I was flipping through a book on dogs in Singapore* when I came across this sorry example of a Shiba Inu in the first few pages:
Though the book does not purport to represent any of the breeds within standard, I would almost rather not see a Shiba than one in such shape. I was frankly taken aback by his girth, the large callus on his front elbow, his flattened rear pasterns and collapsed, faded ears. For all the good that this book is trying to do by imparting a sense of responsibility and important knowledge unto the Singaporean and Malaysian general readership, I could not help but think the authors were oblivious as to what a real Shiba should look like.
So I scowled. I sneered. I judged. I posted the snap to my Instagram, voicing my disdain. Several friends responded in kind, and we frowny-faced together, finding solidarity in our sadness for our maltreated Shiba brethren. “Looks like a typical puppy mill Shiba,” commented one of my friends. I admit that I thought the same thing.
Well I put the book down, returning to it at a later date. That’s when I found another picture that hinted as to where this Shiba might have come from.
Singaporean Film Director Eric Khoo [邱金海, Be With Me (2005), My Magic (2008), Tatsumi (2011)] apparently owned an eleven-year-old Shiba named Iiko. He is described as “rare” (like the first picture), and “gentle and loyal with his kids.” Iiko’s feet appear aggravated by allergies, his paunch is more pronounced from that angle, and his tear-stained countenance and droopy ears suggest that he’s not particularly pleased to be manhandled by the crowd of boys, despite the caption.
Though Iiko actually appears more decrepit in this second picture (the final photo credits confirm it’s the same dog), my criticism of the Shiba’s first representation immediately softened upon seeing him portrayed in this domestic setting. Here he was, somewhat dopey and dour looking, but nevertheless placed as “one of the boys” at the center of the family. Within a series of pages describing how to “Be a responsible owner” by properly socializing, training, and vetting a newly acquired puppy, the presence of this senior Shiba — older than the eldest son by three years — affirmed the idea that a pet is a commitment for life, through family transitions, poor health, and old age.
I felt sheepish for having been so judgmental based on the first picture. Truth is, both are only pictures, brief moments embedded in a cultural context that is unfamiliar (which is why I checked out the book in the first place). For all I know, Iiko sleeps outside on hard concrete and seldom gets actual human interaction… Or maybe he gets to rotate between the boys’ beds each night. That reality, whatever it may be, is not for me to know and judge.
As a pet, the authors of the book included Iiko in their annals of special Singaporean dogs because they found him worth documenting. Perhaps it’s just because he’s a “rare” breed and belongs to a famous filmmaker. Perhaps the authors wanted to highlight his simple canine essence by contrasting him to Khoo’s celebrity. Or perhaps it’s just because he’s old and has obviously seen better days. Frankly, this Shiba was still one of the unhealthiest looking dogs in the whole book, as even the local pariah dogs appeared more fit.
Still, he has a home and a family to call his own — the basic satisfactions of human and canine alike. Ultimately, it was more significant that this li’l dude was old than a picture-perfect Shiba. The authors knew what they were doing after all.
Lee, Koon Ann Lennie and Ilsa Sharp. Singapore Dog: K9 Facts, Figures and Fancies. Singapore: SNP Editions, 2003.
As a final tangent, one of the most fascinating entries in the book was a list of breeds approved by the Singaporean Housing and Development Board. Since the vast majority of Singaporeans live in HDB government-sponsored housing, this is essentially a form of breed-specific legislation that affects the general population. On the cover is a Jack Russell Terrier, a breed which is HDB approved. However, the JRT breed introduction takes exception to official recommendation, noting, “The authors do not agree with the HDB ruling and do not recommend this breed for high-rise and/or HDB apartment living.”