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With their pointed ears, red coats, and black noses, the Shiba Inu bears a startling resemblance to foxes.

They first came to the United States in the 1950s, but they’ve been gaining popularity in recent years. Learn more about this interesting breed.

They’re an Ancient Breed

The Shiba’s ancestors probably accompanied the earliest immigrants to Japan way back in 7000 B.C. Archeologists have found remains of dogs about the size of Shibas in sites that were inhabited by the Jomon-jin people, who lived in Japan from 14,500 B.C. to 300 A.D. The Shiba Inu is likely the result of breeding between the Jomon-jin’s dogs and dogs that came to Japan with a new group of immigrants in 300 B.C.

They Were Originally Used as Hunting Dogs

Shibas have been used for hunting both small and large game. Because they are small, they’re good at flushing birds and other small game out of the bushes. Shibas are rugged dogs that survived for thousands of years in the mountainous regions of Japan.

Shiba Inu standing in profile outdoors.
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They’re One of the Most Popular Breeds in Japan

Shibas are currently one of the most popular companion dogs in Japan, and they were declared a national treasure of the country. Many Shibas have become Instagram or YouTube sensations in Japan.

The Origin of Their Name Is a Mystery

We know the word “inu” means dog in Japanese, but we don’t know for certain where the name “Shiba” came from. Shiba means brushwood in Japanese, so it’s possible that the Shiba Inu was named for the terrain where it hunted. It’s also possible that the name came from the Shiba’s coat, which is the same color as the autumn brushwood. A third explanation is that the name came from the breed’s size; an obsolete meaning of the word shiba is little.

There Used to Be Multiple Kinds of Shibas

Before World War II, there were three types of Shibas — the Mino, the Sanin, and the Shinshu, named for the regions where they originated. Today’s Shiba Inu is most similar to the Shinshu, but all three contributed to the modern breed.

Shiba Inus head portrait outdoors.
Nayomiee/Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

They Almost Went Extinct

World War II almost completely wiped out the Shiba Inu. Most died in bombing raids during the war, or from distemper, a highly contagious canine viral infection, after the war. Breeding programs that began after the war helped the breed bounce back. Most of the surviving Shibas were the Shinshu variety, though there were a few Mino and Sanin left.

One Shiba Saved Her Family in an Earthquake

In 2004, an earthquake struck the village of Yamakoshi in Japan. When her family’s home collapsed, a Shiba Inu named Mari sprang into action to save her puppies and her elderly owner. She moved her puppies to a safe place and then found and woke up her owner, who had been trapped underneath a fallen cabinet. He managed to free himself and was eventually evacuated from the area by helicopter. He was forced to leave Mari and her pups behind, but when he returned two weeks later he found that they were all alive. Mari’s story was made into a Japanese movie called “A Tale of Mari and Her Three Puppies.”

Shiba Inu running in the snow in the winter.
irontrybex/Getty Images Plus

Shibas Have Cat-Like Qualities

In many ways, the Shiba Inu is more like a cat than a dog. They are independent and can be difficult to train. They also spend a lot of time grooming themselves and tend to be extremely clean.

They’re the Smallest of Japan’s Native Breeds

Shibas are the smallest of the family of breeds referred to as Japan’s “native breeds.” The other five breeds include the Akita, Kishu Ken, Hokkaido, Shikoku, and Kai Ken, with the Akita being the largest.

They Have Bold, Confident Personalities

The spirited Shiba is a self-assured and versatile breed suited for a variety of activities, from hunting to dog sports. They can be reserved toward strangers but are typically affectionate with family members and people they’re familiar with.

Related article: Akita Versus Shiba Inu: How to Tell the Difference
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