training Mira. She was as close to perfect as you can get with a puppy, and quickly matured into an incredible service dog. I don’t think my success with her is the result of simply getting lucky with a ‘good Shiba’. It’s because I picked the breed I knew I would connect and bond with best. This bond, combined with proper early socialization and thousands of hours of consistent professional training (which I will elaborate on below) has allowed Mira to excel in becoming the service dog I needed her to be. I also didn’t train or treat her differently than any other breed of dog at the PAF. Given how successful Mira and I are as a team, I would argue that with the right owner and training, Shibas might actually make better psychiatric service dogs than many other breeds due to how strongly bonded, trusting, and in-tune they are with their one handler.
• How does the general public react to your dog? Do you get the question “how did you train your Shiba?”
CH:Chiyo is always met with curiosity and enthusiasm from the public, whether he’s out working or just going for his morning stroll with me. I get stopped by loads of people asking me “what kind of dog is that?”, and of course “how did you get him trained?” I’m happy to answer everyone’s questions, so many people have never even heard of the breed when I tell them he’s a Shiba Inu. Even less people understand what it takes to train a service dog. It takes hundreds, if not thousands of hours for a service dog to be fully trained, which is something many people ask about him and I’m glad I’m able to educate them. Sometimes they are wondering if a service dog could be something that they need in their own lives. I feel it’s important to share Chiyo’s journey because it shows what service dogs, specifically service Shibas, can do to help people with disabilities.
RW:”Is that a fox? No? Well it looks like a fox! What kind of dog is it? Doge! SHIBA! It’s the dog from the internet!” In my personal experience the general public acts in one of two ways: curiosity about the breed or, if they’re familiar with Shibas, pure excitement.
Unfortunately, regardless of breed, a lot of people get uncontrollably excited to see dogs in public places. The most common reaction I get is simply people wanting to pet Mira. It’s up to each individual handler to decide how they want the general public to interact with their service dog. I personally don’t mind if people pet Mira as long as they ask politely first. If I agree to let someone pet Mira, I will give her the command ‘make a friend’, to let her know someone is about to approach and touch her. First, I make sure she is sitting. Then, I allow the person to approach her and pet her on the side or under her chin. I like structuring greetings with strangers because there are a lot more people than you would expect who try to run up and pet without asking.
I am very firm with telling people to stop, and that she’s working, if they’re trying to pet Mira without permission. I’m also very good at weaving her out of the way. When Mira is working in public, she is supposed to focus on me and ignore environmental distractions. However, to do that she needs to be able to trust me without worrying that anything too uncomfortable or stressful is going to happen to her, such as strangers startling her or touching her in inappropriate ways.
When Mira was still in training, she was so small that we had to use a recycled vest that originally belonged to a Labrador puppy. The only signage it had was a PAF logo. During this time, the general public was a lot more invasive. The public became less so once Mira started wearing her official full access vest. The vest displays ‘PAF PTSD Service Dog’ and her obedience titles. She is an unusual breed, and I don’t have any visible physical disabilities, so there have been members of the general public who have been accusatory and rude to me.
While a service dog is not legally required to have a vest or any signage about a person’s disability, the transparency has made everything so much easier for the both of us. I’ve found people are a lot more respectful about not trying to pet or distract Mira when she’s wearing her vest, and are significantly less disruptive overall while we’re working.
Finally, I don’t think I’ve ever been asked how I’ve trained Mira. I have, however, been stopped and told by many different individuals who are familiar with, or own Shibas, who feel the need to inform me that they’re un-trainable. I’ve learned not to let this negativity bother me and usually just smile and nod as Mira and I go about our business.
• Did your instructor have to alter any task training to fit your Shiba’s needs? (Training style, height restrictions, etc.)
CH:One thing that Chelsea did that was a customization to Chiyo’s training was teaching him his “perch” command. When Chiyo was still growing, he could retrieve items for me, but wasn’t tall enough to reach me yet. Chelsea taught him to jump up on his hind legs so that he could be tall enough to put objects in my hands. I’m on the short side and have long arms, so it was just the little boost he needed in the meantime until he grew to full size. Now that he’s an adult, he doesn’t always need to use his perch command to reach me, but it’s still a useful skill as well as a building block for other more complex tasks he now knows.
RW:At PAF, Mira was trained and held to the same standards as any other service dog in training there. We sometimes had to improvise smaller equipment for Mira since most things at PAF are sized for Labradors. The fact that she’s smaller never prevented her from participating in anything.
Mira progressed in her training around the same pace as the other dogs at PAF (and sometimes quicker), but there were a few occasions where Norma and I decided it would be best to alter her task training. Both were situations where we had to break down certain commands into more steps than another dog, such as a Labrador, might need. This was because Mira would sometimes over-think things. When we were working on recall, she was excellent at responding to ‘come’ unless I told her to ‘stay’ first. She was very proud of her ‘stay’ and would not budge even if I tried to call her over after. To help clear up the confusion between the two commands for her, I had to break up the command into ‘wait’ (a temporary stay where she is supposed to respond to commands after) and ‘stay’ (where she does not move at all).
The second time I had to break up commands was during retrieval training. For Mira, this was probably the task that took her the longest to learn. First, I had to teach her to target the color yellow (what I use for anything I want retrieved because it’s highly visible to dogs yellow-blue dichromatic color perception) and how to ‘hold’ objects in her mouth. Then I had to teach her she could move around while holding objects, something she seemed personally reluctant to do. Finally, I taught her how to pick up objects marked with yellow and bring them to me. I had to rework how I approached certain tasks a few times. However, once things click for Mira, she is incredibly consistent and happy to do her job in any environment.
• What was your Shiba’s motivation to work for you? How did you wean out treats?
CH:Chiyo naturally has a very high work drive, and he is extremely food motivated. I discovered this the day I brought him home at 8 weeks old. I made him do simple commands for spoonfuls of wet food, and I was so surprised that he came already knowing how to “sit.” Right then I knew I had a special one. He loves to work, craves mental stimulation, and constantly wants to learn more. I get tired before he does in our training sessions! But we don’t have to wean out treats, just like you wouldn’t wean an employee off pay checks. Though there are tasks he does perform without expecting compensation, rewards keep him interested and I believe in a fair trade. Chiyo will happily train all day long, especially when there’s something tasty to be earned. To him, working is his favorite game, and he always wins.
