A medium-sized hunting dog breed called the Shiba Inu once faced extinction in Japan because of war and disease.
Now the breed is a pet owner rage in Taiwan. The size and temperament of the fluffy orange-and-white dogs mesh with people’s apartment lifestyles in dense Taiwanese cities, the dog owners say. Their penchant for the dogs reflects a liking for Japanese culture and helps sustain the species.
Taiwan’s Council of Agriculture says it doesn't keep tabs on how many Shiba Inus live on the island, but one dog seller moves four puppies per month and a local club for people who own the breed has about 60 members, who average more than one dog each.
Anyone passing through a Taipei park in the early evening will see at least a couple of them being walked.
"The basic way to say it is they're easy to raise and their overall quality is strong," said Lee Yu-tsung, owner of a pet store in the Taiwanese city Taichung.
Nearly extinct in Japan
The Shiba Inu and other Shiba breeds date back thousands of years, when Japanese tribes used them to hunt large and small game.
Shiba Inu dogs nearly went extinct in 1940s Japan, according to the American Kennel Club advocacy group. Most died in World War II bombing raids or after the war from distemper, a contagious viral infection, the kennel club says.
Breeding programs that began after the war helped restore the Shiba in Japan, the kennel club says. Japan now calls these dogs a national treasure.
Must-have dog in Taiwan
Taiwanese took a fancy to the Shiba Inu about five years ago, said Liao Di-hua, an official with the 60-member association, the Taiwan Shiba Inu Club.
Shiba Inu dogs work well for urban Taiwanese because they're neighbor-friendly. Compared to other dog breeds, they seldom get sick or emit a strong dog odor, Lee said. He sells about four per month at prices from $390 to $820.
The Shiba Inu’s size also works well in Taiwanese apartments because it’s smaller than a full-sized hunting dog, Lee said. Larger flats often accommodate three generations of people, leaving space too tight to raise a bigger dog in comfort.
Couples might live in units with just a living room and a bathroom. The dogs seldom bark, he added, reducing the risk of complaints from neighbors.
“Because it’s a smaller to medium-sized dog, basically the space where they're raised doesn't need to be very big and so this breed of dog therefore is quite suitable for keeping in the cities,” said Lee, who has sold the dogs for three years.
The Shiba Inu is described sometimes as a cat-like dog, meaning it’s more independent than other breeds and therefore easier to care for in a household of busy people. They've also been likened to foxes because of their coloration and pointy ears. That’s not all.
“I raise Shiba Inus because I like wolves and the Shiba is like the wolf, since both are strong hunters,” said Liao. He’s got 11 of the dogs now, which he raises at spacious home rather than a small apartment. He walks all of them twice daily.
Running with the pack
These dogs are also popular “companion dogs” again in Japan, the American Kennel Club says.
Japanese culture often extends into Taiwan, where already people respect the nearby Asian country’s film, art and food. Taiwanese are prone as well to dog fads, often based on imagery seen in the media.
Cartoon likenesses of the Shiba Inu appear in advertisements and stuffed Shiba Inus – some nearly as big as the real thing – sell via e-commerce. One Japanese restaurant in the capital Taipei had called itself the Honest Shiba Inu.
Too much popularity for purebred dogs in Taiwan historically gives business to puppy mills, which are breeders that put dogs under so much stress that they develop a range of hereditary diseases and come away poorly socialized, said Bruce Shu, interim executive director of Taiwan-based animal shelter the PACK Sanctuary.
He advises any prospective puppy buyers to meet the parents first.
“I think it’s a matter of supply and demand, so as breeds become more popular, like for example small poodles are perennially popular, puppy mills will meet that demand to an unsuspecting public,” Shu said.