You Won’t Believe What’s Happening at This Very Special Dog Rescue

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • Shiba Inus thrive with knowledgeable pet parents; unfortunately, many who acquire these dogs aren’t prepared to handle their behavioral and health challenges
  • Nathalie Abutaha saw a need in the Washington D.C. area for a Shiba Inu rescue to reverse the high number of Shibas euthanized in local shelters
  • Nathalie’s DC Shiba Inu Rescue (DC SIR) is committed to helping Shibas with health and behavior problems become physically vibrant and behaviorally well-balanced
  • Nathalie also provides ongoing support for Shiba owners through her science-based site, Pawsitively Primal

Today I’m talking with a very special guest, Nathalie Abutaha, who started the DC Shiba Inu Rescue, or DC SIR, about six years ago in the Washington, D.C. area. She also runs Pawsitively Primal, a website where pet parents can explore optimal nutrition, training and wellness for their canine companions. You’ll understand how these two seemingly unrelated things are intertwined as we go along here.

Nathalie’s Inspiration: Two Shiba Inus With Issues

Nathalie loves the Shiba Inu breed, and because one of her own Shibas was very aggressive, she got involved in reward-based training and began working with Shiba rescues. She learned the breed was being euthanized at a high rate in the D.C. area, in part because other breed rescues didn’t want to deal with them. So she started DC Shiba Inu Rescue. Around the same time, another of her Shibas, Katniss, developed atopic dermatitis (itchy skin).

“I used to feed kibble,” explains Nathalie. “I used to do annual vaccinations. I put lots of money into being a great pet parent. Katniss became bald. She was in horrible condition. I felt so embarrassed and like such a bad owner. I bought over $1,000 in tests, serums, antibiotics and steroids. I still have them seven years later in my refrigerator.”

Nathalie couldn’t accept that her dog would have to be on drugs for the rest of her life and probably continue to get worse, so she began researching immunology and the microbiome and learned that the foundation of good health starts in the gut. The first couple of years with Katniss were rough, with annual outbreaks, but after about four years all symptoms were gone, and now she’s healthy and has a beautiful, lush coat.

DC SIR Is Committed to Rescuing Shibas With Health and Behavior Challenges

The experience led Nathalie to develop a special interest in rescuing Shibas with documented severe canine atopic dermatitis. In fact, some of the dogs she and her team rescue are “end of the road” dogs, in treatment for over 10 years and thousands of dollars in veterinary expenses.

DC SIR brings them in, takes them off all medications, and focuses on rebuilding their microbiome, which can take six months to a year. The more antibiotics and immunosuppressants they’ve been given, the longer it takes to restore their gut. And antibiotics and steroids aren’t the only problem:

“I call them ‘microbiome monsters,’” says Nathalie. “There are things in our environment that are destroying our guts and microbiomes. Dogs walk on surfaces that have been cleaned with chlorine, and then they lick their paws. That’s destroying the microbiome. Aerosol sprays are as well. All the volatile organic compounds in the house, all the chemicals, land on the ground where the dogs are. They breathe that stuff in.”

The Pawsitively Primal program includes an online support group of doctors, fosters, volunteers, reward-based trainers and holistic veterinarians. Pet parents who adopt dogs from DC SIR are encouraged to join the group and share in the science Nathalie has made available.

“We have well-trained local, small support groups that can help people who are having problems with their dogs,” she says. “Our involvement doesn’t stop with an adoption.”

In case you hadn’t guessed, the Shiba Inu is a breed known for developing both behavior problems and medical issues. This is due in large part to the fact that many Shiba owners don’t understand how to care for the breed. I think it’s fantastic that Nathalie’s rescue and her Pawsitively Primal site offer ongoing support to pet parents who adopt from DC SIR.

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DC Shiba Inu Rescue’s Three Core Philosophies

I asked Nathalie to discuss the protocol her rescue follows when they bring in a new dog. She explained that DC SIR has three core philosophies, all of which have plenty of science to back them up:

Every dog who comes into the rescue goes through a minimum two-week behavior and health assessment. Dogs with behavioral issues work with reward-based trainers, some of whom are foster parents. Every dog is transitioned to a raw diet. In addition, adoptive families go through an interview process and work with an adoption team from DC SIR to learn about training and nutrition.

“We look at each dog as an individual,” Nathalie explains. “If we have an atopic dermatitis dog, we want an adopter who’s committed to feeding raw and is interested in learning about nutrition. If we have a reactive dog, we want somebody who really understands the concept of reward-based training and learning theory.”

Some adopters are required to hire a reward-based trainer recommended by Nathalie’s team, and they’re encouraged to participate in the online support group. DC SIR has received criticism for being too restrictive, however, Nathalie explains there’s really only one area where there is no leeway given with prospective adopters, and that’s reward-based training.

“We don’t believe in hitting or abusing dogs,” she says. “There’s no leeway on that. But we do accept people who are going to feed kibble. Many ultimately decide to switch over to raw. They participate in an online support group and learn from others. Bottom line: We look for the best possible home.”

Nathalie’s DC SIR is what I would call a progressive, proactive rescue that looks out for each dog’s physical, emotional and relational well-being. I think it’s a model for other rescues to follow.

DC SIR Partners Exclusively With Small, Local Businesses

DC SIR supports local businesses only, so you won’t find them at the big box stores holding adoption events. They only hold events at small, local businesses that don’t sell shock collars, prong collars or any type of aversive training devices. These smaller, boutique-type businesses must also sell raw diets.

“When we hold adoption events at these stores,” says Nathalie, “they sell out of raw food, because all our adoption volunteers know how to talk about each of the different products!”

Nathalie speaks personally to each manufacturer of the raw diets she uses in her rescue. She also gets donations from several local organic farms, which provides nutritional diversity. When she makes homemade diets for the dogs, she follows the National Research Council’s (NRC) basic nutrient requirements and the ancestral diet. Nathalie believes it’s not feasible for a large pet food manufacturer to offer raw diets.

“The way for the raw movement to succeed,” she says, “is to go local. Support your local businesses. Support small farms. And grow your own food. I grow everything in my backyard, and I’m right outside D.C. on a quarter acre. I’ve created patio gardens for my friends. In our DC SIR online wellness support group, everybody knows how to grow herbs for their dogs. Grow your own plants so you can spend more of your money on appropriate meats and proteins.”

Because Shiba Inus are prone to health issues such as atopic dermatitis, Nathalie and her team have become virtual experts on the canine microbiome, how it can be damaged and how it can be restored. If you haven’t already, be sure to watch the video above for a deeper dive into this fascinating subject!

How to Learn More About the DC Shiba Inu Rescue and Pawsitively Primal

If you’d like to learn more about Nathalie’s rescue organization, you can visit the website at DC SIR or the Facebook page, or follow them on Twitter or Instagram. The sister site is Pawsitively Primal which is where you can find all the science behind her health and wellness approach. It’s an incredibly comprehensive site.

Nathalie is having a dramatic impact in both the dog rescue and canine health realms. I asked her for one last piece of advice for all of you reading and watching here today.

“I would say try to connect in your community,” she replied. “Connect in your community for education about nutrition and the microbiome. Start a local group. Focus on one thing at a time. For example, in our group we might pick an herb to focus on. What are its benefits? Each month we focus on a new nutrient and learn about it. So pick one thing and learn about it and then move on to the next thing. Then it’s not so overwhelming.”

I really appreciate Nathalie’s willingness to share her knowledge with us and also to inspire other rescue organizations and pet parents interested in learning more!