My Favorite Mitsu

This is not a story about a car

But it is a Japanese import story of sorts.

The Japanese Shiba Inu is one of five national Japanese dog breeds, and closely related to the Akita Inu, which most people are familiar with, only smaller. Males average about 24 pounds or so, females a little less. They were traditionally used as hunting dogs in the mountainous regions of Japan for thousands of years, but were suddenly on the verge of extinction after World War 2. A group of dedicated enthusiasts gathered as many examples of the breed as they could, and also found native wild dogs to diversify the gene pool. The result was successful, and in the 1980’s the first Shiba Inu was imported to North America. Today they are widely recognized because of social media, with characters such as “DOGE” making the Shiba a household name.

“Can I Pet Your Cat?”

Every Shiba is unique, but in general they are not a cuddly breed that greets you at the door with licks and barks. They tend toward aloofness, and are mostly quiet. They are also quite adaptable, and are equally happy in small apartment settings or tackling difficult trails with their “owners” (some argue you don’t OWN a Shiba – you serve them). This makes them as popular in Tokyo as they are in Texas, and with their tolerance for extremes, they are also well suited for northern climes, which is where this story really begins.

Shiba EMU? Is that some kind of bird dog?”

Those were my exact words to my wife when she told me she wanted a Shiba Inu. I was hesitant at first, but then she played her trump card: “He’s a Japanese breed, so we could call him Mitsu…?” The rest, as they say, is history. We found a local breeder, helped out around the kennels for a year or so, and when the time was right and we were ready, we picked out our little bundle of joy, eyes still closed, at two days old.

I finally brought him home on a rainy night in March of 2005, aboard my Mitsubishi Lancer OZ. This was to be his first of many vehicle-based adventures.

Start ‘Em Early

When he was three months old, my group was involved in the Rocky Mountain Rally, where we ran recovery for the race. Mitsu came along, and slept on top of the radio operator’s gear in the back seat of my Gen 1 Montero. He also got to experience camping for the first time.

I’ve already alluded to the stand-off nature of the Shiba, but I should mention their loyalty. Mitsu was no exception, and had a cadre of favorite people. He would tirelessly play fetch, “bone hockey” and shake the rubber chicken with them for hours on end, and they would often tire of the game before he did. If we were out for a walk, folks would always want to pet his extra thick coat. Nine times out of ten he would snort and face the other way, but occasionally he would regally lower his head and allow a stranger to touch his pelt. His odd personality endeared him to all who met him, and he had favorite friends near and far.

The Adventurous type

Over the years, Mitsu got to experience many exotic (for an adventurer) locales. He was four wheeling on the Whipsaw Trail, camping in the Okanagan, and swimming in Waterton Lake. He got to go kayaking (not really his favorite activity) in Kananaskis, hiking in Banff, and sightseeing in Lake Louise. On a marathon drive to Vancouver for a buddy’s wedding, he was patient for the 11 hours of pavement, only stopping for a pee a couple of times.

One of his favorite places seemed to be Utah, and over the years we did most of the popular trails around Moab, such as Hell’s Revenge, Metal Masher, and Steel Bender. If he felt I hit a bump a little too hard, he sometimes launched himself into my lap, in an attempt to settle me down. This usually had the desired effect, since I was suddenly unable to do anything else but clear fur from my face.

During a river crossing one time, on an Alberta wheeling trip, he hopped over as I was just climbing the icy opposite bank. He bumped the auto shifter into neutral on his flight across the seat and before I knew what was happening, I rolled back into the river, and invariably needed to be strapped out. Nobody believed me when I told them Mitsu did it. And Mitsu? He would admit nothing.


He had a way of seeing the world that was unique. My vet friend Doctor Jeremy once remarked, after administering his annual vaccination with no drama: “We could all be a little more like Mitsu”. The furry fellow seemed partially detached from the world except when it mattered. One time at a border crossing, there was some confusion in our group over vehicle registration. The border guards subsequently detained us in their search facility. The agent later admitted she was planning to do a detailed search of my vehicle but decided not to because my dog, still inside, gave her the “evil eye”. Another time, we found ourselves at a different crossing, after driving almost all night. The agent came over to the left window (RHD vehicle remember?) just as Mitsu was waking up. He stretched, yawned at her, and she said “Your puppy looks tired. You should just keep on going”. Twenty second border crossing? Thanks Mitsu!

Sibling Rivalry

When Mitsu was 5 years old, we got him a little sister, and for the next decade we were able to enjoy two completely disparate versions of the Shiba Inu: while one was content to share a room with you, the other wouldn’t leave your side. If one was a polar bear, the other was a svelte vixen.

In Mitsu’s senior years, he slowed down a lot, and I sometimes had to carry him uphill on hikes, but he’d still enjoy blasting down the other side.

One week before his fifteenth birthday, my old friend crossed over to the rainbow bridge. He had a life of adventures, and I was lucky to be there for all of them. His little sister Geisha has been helpful in coming to terms with our loss, but she’s missing him as much as we are.

Our little girl has had her own share of adventures, and I’m excited to be taking her to Moab this spring for the first time. But we will never forget the adventures of her puffy red brother on the red rocks.

RIP King Mitsukuni: 2005- 2020

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  1. My condolences, again, Phil. I couldn’t love this story more. Thank you for sharing it.

    • Thanks so much Todd. Honestly, I feel like it’s been the biggest help so far in accepting his loss. Having a place where I could share his memories with others (and for myself) gives me some closure. I’ve felt a little lighter ever since… I think reliving those adventures was a help?

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