How the Shiba Inu became an Internet meme and took over the world

For over a decade, the Shiba Inu — one of Japan’s oldest and smallest breeds of working dogs — has endured as the internet’s best friend.

Most recognizable as the original “doge” — a meme meant to cutely convey support, confusion and often both — its reach has been expansive. The breed has popped up ubiquitously in GIFs, stickers, auto-text reactions and countless “memed” iterations of the original viral image.


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The commercial market has joined the pack as well — the dog can be found adorning the hood of a NASCAR car whipping around Talladega Superspeedway; becoming the face and namesake for Elon Musk’s favorite cryptocurrency, Dogecoin; and featuring in advertisements for Stockholm’s public transit system.

Most recently, an online brigade of Shiba Inu-themed accounts called the North Atlantic Fella Organization (NAFO) came together to spam and interrupt Twitter users who post disinformation about the war in Ukraine. They notably targeted Russian diplomat Mikhail Ulyanov, who often uses his account as a pro-Russian propaganda tool.

The internet is the Shiba Inu’s forever home, said Jamie Cohen, an assistant professor of media studies at Queens College of the City University of New York. The image of the breed has survived when so many other viral images haven’t. Remember that blue-gold dress everyone argued over? Will Smith slapping Chris Rock? Even those Little Miss memes are becoming a thing of the past.

But what is it about the Shiba Inu that helps it endure as “the most important meme on the internet?” Cohen asked.

The backstory is part bizarre coincidence, part psychology of cute animals. Here’s how the Shiba Inu became interwoven with our modern media zeitgeist and ascended to internet fame.

Grid spoke with Cohen, who has extensively studied and written on the breed’s online history, about the popular pup.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Grid: Videos and images of cute animals are everywhere online, whether you follow trends or not. So much so that you’ve said, “The internet is cats.” Could you tell me what part they play in our internet experience?

Jamie Cohen: Cats, as far as entertainment value, have been around since the beginning of film. In the very earliest photographs, cats were photographed with clothes on and then Thomas Edison, in some of the earliest films, had cats boxing. When media became more proliferated, they used animals more than people. And in the internet age of Lorem Ipsum — when you would first start up a website, and it was just fake text — the space-holding images were also cats.

G: So out of all these different animals and breeds, why did the Shiba Inu go viral?

JC: It didn’t have to be the Shiba Inu. It was a series of events that occurred almost within the same two-year span that caused that specific breed to be the dog of the internet.

The noise was created by a web cartoon called “Homestar Runner.” On an episode in 2005, there was a misspelling of the word “dog.” A character said, “You are my dog, my d-o-g-e,” and then the other character replied, “Your DOGE?” And that word, for the first time in literal centuries, reentered the lexicon. It was a term that had died about two centuries previous and referred to a Venetian aristocrat, the doge, who were basically the financiers of the Byzantine Empire.

G: How did the word “doge” become linked to the Shiba Inu?

JC: So the word reappeared, but it was limited to the back sectors of the internet until February 2010, when a Japanese man named Atsuko Sato posted a picture of his Shiba Inu named Kabosu onto his blog. And it wasn’t until October 2010 when someone on Reddit commented: “lmbo [laughing my butt off] look at this f—ing doge.”

This is how the internet works — everything from Gamergate to the Trump presidency is all about these weird coincidences. It’s one of those spaces where culture itself becomes volumetric and goes from one or two to tens of thousands very quickly. And it’s amazing because that’s the moment when that specific dog became attached to that specific word.

In 2012, a Tumblr blog began collecting images of Shiba Inus at the same time the “Doge Meme” was happening. That became the doge moment — from that moment forward, the Shiba became the dog of the internet.

G: And I’ve heard former president Barack Obama plays a huge role in this? Is that accurate?

JC: In 2014, Obama brought together a bunch of young social media influencers to help him sell the Affordable Care Act [ACA] to millennials, and they came up with a campaign called Doge Healthcare. Obama wanted to use that [specific] iconic Shiba image, but it was copyrighted at the time. So, he actually posted an advertisement at a subway stop for ACA with a [completely] different Shiba Inu.

Of course, the internet, being a reactionary space, took this as a sign of commodification of memes. Like, you’re taking our meme from the internet and bringing it into commercial space for your own benefit.

This also happened to coincide with a period when Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj were using the Pepe meme on their blogs and really bothering the internet — who collectively saw it as another sign of people lifting their memes [for commercial use]. People saw it as taking [the Shiba Inu] from the internet for your own benefit and not for our benefit, [and took a virtual stand]. From there forward, the Shiba Inu became concretized as an internet-only dog. And the internet has that nebulous space of copyright, so who cares?

G: With that backlash to commodification, how do we understand Elon Musk’s support for Dogecoin?

JC: In 2013, the cryptocurrency Dogecoin, using that image of Kabosu, was born in protest against Bitcoin. You have to keep in mind that cryptocurrency is a belief and, as long as the blockchain exists, you can create any type of cryptocurrency.

So Dogecoin was a joke. It was made as a way of pointing out to Bitcoin — who’s gonna believe in this? But, like with any viral incident, it needs an influencer to make it popular. And Elon Musk is probably the largest owner of Dogecoin. Even to this day, Tesla will accept Dogecoin. It’s still a part of Elon Musk’s architecture and infrastructure.

G: Shiba Inus aren’t the most popular or accessible dogs in the U.S., but I’d be willing to bet that most people draw very strong connections between any image of the Shiba Inu and the doge meme!

We’ve been pushing back against the concept of digital dualism for about a decade now, like literally since 2012. Digital dualism is the belief that we exist separately from our physical space — that we have internet personas, and we have our physical person — and that is wildly untrue. We are the same in both spaces.

The internet is being more recognized today as something as an extension of ourselves. Where TV is a reception — you sit back and absorb what somebody else made — the internet is what you make, and people react. It is an ebb and flow of our lives.

I think it’s a very big misconception that people believe we exist separately on the internet. We are an extension of the internet all the time. But that begs the question: What do you do when you’re walking your Shiba down the street and someone refers to it as a doge, rather than a dog?

A lot of the internet is obviously going to influence the way we interpret the world around us, but I think we do have to be careful with how much of that internet-centric or internet-native content reaches into physical space and what we can do with that with responsibility. I think that transcends just talking about animals. I think that transcends politics and responsibility of who is on the internet versus what they do in real life.

Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.