RW:Mira’s motivation to work for me ultimately comes down to the way I raised her and structured our relationship (and continue to do so) from the day I brought her home. I’ve always hand-fed her, and I believe this is critical. Hand-feeding established a very clear power dynamic between the two of us very early on. If Mira every needs anything, especially food or toys, she has to work for it. I’ve never let her run off with either to enjoy on her own terms. Of course, I make sure that this relationship is fun for her, with lots of positive reinforcement and praise. She’s definitely a dog that enjoys to solve problems and think things through in her own way. I’m convinced one of the reasons she’s done so well in obedience is because the way I’ve trained her leads her to believe that the behavior I require of her is her own idea.
I also made sure early on to teach her that I’m the most fun and interesting thing to be around. When she was a puppy until around six months old, our obedience training would be in very short segments multiple times a day. When we weren’t training, I would tie her on a six-foot lead clipped to my waist. This allowed her to be a puppy, while also teaching her that her place was to always be near me. I’ve heard Shibas are known for their cat-like independence at times, but the way I raised her never allowed Mira to be that aloof. I used the time we weren’t training for socialization. CCI has a fantastic socialization timeline for what potential service dog puppies should be exposed to, based on their age. At PAF and at home, I made sure I properly exposed Mira to as many sights, smells, sounds, trusted people and dogs in as enjoyable of a manner as I could.
I’ve never had a problem with Mira being willfully disobedient, stubborn, or destructive. If she engaged in behavior I didn’t want, I would correct her by firmly telling her ‘no’ and showing her what I expected of her instead. If she listened, she would be rewarded, if she didn’t, I would crate and ignore her. I would come back and repeat until she understood the correct behavior I wanted from her. This never took very long, as Mira did not enjoy being ignored and not receiving any attention. The crate was boring, spending time with me was fun.
Once she was around six months old and understood all her basics, I began to wean her off treat rewards. I began by making treats rewards random. For example, if I asked her to sit, instead of rewarding her every single time, she would get one treat for every three successful attempts. Mira responded really well to randomization. She didn’t seem to get frustrated and I think it became a fun mental game for her. Soon, I was able to spread out treat rewards even further, and today she consistently listens without any treats, just praise. Spending so much time and effort teaching Mira to explore the world with manners and confidence created trust and a special bond between us. Ultimately, this bond is why Mira is motivated to work for me and has lead to where we are today. Treats, praise, and consistently firm but fair training simply laid the foundation.
• Was there any specific method you used or the breeder used for picking a Shiba for you? (Genetics, temperament, etc.)
CH:I didn’t know it, but I was given pick of the litter. His breeder jokes with me about how she wishes she had kept him for herself! Chiyo was specially picked for me when I explained to the breeder what I was looking for and that the puppy was to go into training to become my service dog. I stressed the importance of a calm temperament and the smarts needed for the demanding job the baby would fill. She seemed pretty skeptical at the idea of a working Shiba, but said I could certainly try with the right puppy. And the right puppy he was indeed. When I asked the breeder what made her pick this baby for me out of all the others, she said he was the most “personable”, and that she could tell even at those stages of infancy that he was different than any other puppy she ever had.
RW:When I put down my deposit with the breeder, I made it very clear that I would prefer a girl. I also wanted the most even-tempered puppy in the litter. My breeder was very honest with me about what was available when some litters were born, and they selected a puppy for me based on my preferences. I don’t know if there was any specific method they used to pick a puppy, but I highly respect them for doing their best to meet my needs. Everything was very transparent, I was able to meet Mira’s parents and see how she was raised before coming home with me. I do believe the way Mira was raised with her breeder as a puppy has contributed to her mental soundness as an adult.
• What do you feel makes a dog service dog material?
CH:There are so many important qualities that go into the making of a service animal, and in my experience, among the most important is the dog’s temperament. Besides willingness, a dog in training needs to be able to keep calm and focused in any and all situations. Loud crashes and bangs, large crowds, long hours, food everywhere, and people of all ages trying to grab at you because you’re a cute dog out of context are just some of the things you’ll need to tolerate if you’re a prospective working animal. Many dogs can be taught to fetch, but not many can be taught to like living their lives in public. That’s why desensitization is vital when beginning with a puppy, and it’s a lot easier when that puppy has the right temperament as a foundation.
Next to that, I’d say trainability. You need a dog that enjoys the work, can pick up quickly, and that wants to learn. When you find what motivates your dog, there’s no limit to what you can accomplish. Chiyo still surprises me every day, and it’s just a joy to work with him. You can see how much he adores his job, it gives him such a sense of purpose, and he knows how needed and appreciated he is. I thank him every day for his service.
RW:According to the ADA a service dog is defined as:
”… any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the handler’s disability. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”
Under the ADA, State and local governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that serve the public must generally allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of a facility that is open to the public.
The best service dogs are those with an even temperament, who are able to perform specific commands, and provide calm, reliable assistance after receiving years of expert training. I do not believe a dog should qualify as a service dog if they are: overly friendly or fearful; easily stressed out by crowded places; inappropriately reactive to other dogs; or cannot be controlled by their handler and consistently behave in unacceptable ways such as barking, having accidents, eating food, or disturbing other people. As I stated previously, it is undeniable that there are certain breeds such as Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and crosses of the two that naturally excel at service dog work compared to others. However, any breed is capable of becoming a service dog if they are able to meet the rigorous standards to which a service dog must be held, as Mira and I love demonstrating.
While this is another topic in its own right, it is clear that across the country, more and more people are taking advantage of the ADA in order to have the convenience of taking their pets out shopping, to local businesses and to restaurants. Many people with disabilities who use service dogs have faced increased discrimination from businesses owners and other patrons, due to prior bad experiences with fraudulent service dogs. It is extremely frustrating to learn about people taking advantage of the ADA and passing off their pets as fraudulent service dogs. I don’t think there is a clear solution to this complicated and nuanced dilemma. However, I would strongly support better legislation that makes misrepresenting an assistance dog a punishable offense, as well as requiring proof of basic obedience training such as minimally acquiring a CGC before allowing a dog to become full access. The best I can do is to lead by example when Mira and I are working. Every time I go out in public, my goals are to show what standards a legitimate service dog is held to, and to demonstrate how a highly skilled service dog can enhance a disabled individual’s independence.
