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Masako Yamamoto remembers when her father brought home two Shiba Inus some 25 years ago from their native Japan; the family had no idea what they were signing up for. They had had dogs before, but Shiba Inus aren't like most: They're small, furry balls of fiery attitude and stubborn independence.
The breed was declared a Natural Living Monument by the Japanese government in 1936, but it was only recently that they became the unofficial dog of the Internet thanks to viral memes and online phenomenons featuring Shiba Inus such as Doge, Menswear Dog and the Puppy Cam of 2008. But you can't be deceived by their cuteness or Internet fame.
"They're a challenging breed," Yamamoto says, "but I think that's the part I like most. You can't use your typical training techniques. Watching Cesar Millan doesn't teach you everything you need to know to work with this breed."
Yamamoto eventually learned the tenets of effective Shiba ownership—such as consistency and always having a pocketful of treats—and currently lives with Shibas five, six and seven (named Yumi, Winnie and Bravo, respectively) at her home in Long Beach. In 2007, Yamamoto took the first steps that would lead her from Shiba-lover to Shiba savior.
After her fourth Shiba Inu, Princess, passed away, Yamamoto reached out to a group of ladies in Los Angeles County who informally rescued Shibas. The rescue group brought over a rather rambunctious male, who was a bit too high-energy for the elderly shepherd mix Yamamoto had at home. Though that Shiba didn't work out, the group felt that since she knew so much about the breed, they would love her help as a foster home to care for Shibas until they found their "furever" homes. Yamamoto happily agreed, but after she realized she was spending quite a bit of money playing host and finding homes for several pups, she thought it best to start her own nonprofit charity.
As fate would have it, Yamamoto's day job as an incentive-programs supervisor at Toyota was more than accommodating. "[Toyota] really encourages employees to do charity work. If you start your own charity or are on the board of a charity, they give out grants." So in 2011, Los Alamitos-based Saving Shibas Inc. was born.
The dogs come to Saving Shibas in a few ways. Some first-time Shiba owners fall into the same situation Yamamoto's family did and find themselves unprepared for the hard work it takes to raise such a challenging breed. As such, Shibas are particularly susceptible to being surrendered to local rescues by their owners. Yamamoto also scans local animal shelters for Shibas and will adopt them if it looks like the dogs won't be otherwise adopted.
She fosters some dogs (and helps others find loving homes), reviews applications, assesses the dogs' needs while they're in Saving Shibas' care, visits potential applicants' homes, and oversees trial adoptions. "I don't have much free time," she says with a smile.
Though the breed continues to grow in popularity here in the States, Yamamoto is happy with the size of the rescue: small but mighty, not unlike the breed it saves. "There's a lot that I do for the rescue," Yamamoto says. "I like that it's small. I hope it stays the same size in the next five to 10 years."