Kathy Crandell remembers the days when it seemed like barely anyone she met knew what a shiba inu was.
“People would always ask what kind of dog [I had] or say, ‘it looks like a fox,’” Crandell, founder of Shiba Inu Rescue of Florida, told The Huffington Post.
Now, not so much. The breed’s presence has exploded in U.S. pop culture over the past eight years. The expressive-faced dogs are ubiquitous in online memes, cutesy listicles and even appear in commercials.
But dog rescuers say that while the popularity surge has brought about a greater numbers of volunteers and people interested in their work, it’s also led to more abandoned shibas. And while shibas are by no means the breed that winds up in shelters the most, the consequences of their rise in popularity is a compelling example of the pitfalls that can occur when a particular type of pet become “trendy.”
“More people are getting them, without question,” Zennia Barahona, president of NYC Shiba Rescue, said. “Our first few years we had 5 or 6 dogs in foster care. [Now] we can hit numbers of 20 dogs … and having a waiting list.”
Two years later, a Japanese woman posted several photos of her shiba, Kabosu, online, including one where Kabosu, paws crossed, looked at the camera with a particularly funny expression. That photo would ultimately become the most iconic face of the “doge” meme — a trend of pairing photos of shiba inus with captions meant to convey their humorous internal monologues, most famously with the phrase “much wow.”
The doge meme even led to Dogecoin, a digital currency featuring Kabosu as its logo.
While this all sounds a little ridiculous, shiba rescuers believe the phenomenon has had a serious impact on the state of shibas in the U.S.
Barahona said when she initially started the rescue with a group of others, a lot of people hadn’t even heard of the breed. “Now that’s changed a hundred percent,” she said. “Now they’re like, ‘Oh it’s the meme,’ or ‘it’s the much wow dog.’””
In February, a rep for the National Shiba Club of America told Slate that they had not heard of “any uptick in breeding or adoption of shibas” at “the national level.” But data from the American Kennel Club, obtained by HuffPost, indicates otherwise. According to the AKC’s annual popularity rankings, which is based on how many owners opt to register their dogs with the AKC, shiba inus were the 67th most popular dog breed in the U.S. in 2007. By 2015, the breed had risen to the 45th most popular.
And the shiba’s rising trendiness has led to some people jumping on the bandwagon without doing any real research about the breed.
“The memes don’t represent the personality,” Barahona said. “The breed is not necessarily for everyone.”
It’s never a good idea to get any pet without knowing much about the animal, and it can be an especially big problem with shibas, as their cartoonishly cute faces and small size belie a breed that tends to be being highly independent, energetic, and stubborn. Devoting a good chunk of time to training the dog is crucial, and if they aren’t socialized properly, they can also run into aggression problems.
Shibas also do particularly badly in shelters, said Nathalie Abutaha founder and president of DC Shiba Inu Rescue.
“They tend to shut down or they can be a little more reactive or aggressive than they actually are,” she said. Her own three pet shibas were all scheduled to be euthanized at shelters when she got them, she said. One of them, she said, is ”the sweetest cuddly teddy bear,” but was so distressed at the shelter that “they had to get him out [of the kennel] with a catch pole and a tranquilizer gun.”
Bad breeding practices compound the problem. Puppy-seekers will often eschew responsible breeders — who can have long waiting lists, higher prices and a thorough screening process for new owners — in favor of going to pet stores. And most pet store puppies come from puppy mills, where dogs are bred in deplorable conditions, with little attention paid to genetics, meaning that the puppies are more likely to have serious health and behavioral problems.
Abutaha said her group used to see only abandoned adult dogs, but that’s been changing since 2012 or so. More people are purchasing puppies as “impulse buys” and then realize the pups are more than they can handle.
None of this means shibas aren’t great dogs. Love for shibas is the whole reason that people like Crandell, Barahona and Abutaha got started rescuing them in the first place. After all, some of the same traits that can make shibas so frustrating for unprepared dog owners — like their energy and intelligence — is also what makes them so lovable to shiba-holics.
That’s why DC Shiba Rescue devotes energy to helping overwhelmed dog owners figure out how they can keep their pets. Mostly, that means educating people about positive reinforcement training — humane training that relies on rewards and establishing trust, instead of the more archaic “old school” tactics that rely on punishments like electric or choke collars.
A lot of people, Abutaha said, realize that the dogs really aren’t so hard to handle, once they learn the right way to do it.
“That’s a big part of our rescue, educating the humans,” she said.