• Do you have an advice for people who want to task train their Shibas?
CH:I meet lots of owners who want to know how to get started with task training their Shibas! I’ve been able to help many families online by giving training advice and making little tutorial videos with Chiyo demonstrating how to teach new commands- from retrieving medications to getting your dog to use a litter box. For those who are just starting out I tell them first it’s helpful to have a private trainer do an evaluation to see if their dog has the right capabilities to suit the needs of the handler. Decide if you want to have a professional to help you with training, or if you’re experienced in dog training already, you can go the route of owner training. Next is to find out what motivates their dog. It could be a toy, it could be food, it could be scratches behind the ear, or even praise. Once you know what dogs want, you can get them to do something you want. With patience, repetition, and lots of love behind everything you do, you’ll be on your way to a beautiful relationship with your Shiba. The deep bond between a service Shiba and their handler is unlike any other.
RW:I’m obviously not an expert dog trainer, and I can only speak from my personal experiences. Just like people, dogs are individuals, so what worked for Mira and I might not work for someone else. At the same time, if I had to give advice, I would say: don’t ask how to task train your Shiba. Instead, ask how to task train your dog. Mira happens to be a Shiba, but I’ve trained her with the same mentality I would have had with any other breed, as elaborated on in my previous responses. My other piece of advice for anyone wanting to task train their dog would be to set up a good foundation by hand-feeding them (yes, it is incredibly time-consuming and they may go on a hunger strike in the beginning if used to eating from a bowl, but it’s worth it). If you have your dogs focus while task training, and make it fun for them (while at the same time being firm, consistent, and patient) it should lead to success. Most importantly, if you’re having fun through the process and give your dog your heart, they will return that love tenfold by bonding with and trying to please you. Especially if your dog is a Shiba.
Training facility interview
I was able to interview Norma, the facility owner of the Pawsitve Action Foundation (pawsitiveaction.org). This foundation helps meet the needs of veterans and people in need of service dogs. Norma breeds and trains her own dogs, providing lifetime support to both the dogs and their owners. Norma pays special attention to her client’s needs and engages them throughout the training process. She provides clients with the ability to learn valuable handling and training skills, ensuring a successful relationship between dog and owner. Since 2008, PAF has successfully placed 80% of their dogs with clients in need.
One question I asked Norma was how much did she have to alter her training program to accommodate a Shiba? She explained she didn’t alter much. Her service dog training program was developed after years of working with multiple dog breeds, resulting in the ability to reliably train a variety of dogs with a variety of different personalities. With primitive breeds, such as Shibas, she strongly suggests starting training as early as possible.
Norma then leapt into some specific Shiba training advice for that works well for primitive dogs and, in this specific case Mira. A suggestion she offered, is having people teach their puppies to play more with toys, as it will help as a reward during training. Some dogs who aren’t taught toy drive will look at you like “you threw it, you go get it”! Working one on one with a puppy when they’re young will help create toy drive. Cat toys are a good start towards making a puppy more accepting of play, which in turn helps with creating motivation. Another suggestion given was playing ‘find it’ games. Hiding something then having the dog search for the hidden item helps engage the dog, helping prevent a split in human-dog interaction often seen in more primitive dogs.
All dogs are domesticated animals. However certain breeds, such as Labradors and Golden Retrievers, are more domesticated than others. The more heavily domesticated a breed is, the more juvenile puppy behavior they retain even as adults. Primitive breeds such as Shiba Inus grow more out of their juvenile stage and develop more adult dog behavior (resulting in a greater capacity for independent thinking). A goal for successful training therefore is to create a dependency (a puppy behavior) with these breeds, rather than foster independence.
One way to create this dependency is by hand feeding; this is not withholding food but rather making the dog work in order to be fed. Start with eye contact. Dogs who make eye contact will be fed. After this step, encourage the dog to move towards to you and give eye contact for food. Ultimately, this eye contact is teaching and retaining begging, a puppy behavior. Some dogs may offer eye contact reliably because they’re more ‘puppy-ish’, while more mature dogs will struggle because it is a perceived as a threat. But as owners, we need to train reliable eye contact for successful communication. Meaning we have to teach and reinforce begging and other puppy-ish behaviors to create dependency. After the basics, educational games allow the dog to interact and engage the owner, which is extremely important when training a Shiba to be a service dog. Mindless wandering creates independence!
With primitive breeds, focus on just a few repetitions at a time, or they’ll quickly get bored. During training you’ll want to have one good progression, then pause and give the dog a break. If you keep repeating the same thing over and over, the dog will become frustrated as they’ll wonder what they did wrong and why they aren’t able to progress.
In order to be successful while training a Shiba, it’s important to remember what the breed was originally bred to do.
It is well know Shibas were bred to hunt. They had to be smart and quick to survive their hunting adventures. They also didn’t have a lot of human direction when loose in the mountains, so independent thinking was required of the breed. This independent streak has been known to lead to training troubles, because Shibas question commands. You can’t fight with them, so a handler has to convince them that it was their idea to carry out a command. Let them to problem solve, if they do, they get. Allow them control the outcome of the exercise by complying, because in their mind, they’re controlling the situation. “If I sit, I get.” “If I heel, I get.”
For greater success, it helps to breakdown training to tiny pieces. Treat training like building blocks. Because Shibas are a naturally suspicious breed, you have to show them each advancement in the training is not so different, maybe just a tad but not enough where they wonder what’s going on or get frustrated with the change. Owners tend to get upset with the dog instead of properly evaluating the situation, resorting to the conclusion of “Oh they’re so stubborn.”
After sharing this insight, I asked Norma what the biggest struggle she faces with training (service dog or not) has been. She explained it isn’t finding the right motivation to get a dog to work with their handler, but rather the frustrating reality that some people aren’t willing to listen. They want to do everything their way, often with no experience, instead of finding a good instructor they can take their dog weekly or bi-weekly to. They allow the dog too much freedom, resulting in the unfortunately common situation of thinking their dog isn’t causing any problems until the dog reacts drastically in a situation it’s never been properly trained to handle (such as biting a strange guest in the house). People need to accept, understand, and respect their chosen breed. A Shiba is not, and will never behave in the same manner as a Lab, so a handler must work with the dog they chose in the most appropriate way with that breed.
