Describing What the Japanese Breeds Are Like

I receive a lot of email, social media messages, texts, and phone calls, about the Nihon Ken. This is everyday, from all over the world, and a lot of them require a bit of an in depth reply. I can't just rattle off a reply in 5 minutes. Being self-employed means I also have to ration the time I give toward this 'endeavor'. The Japanese breeds are my passion, but not how I pay for the bills.

I let this email sit in my box for a month (sorry) before I finally had time today to sit down and reply. I'm just pasting a relevant part of the email here, as I felt my reply might be useful to others in the future. And, if it's here, anyone in the future with a similar question, well I can just direct them to this post.

I’ve heard that Shiba dogs are very very difficult to train, and cold/unaffectionate. I hope to have a dog that I can successfully manage, who will be friendly when I bring him to meet my community. I intend to move back to the United States within a year or two, and my lifestyle is more social there than it is in Tokyo.
Is it possible to find a reputable breeder who breeds for traits of trainability and friendliness?

So first, my opinion on the Japanese breeds, and trainability... I think the Nihon Ken are very trainable. I hear all the time how people are shocked at how quickly their new pups learns all the tricks in the book, and is so smart. I think the issue is more with the fact that the Japanese breeds retain so much independent thought, problem solving, and natural instinct. So much so that they quickly bore of things, due to the fact that they are quickly boring of the reward being given. The reward is no longer valuable enough (or was not valuable enough to begin with). In a dog that has a lot of hunting instinct, there's really nothing that is as valuable to them as the hunting process (search, discover, chase, subdue, eat). The issues in training and the Nihon Ken should be covered in a good book, written by a knowledgeable trainer, so I digress.

Next, are the Nihon Ken cold and unaffectionate? In my experience this is more of an individual dog's like/dislike. With regard to new people, across the board, the majority of NK will probably not open up immediately to strangers. The same dog may be very cuddly and affectionate with it's owner however. And of course there are social butterfly NK that love everyone. I think it's safer to assume that when you choose a Nihon Ken as a companion, it may turn out to be a non-social, only with you, type of dog. It may not like other people and dogs that much, and you need to be okay with that. If not, perhaps a different breed will be a better fit for you. Of course you may be pleasantly surprised that your dog ends up being great with other people/dogs. Congratulations! Of course there is work you can do with socialization and training to improve your pup's reaction to the world, but you can't change what they are hardwired with.

Lastly, let's cover the request to be introduced to a breeder in Japan who is breeding toward a friendly/trainable temperament. I've covered the reality of what the kennels here in Japan are like in this blog post 
Here in Japan, the preservation of the Japanese breeds means keeping them in line with the standards set out by the preservation societies, and this is generally what NK kennels are breeding toward. In temperament, we are trying to maintain a primitive breed: strong, alert, aware, balanced. No part of the standard really calls for a friendly/trainable dog, in fact the NK probably skew toward the opposite side of the spectrum. We value dogs that are loyal toward their owner/family, and aloof toward strangers. We prefer dogs that are not friendly-tail-waggers when meeting new people or dogs. In fact, that is heavily penalized in the show ring here.

In trying to steer people toward or away from Nihon Ken ownership, I often find that I'm trying to do neither. I'm just trying to objectively explain what they are, or might turn out to be. If people can truly understand what I'm trying to explain, and understand/accept the essence of what the breeds are, then they can make a decision as to whether the NK is a good choice for them. Hopefully that will lead to happy dogs and happy owners. Once you 'get' the Nihon Ken, they are extremely fun (and easy? or is that just me?) to own.


  1. I have 3 Shibas - 7, 4 and 1.5 year old.

    Your following opinions are spot on:
    "I think the Nihon Ken are very trainable."
    My daughter taught the 7 year old to do all the party tricks e.g. roll-over, play dead etc. I didn't do that for the other two as don't see the value of these tricks.

    "Next, are the Nihon Ken cold and unaffectionate? In my experience this is more of an individual dog's like/dislike."
    Agree. My 7 year old walks away after 1 minute of head scratching or patting. He only goes to my daughter to have his head scratched etc. My 4 year old is indifferent; he won't walk up to you but he also won't walk away from you. My 1.5 year old seeks attention and enjoys belly rubs.

    "We value dogs that are loyal toward their owner/family, and aloof toward strangers. We prefer dogs that are not friendly-tail-waggers when meeting new people or dogs."
    This behaviour seems inherent in the breed. The 7 and 4 year old socialised a lot with other dogs when they were puppies. The 7 year old is now aggressive towards other dogs and thankfully not with my other two. He seeks out the 1.5 year old to play. My 4 year old is indifferent to other dogs. He may have a quick sniff and then walks away. Only time will tell how my 1.5 year old will turn out.

    1. It truly is a case of 'your mileage may vary'. But, best to be aware of what you may possibly be getting into :)


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