The last question I asked Norma was what does she feel makes a dog service dog material? She stated she believes any breed is capable of becoming a service dog if they’re able to reliably provide specific care for their owners. She emphasized that genetics do play a significant role in determining behavior, and preferably one should go to a breeder who knows their bloodlines as well as what temperaments they produce. Norma considered low reactivity one of the most important behavioral traits when selecting a service dog prospect. A program she suggested using as a guideline was Sue Sternberg’s Asses-a-pet program (http://www.suesternberg.com/rvaa/assess_pet), which helps predict sociability and aggression in dogs.
I would like to give a huge thank you to Norma of Pawsitive Action, RW and CH for taking the time to answer my questions and giving me and the readers a little insight on services Shibas and the training they received.
Shigeru Kato is an important member of the Nihon Ken community. He helps with the exportation of Japanese dogs to breeders not located in Japan. He has a website dedicated to promoting and preserving the six native Japanese dog breeds (JapanDogExport.com). He also has a an informational blog that includes subjects such as registration numbers in the Nihon Ken, available dogs for export, and hunting news/information (The Nihon Ken Blog).
Since I knew Shigeru was an avid hunter I asked him a couple of questions in regard to hunting with Nihon Ken and he generously allowed me to share a blog post he wrote about hunting with Nihon Ken.
1. What made you decide to start hunting with Nihonken? Were you a hunter before you started using dogs? What’s the difference between using dogs for hunting versus hunting solo?
Other than my first season as a hunter (when my first dog was still a pup), I’ve always hunted with dogs. I started hunting to begin with because I wanted to get away from eating factory farmed meat. With the increasing number of boar and deer in Japan, an aging population of hunters, and widespread crop damage, hunting was the no brainer alternative.
I’ve always loved sneaking around watching wild animals, I used to do a lot of stalking just for fun, so the first hunting season was pretty much just an extension of that, only I was carrying a shotgun now. Here in Japan if you’re going to hunt wild boar and be successful at it, you need to use dogs or you’ll never see them. They’re generally nocturnal over here, and we’re only allowed to hunt from sun up to sun down.
I’ve always loved dogs, so getting to choose a breed was a lot of fun. In the end it came down to a simple idea that the hunting breeds that had evolved for thousands of years here in Japan were probably best suited to the game and terrain.
I can’t really speak to the difference between hunting with or without dogs. What I will say is that hunting with your own dogs is an amazing adventure, and once things start to click and you’re hunting as a real team it’s quite a magical experience.
2. How do you train Nihonken for hunting?
Being a primitive hunting breed, hunting is mostly instinctual. A pup has it bred into it, or it doesn’t. More than actual training to hunt, I work on the important things to be able to hunt safely with them. You obviously want a dog that has some semblance of a recall, is socialized and not going to be aggressive toward strangers (and hopefully not toward strange dogs either, but that’s a bit more difficult with the Nihon Ken), and will hunt fairly close to you. I’m basically going through simple obedience training with pups from when they’re 2 months old, socializing them a lot, getting them used to the smells of the game we’ll be hunting, playing and walking off leash a lot, and as they get older, learning how to move around obstacles in the mountains.
As they get from 8 months to a year old, I’ll introduce them to a live boar. Since we trap nuisance animals in the neighborhood (around 70 this past fiscal year), that’s often their first experience is to see a boar in a box trap. I want the dog to be aware of the boar, wary at first, and then hopefully to vocalize a bit (but that’s not a deal breaker for the first time). If a dog gets it right away and is moving around the boar with a lot of barking, the next experience will be to take them to a facility that has boar in a large pen. Here I want to imprint on the dog that boar is definitely what we’re after, and that they are dangerous, so be careful.
Once I’ve gotten to this point, it’s just about getting out in the mountains with them a lot. Experience is the best teacher, and it’s all about repetition.
3. What in your opinion makes a good hunting dog? What do you look for when selecting a hunting dog?
There’s a term in the Nihon Ken standard, ‘Ryo-sei’. I translate it to mean a dog with a good balanced temperament. I think a dog with ryo-sei makes a great hunting companion and a great pet as well. A good hunting dog is going to help you bring back meat for the table, is going to stay out of the way of injury, and help you hunt safely (that means you and other people/dogs you meet). This dog will switch it on in the mountains, but is just as comfortable switching off back at home and curling up by the fire.
When selecting a dog for hunting, I’m looking for a curious, even tempered dog that bounces back from surprising noises quickly (but is not oblivious to them). Obviously I need a curious dog that has some drive to hunt. An even tempered dog will be a joy to own, and if the dog doesn’t work out as a hunter, finding a new home will be easy. Bouncing back from negative experiences quickly is important when hunting boar, since they are dangerous game, charge a lot, and put a lot of pressure on the dogs.
4. What was/is your most memorable experience you had hunting with your dogs?
I’m not sure if they are the most memorable because they were special, or because my memory is fading, but there were two hunts from this last season that come to mind. The first was the most perfect and clean boar hunt I’ve been on bar none. I had my two Kishu with me, Baron and his daughter Karen, and within 5 minutes we were dragging out a 125kg boar. The dogs had picked up the scent immediately after we left the car, I took the high ground, and they had this mountain of a boar locked down right where he had been sleeping in thick bamboo cover. The dogs were baying and tustling together as a perfect team, I slipped in and one head shot later the boar was down.
The other hunt was a month or so later. Baron got very seriously injured this season when we were jumped by a large group of monkeys, so I had to start hunting the younger dogs more. Without much expectation I took Karen and Rin (young Shikoku female) out together as a pack, and that first day was shocking. They got on a boar right away, it got away, but 20 minutes later they were on another, and the day kept going like that. They were growing by leaps and bounds as a little hunting pack right before my eyes, and I was so proud of them. To see the dog’s genetics come through in dogs you produce is amazing.
5. Do you have any words of wisdom in regards to owners wanting to hunt with their Nihonken or why keeping the hunting “spirit”/prey drive is important for the Nihonken?
Well to borrow the words of an old NIPPO judge, a Nihon Ken that doesn’t hunt is not a true Nihon Ken. They’re a working breed, and since our goal here in Japan is preservation, that means preservation of not just the ‘look’ of the breed, but its temperament and working ability as well. To truly appreciate and understand the totality of the Nihon Ken, one must understand and respect its heritage. The traits that draw us to these breeds are there because of generations upon generations of selection, some of it human, but much of it natural, which created this magnificent, yet primitive hunter. If we are to preserve these breeds, selecting only for show will destroy them, leaving only a shell, a beautiful dog that has lost its soul.
As far as advice for owners that are thinking about hunting with their dogs, I would say it is extremely rewarding. You will experience an amazing bond as you learn to hunt together as a team. There an immense amount of joy that I feel just watching my dogs running through the mountains. They’re enjoying themselves to the fullest, free to dog. But here is where my advice comes in. Hunting is a life and death experience, for the animals you are hunting, and for you and your dog. It is a serious thing, not to be taken lightly. Make sure you’re ready to be out there physically and mentally to back up your dog, and make sure your dog is also physically prepared to be out there, and has the experience necessary to be as safe as possible.
Hunting and the Nihon Ken
By Shigeru Kato
The Japanese dog is first and foremost, a hunting dog. It is often said that a Nihon Ken that does not hunt, is not a true Nihon Ken. Hunting is the sole reason these breeds were born, and it is the reason they still exist today. The entire standard for these breeds was written to preserve the traits seen in a sound working dog. Temperament should be strong and bold, but balanced with calm confidence, as the words ‘kan-i’ and ‘ryosei’ in the standard suggest. Structure should be athletic, showing strength, power, and agility, while movement should be light. And finally, ‘soboku’ describes the aura and look of the Japanese dog. It can be translated to mean an unadorned beauty, not showy or flashy, but having a natural and simplistic beauty. The hunting Nihon Ken is a beautiful animal.
Unfortunately the Nihon Ken of today is primarily bred for show, leading to a decrease in the number of capable working dogs. With the decrease in hunters in Japan, more and more dogs are bred with non-functional structure and temperaments. In Japan, the modern hunter more often than not owns one of the many purpose bred western breeds for hunting, and big game hunters often use ‘ji-inu’ which translates to ‘local dog’. These breeds are often loosely based on the original Nihon Ken, which makes sense since the 6 Nihon Ken breeds were originally formed from dogs bought (or stolen!) from mountain hunters. These ji-inu are a mix and match of many breeds, and some also include blood from western breeds like hounds.
The hunting style in Japan has also changed over the years. Gone is the ‘matagi’ of old, the subsistence hunters who hunted large game, usually alone, and often with only 1 or 2 dogs. Today’s hunter usually hunts in large group hunts (not unlike European driven hunts), with packs of dogs that flush out prey. The matagi hunted in a style known as ‘nagashi-ryo’ where the hunter and dog work together as a team, the dog keeping in close proximity to, and regularly checking in with, the hunter as they walked through the mountain, often for many miles.
The Nihon Ken is a hot nosed breed, meaning it only reacts to hot (fresh) tracks. The dog’s job is to find the desired game, and to flush and then hold it at bay till the hunter arrives. Western breeds are often bred to a single hunting skill set. In the case of boar dogs for example, they can usually be split into catch dogs, and bay dogs (dogs that either attack and bite the boar to stop it, or dogs that run around the boar barking and dodging its charges). The Nihon Ken however is a different animal. These breeds are intelligent, with a strong prey drive, coupled with a strong natural survival instinct. They also have a great capacity to learn from experience. Dogs often develop their own balanced hunting style, combing baying with nipping and catching when necessary to stop the boar from running. They will also adjust their attack based on their evaluation of the strength of their quarry. One can often see a seasoned hunting Nihon Ken sizing up its opponent even before it can see it, based entirely on the animal’s scent.
A professional hunter like the matagi had no interest in aggressive or overly forward dogs that would continually become injured when tackling dangerous game. They prized quality dogs that could be hunted solo or in pairs. More dogs means more mouths to feed, and for a matagi living in a small mountain community, feeding a large group of dogs would have required too much effort. The term ‘ichijyu ikku’ means ‘one gun, one dog’ essentially describing the matagi way of hunting. One man, and one dog, successfully bringing home meat for the table. A dog that can be hunted solo with a high success rate is a prized possession even today.
Each of the Nihon Ken specialized in hunting the type of prey inhabiting their region of origin. The Kai hunted Kamoshika (Chamois) high in the mountains of Yamanashi prefecture, which is why the breed is still the most agile of the Nihon Ken, and a terrific climber. Owners of the breed can attest to the breed’s seeming love of heights and climbing, which make it a very difficult dog to keep confined. The Kishu were big game hunters, specializing in stopping boar in the mountains of Wakayama prefecture, and to this day many in the breed retain the temperament and instinct necessary to hunt this dangerous game. The breed is confident and not overly excitable, but once they are focused on their prey, they are fearless with seemingly endless stamina. The Shikoku hunted big game as well, in the high mountains known as the ‘Tibet of Japan’ on Shikoku island. Their athleticism, high energy, and tenacity are still evident in the breed today. The Shiba was used for hunting small game and birds, which means a fast, energetic dog was preferred. The Hokkaido specialized in hunting the dangerous Brown Bear, meaning a highly vocal and tenacious hunter, with the build and strength to move quickly through deep snow, was required. They also needed enough speed to hunt the large Ezo deer native to Hokkaido. The Akita, while greatly changed today from its ancestor the Matagi Ken, was once a medium sized hunting breed, working large game in the snowy mountainous north of Honshu.
While to my mind all the breeds have their specialties when it comes to hunting, truth be told all 6 of the Japanese breeds were all round hunters. A subsistence hunter is not too particular about what he puts on the table, and the Nihon Ken of today will hunt just about anything it is allowed to. I have seen Shiba working boar, Kai hunting birds, Kishu hunting bear, Akita hunting boar, Hokkaido hunting boar, and Shikoku hunting badgers. These are intelligent, athletic, and versatile hunters.
To truly appreciate and understand the totality of the Nihon Ken, one must understand and respect its heritage. The traits that draw us to these breeds are there because of generations upon generations of selection, some of it human, but much of it natural, which created this magnificent, yet primitive hunter. If we are to preserve these breeds, selecting only for show will destroy them, leaving only a shell, a beautiful dog that has lost its soul.
One of the most common things I hear about Shiba colors from pet owners (besides I have a fawn/brown Shiba, or I have a tri color as well) is I have a Sesame Shiba. The stranger then proceeds to whip out their cell phone to show me a picture of their red Shiba with black tipped hairs (also known as a Sashige or dirty red). It’s very hard to explain that no sir, your Shiba is not a sesame but instead a sashige without sounding like an ‘elitist snob’.
Even breeders can’t seem to agree what a sesame is – is it a shaded sable? Or is it an agouti? Now if you’re not big into genetics you’re probably like Alexis what the heck? Shibas are red NOT sable, & what the heck is an agouti?!
The Shiba has 2 main alleles for color. (we’re not going to worry about splash for pinto coats) The A locus (agouti) & the E locus (red/yellow).
The A Locus (Agouti) coat color test reliably determines if a dog has one of the following genotypes at the A locus:
This dog carries two copies of Ay which results in a sable/fawn coat color. However, this dog’s coat color is also dependent on the E, K, and B genes. The sable/fawn coat color is only expressed if the dog is also E/E or E/e at the E locus and ky/ky at the K locus which allows for agouti gene expression. This dog will pass on Ay to 100% of its offspring.
This dog carries one copy of Ay and one copy of aw which results in a sable/fawn coat color. However, this dog’s coat color is also dependent on the E, K, and B genes. The sable/fawn coat color is only expressed if the dog is also E/E or E/e at the E locus and ky/ky at the K locus which allows for agouti gene expression. This dog will pass on Ay to 50% of its offspring and aw to 50% of its offspring.
Interpretation: Sable/fawn (carries wolf sable/gray)
This dog carries one copy of Ay and one copy of at which results in a sable/fawn coat color. However, this dog’s coat color is also dependent on the E, K, and B genes. The sable/fawn coat color is only expressed if the dog is also E/E or E/e at the E locus and ky/ky at the K locus which allows for agouti gene expression. This dog will pass on Ay to 50% of its offspring and at to 50% of its offspring.
Interpretation: Sable/fawn (carries tricolor/black and tan)
This dog carries two copies of aw which results in a “wolf” sable/gray coat color. However, this dog’s coat color is also dependent on the E, K, and B genes. The “wolf” sable/gray coat color is only expressed if the dog is also E/E or E/e at the E locus and ky/ky at the K locus which allows for agouti gene expression. This dog will pass on aw to 100% of its offspring.
Interpretation: Wolf sable/gray
This dog carries one copy of aw and one copy of at which results in a “wolf” sable/gray coat color. However, this dog’s coat color is also dependent on the E, K, and B genes. The “wolf” sable/gray coat color is only expressed if the dog is also E/E or E/e at the E locus and ky/ky at the K locus which allows for agouti gene expression. This dog will pass on aw to 50% of its offspring and at to 50% of its offspring.
Interpretation: Wolf sable/gray (carries tricolor/black and tan)
This dog carries two copies of at which results in tan points and can also present as a black and tan or tricolor coat color. However, this dog’s coat color is also dependent on the E, K, and B genes. The tan point coat color is only expressed if the dog is also E/E or E/e at the E locus and ky/ky at the K locus. This dog will pass on at to 100% of its offspring.
Interpretation: Tricolor, black and tan
The E locus:
The E locus (Yellow/red) coat color test reliably determines if a dog has one of the following genotypes at the E locus:
This dog carries two copies of E which allows for the production of black pigment. However, this dog’s coat color is also dependent on the K, A, and B genes. This dog will pass E on to 100% of its offspring.
This dog carries one copy of E and one copy of e which allows for the production of black pigment. However, this dog’s coat color is also dependent on the K, A, and B genes. This dog will pass E on to 50% of its offspring and e to 50% of its offspring, which can produce a yellow/red coat (including shades of white, cream, yellow, apricot or red) if inherited with another copy of e.
Interpretation: Black (carries yellow/red)
This dog carries two copies of e which inhibits production of black pigment. The coat color of this dog will be yellow/red (including shades of white, cream, yellow, apricot or red). This dog will pass e on to 100% of its offspring.
So in simple terms a red Shiba (genetically sable) is Ay/ – it can carry black & tan(at) or sesame (aw) or be a “clear red” (Ay/Ay). But there’s something not quite understood (well at this time I wasn’t able to find info on) that an Ay/at dog will have an almost agouti pattern called a shaded sable. Usually you can tell because the dog will have a widow’s peak & probably will not have the black hairs all the way down their legs. So this type of Sesame pattern is hard to breed for because it’s not very predictable like the aw sesames. I’m going to assume the Ay gene has some kind of mutation to it that allows this expression because it has shown up in certain lines. It’s just hard to reliably breed for it.
Now the aw Sesame is a bit easier – its dominate over black & tan but recessive to red. So most breeders who are aiming to produce sesames in a litter will breed sesame to black & tans. Although if you breed an aw/at to Ay/at you have a 25% chance of producing a red Shiba that carries Sesame, a 25% chance of a red Shiba carrying black & tan, 25% chance of a Sesame, and a 25% chance of a black & tan. While a Sesame to black & tan has a 50% chance of sesame puppies.
Now things get more tricky – you have an akagoma (red sesame) & kurogoma (black sesame). The AKC standard states that “Sesame (black-tipped hairs on a rich red background) with urajiro. Tipping is light and even on the body and head with no concentration of black in any area. Sesame areas appear at least one-half red. Sesame may end in a widow’s peak on the forehead, leaving the bridge and sides of the muzzle red. Eye spots and lower legs are also red.” Some people misinterpret the standard stating sesame can only end in a widow’s peak (Ay/at Sesame). The Japanese judges prefer the sesame to run along the bridge of the nose & follow the pattern of a black & tan. (which would make the dog an aw sesame) The Ay/at sesame will always be a red sesame – I have yet to see one that would be considered a black sesame. Now the aw agouti sesame can be a red sesame or black sesame. From what I’ve seen if the Shiba is carrying the cream gene (E/e) they tend to have brighter, flashier urajiro. So a sesame without this cream gene looks darker & can be considered a black sesame. Another thing to keep in mind is the coat will change when a dog is shedding (like a black & tan) or if the lighting is hitting the dog at a certain angle, which can make a dog appear redder or blacker. Per AKC registration we can only register a sesame as a red sesame. NIPPO has red sesame & black sesame as a registration choice though.
Maybe another question you may have is why don’t we just breed sesame to sesame to get aw/aw Shibas? The Japanese say not to breed a sesame to a sesame because you’ll get incorrect coat color – the dog will be too dark to be a correct sesame per standard.
The NSCA also has an article about more in depth Color genetic info for the Shiba Inu:
I decided to do something a bit different for my blog post. I decided to interview Mary Engstrom. Mary has accomplished amazing things with her Shibas and I figured she would have some wisdom to share with us. The NSCA honored Mary at last year’s banquet for Mayday’s and Mary’s accomplishments. Mayday was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award for earning his CAX and the Versatile Shiba award for titling in Agility, Rally, Coursing, Fast CAT and Trick Dog.
I’m a firm believer in doing more with your dog. Dogs were not made to sit around idly. They need a job – an activity like nosework or barn hunt, a sport like agility or conformation, training exercises like obedience or rally will give a dog a sense of purpose and fulfillment. That’s why I decided Mary would be the perfect person since she is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to working with our independent breed.
What made you get into dog sports with your Shibas?
I completely fell into it by accident. I had read a lot about the breed before I got my first Shiba Koshou, so I knew I was going to be working with an independent dog. Everyone I spoke to said “if you are serious about getting a Shiba, you had better enroll that dog in every obedience class you can find!” I enrolled in a series of 3 obedience classes taught at my local park district. The first session was just obedience. The second and third sessions were half obedience and half introduction to agility obstacles. I didn’t know anything about agility really, but I thought if I had to include that to get the obedience, then so be it. At the end of the series of 3 courses, the instructor pulled me aside and said “I have done this for 20 years and I can’t even believe I am saying this about a Shiba, but Koshou is a really good obedience dog and I see signs of him becoming an exceptional agility dog. You HAVE to go on training him, especially with agility.” She recommended some trainers in the area. I figured it couldn’t hurt me to get off the couch and he might enjoy it. The next thing I know, he was the top novice Shiba in the country his first year competing, he earned his PAX (Preferred Agility Excellence) title, earned high in trial at the NSCA national companion events in Jumpers with Weaves, high in trial for rally at the NSCA companion events twice, and went on to become the world record holder for the Shiba breed in the Clean Run 60 Weave Pole Challenge. To this day I am grateful to the trainer who saw the potential in him and encouraged me to move forward with him at a time when the conventional wisdom was “you can’t do that with a Shiba.”
Have you trained other breeds? What was the most difficult part of the transition of breeds?
I had a couple of other breeds before Shibas, but didn’t train anything beyond basic skills with them. However, as my journey with Koshou progressed, the school where we took agility lessons asked me to become an agility instructor after seeing us train for a few years. (The owner actually said “if you can accomplish so much with a Shiba, you can certainly help these handlers with more traditional agility dogs.”) That was a great experience in that it allowed me to realize that EVERY dog has issues that the handler has to work through. Shibas are just more consistent in that many of our issues revolve around the independence of the breed. If you look at what a dog breed was born to do (Shibas are independent hunters), you will find the clue as to how to best work with their temperament rather than trying to use a one size fits all training method.
I know I personally have struggled with competing with Nekora in the Agility Course Test – what are some tips you have to motivate a difficult to motivate dog?
I didn’t know anything about agility when I started the sport beyond what I had seen on TV. It looked fun – the dog and the handler whipping through the courses. I figured if I just taught the dog how to correctly perform the obstacles, we were ready to enter a trial. It took me some time to learn that 90% of the success on the agility course was actually due to what happened BETWEEN the obstacles. The dog has to be acclimated to the trial environment by utilizing fun runs, UKI or NADAC trials (which allow some training in the ring) or just visiting an actual trial and using the warm up jump. You need handling skills such that the dog knows when to run full out versus when a turn is coming. All courses have requirements for side changes (when the dog is running on one side of you, but with a direction change, it is most beneficial for the dog to start running on your other side.) There are several types of side crosses and you and the dog must be fluent in how to execute them. The dog needs a start line routine and a recall after the run. I tell potential handlers that the dog should be performing at a higher level than the level you are entering because trial environment stresses will give you a lesser performance at a show than you get in a controlled environment like a class. Compared to teaching all of these, just getting them into a tunnel seems easy now, doesn’t it?
What do you feel makes a good versatile/sport Shiba? Genetics? Training? Patience? Dog sense?
Obviously, the dog has to be structured in a way that suits the sports of choice. For example, a Shiba with a somewhat loose patella might not be the best fit for agility. For coursing, you want a dog with a solid prey drive. For obedience, dogs that have strong handler focus work well. Personally, I prefer a more spirited Shiba to a less independent one because, while the more timid dog might be more obedient, the more spirited dog will be better equipped to handle all the chaos and distractions in a show environment. To some extent, it will depend on what the handler is willing to spend time training. I have more willingness and patience for training to channel the energy of a driven dog than I have energy for motivating an uncertain dog.
What was one of the hardest things you’ve taught/accomplished with your dogs?
I spoke of Koshou’s agility career earlier, and how as a handler, I had no clue what I was getting myself into. Shibas like to be right, and are quite offended if they believe they have earned their reward, yet none is forthcoming. In my case, unbeknownst to me, the errors were because I didn’t know how to use my body language to signal side changes, turns and obstacle discriminations, but of course at the time I thought “this dog is blowing me off.” Some dogs stress up (get the zoomies) and some dogs stress down (refusals, no eye contact, etc). Koshou stressed down, so I found myself with this dog that I could see was easily capable of doing all the obstacles, but was refusing to run, hiding in tunnels, or stopping in the middle of a course and yawning! I kept taking class after class after class and, because the classes were just about obstacle performance, we kept failing in trials (a year and a half of shows with 0 qualifying runs.) We had our “aha moment” during a seminar when the instructor said “you have to break this down into WAY smaller steps for him. He doesn’t know that it’s just fun to run with you.” And from that sentence, an agility career was born. I took ALL of the obstacles out of agility and pulled him out of classes. We went to our “yard” (a public grassy area in our condo complex) and worked on just making a highly rewarded game of running with me. I called it “the cheese game” (his favorite food). I put him in a stay and walked maybe 50 feet away, released his stay and took off running, zig zagging around the park. The lead out distance was important because it allowed us both to be running at full speed for some distance before he reached me. If he could catch me, he could have the cheese. After several weeks of this, all I had to say was “cheese game” and he would practically turn himself inside out for a chance to play. For the next couple of weeks, we continued the cheese game, but this time with an agility jump set up in the park. The twist was, I made sure to never send him over it. I just wanted him to learn that it was fun to run with me, and oh, by the way, there might be some agility obstacles out there too. I could see him eyeing that jump, and remembering those were rewarded. When I could see he was practically pointing to it, I sent him over the jump. You would think I had shot him out of a cannon. We GRADUALLY built up to having more and more obstacles there (that I might or might not ask him to do that day.) He learned that the real game was running with me and the obstacles were just bonus fun. Until the day of our last run together, we always referred to running a course as the cheese game to keep that excitement for him.
What do you think is probably the most difficult sport for a Shibas to compete in?
My hat goes off to the folks to do obedience. The guidelines for performance scoring can be pretty rigid. These people have made a serious time commitment to getting those sits perfectly straight, and having their dogs hold a down stay for a long time with the incredible distraction of other “strange” dogs lying down nearby.
What are some tips you would give someone who wants to compete in multiple sports with their Shibas?
Watch your dog and honestly assess its strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes. Pick sports that both you and the dog will enjoy. No matter what you pick, there will be show costs, training costs and a commitment to training time. I like to compete in multiple sports because it gives me options. I had a recent knee injury so I used the time away from more active sports to train tricks. Also, behaviors learned for one sport will carry over to other sports. We use tricks during our agility warm up to get the dog focused. I recently used the same “wait” command we use on the agility start line to hold my dog in place off leash for more than 5 minutes in an open field when the coursing line broke. I highly recommend at least working for a novice rally title no matter what other sports you choose because it gives the dog exposure to working with you in the ring, and can be done on leash. No matter what sport you choose, be sure your dog is physically fit. And in the event your dog has been performing well and suddenly starts refusing to do something, be sure to eliminate any physical reason such as injury or hypothyroidism.
What do you feel is the most important aspect of competing with a Shiba?
Hands down, the handler’s emotional state. Our emotions travel right down the leash to the dog. You have to remember that these are beings who can clearly read the slightest lowering of the head or a barely perceptible (to us) curling of the lip or dip of the tail. We might as well be screaming “I AM REALLY NERVOUS” before we go in the ring because they read our expressions that well. I had to learn to come to a place where I truly felt that whether we Q or not, this run is a chance to just have fun with my dog and get an assessment of what we need to work on. As I look back, I wouldn’t give up any of our runs – even those where we messed up – because the dogs were giving me really good information about what they needed. I just needed to put my ego aside to see it.
Do you have any words of wisdom for owners who want to participate in sports with their Shiba?
Go for it! You don’t know until you try. Just don’t let anyone tell you “you can’t do that with a Shiba.” Your mind set must be “how do I get this independent thinker to WANT to do this” rather than “my dog knows the command and doesn’t do it anyway.” Work with the independence rather than trying to stifle it. I really like clicker training for shaping behaviors and getting the dogs to think “what can I offer her to get her to click the thing so I get the treat.” The sooner they learn that they are actually in charge of when they get the reward (by guessing the right behavior), the faster they start to partner with you.
What do you look for when selecting a sporting Shiba?
My current Shibas are Mayday (who came to live with me at 8 weeks of age and is now 4 years) and Thunder (who became part of our pack at 8 months of age and is now 20 months.) Four years ago when I decided I wanted a puppy, I worked with Mayday’s breeder to temperament test. We dropped things behind him to see how he reacted to the noise. He very appropriately startled, then went back to investigate the noise. I wanted a shiba with a somewhat higher ratio of leg to torso. That is, when you look at the dog in profile, I wanted his legs to be longer than his torso was high. Leggy dogs seem to have an easier time jumping and a longer stride for running. I also wanted a pup who would seek me out to engage. Finally, he showed his prey drive and work ethic by happily retrieving a ball again and again even at that young age. All of these have served Mayday well in his careers in agility, rally, coursing and trick dog.
Thunder came to me quite unexpectedly. I had expressed an interest in another litter that was planned a year out. I thought that particular breeding should produce a great working dog. Thunder had other plans. His breeders (the same folks who had the litter planned for the following year) had decided just the night before I met him to place him in a pet home. He and Mayday adored each other; he was of an age where I could begin sports training immediately, required no housebreaking, and had all the physical and emotional characteristics I look for. SCORE! I am mentioning him separately because he had one additional characteristic that is critical in adding a second working dog – that is the relationship between the two dogs. I don’t care how great of a working dog the next dog might be – I can’t do it if my home will not be happy. The bond between these two dogs is remarkable and means that I don’t have to spend time training them to get along.
Did you find a difference in attitude between males & females? Do you have a preference in gender when picking a working dog?
I think that is truly just personal preference. For agility I prefer the boys. They are just sillier and more tolerant of my mistakes. For coursing, I have never seen a Shiba with greater prey drive than my Chin Chin. She was ready to hunt no matter if it was birds, squirrels, rabbits or the plastic bag lure.
It sounds like participating in even one of these sports – let alone multiple Shiba sports – is a definite commitment of time and resources. What drives you to do it?
The day that each of my dogs joined my pack, I promised their breeders that I would see to it that they lived full lives with lots of opportunities for enrichment, and I promised each of the dogs I would give them a life that any other dog could only dream of. Each sport we do offers a combination of different benefits to the dog – physical challenges, mental stimulation, unleashing of prey drive, one on one time with the handler, problem solving, working structure, the joy of earning a reward, a deeper bond between dog and handler, and the joy of just watching a dog be a dog. These sports experiences help them become more confident dogs in everyday life. With the variety of sports that we participate in (rally, agility coursing, Fast Cat and trick dog) we always have something fun and exciting to do, and the work never gets stale. And while we talked a lot about all of our activities, I do make sure we schedule time with nothing to do as well. And this isn’t just about the dogs– the activity has been good for my own fitness as well.