The Chow Chow, a Spitz-like breed native to China is widely considered to be one of the oldest of all breeds and has existed in a form very similar to the modern breed for at least 2,000 years and possibly much longer. Once a hunting dog and food source, in America the breed is primarily used as a companion animal and guard dog. The Chow Chow is most famous for its blue-black tongue, shared only with its close relative the Shar Pei. This breed is more capable of surviving life on the streets than many others and a highly disproportionate number of stray dogs have some Chow Chow ancestry. Although the rough-coated variety is far more common and well-known, the Chow Chow is also found in a smooth-coated form. The Chow Chow is also known as the Chinese Chow Chow, the Edible Chinese Dog, and the Chow.
Although historical and archaeological records of the Chow Chow date back nearly 2,000 years, almost nothing is known for certain about the origins of the Chow Chow other than the fact that the breed is incredibly ancient. Unlike many other breeds generally believed to be ancient, the Chow Chow has had its great age confirmed by genetics. Recent tests have suggested that the Chow Chow is one of the top 10 or 15 oldest dog breeds, or from a genetic standpoint a breed that has changed little from and differs only slightly from the wolf. The Chow Chow is normally classified as a type of Spitz, a group of long-haired, wolf-like dogs native to Northern Europe, East Asia, and North America. However, the breed’s closest relatives are assumed to the Chinese Shar Pei and the Chinese Chongqing Dog; breeds which are not always classified as Spitzen.
Although there is much dispute as to the domestication of the dog, most experts agree that it took place sometime between 14,000 and 35,000 years ago. Although initially it was believed that the dog was domesticated many times, more modern genetic evidence suggests that it likely took place only once, somewhere in the Middle East, India, or China. The wolves of these regions, especially India, are significantly smaller and less aggressive than northern wolves, and still live in close proximity to man. From its Asiatic birthplace, the dog spread across the world. Although there is substantial variation between wolves found in different places, all are capable of interbreeding as are their descendants the dogs. As the dog moved northwards, it was crossed with the thick-coated and larger northern wolves. These crosses continued to be made both on purpose and accidentally for thousands of years resulting in the Spitz-family. Estimates on when the first Spitz was created vary greatly, from as few as 8,000 years ago to as many as 35,000 years ago.
Spitzen have been used for many purposes over the centuries, but among the most common are as sled dogs, beasts of burden, hunting dogs, herding dogs, and companion animals.At some point, Spitz-type dogs entered China. Many have suggested that Spitzen were introduced to China from Siberia and Mongolia, and that they were initially the sled and hunting dogs of North Asian nomads. However, it is equally possible, and perhaps more likely, that Spitzen were the first dogs to arrive in China. Almost all of the breeds native to Japan and Korea are Spitz-type dogs, and those that are not are generally believed to be of Chinese or Tibetan origin. This suggests that Spitzen were once predominant in East Asia. However it is that the first Spitz arrived in China, they quickly became well-established in that country.
At one point, there may have been many distinct varieties of Chinese Spitz, but only the Chow Chow has survived until the present day. The Chinese would modify the Spitz from its ancestral form to better suit their own needs and preferences. It is often speculated that in order to do so they crossed Spitzen with Tibetan Mastiffs, Tibetan Spaniels, Lhasa Apsos, Pugs, and Pekingese all of which are considered to be ancient breeds. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no evidence to support this, and very likely it can never be confirmed. What is known with almost certainty is that the Chow Chow was present in its modern form by the time of the Han Dynasty which lasted from 206 B.C. to 22 A.D. Numerous pieces of artwork and pottery from this time show a dog that is virtually identical in appearance to the modern Chow Chow.
The Chow Chow was one of the few, and perhaps only, breeds to be kept by both the Chinese nobility and commoners. The breed was the preferred hunting dog of the Chinese nobility for many centuries. Chow Chows hunted both alone and in packs, sometimes numbering in the hundreds. The breed was used on virtually every type of game throughout history. Initially, this dog was probably tasked with hunting tigers, wolves, and deer, but such creatures eventually became extremely rare in China. Towards the 1700’s and 1800’s, the Chow Chow was primarily used for hunting the smaller species which had survived such as sable, pheasants, and quails. It is said that one emperor of the T’Ang Dynasty, so favored the breed that he kept a kennel of more than 2,500 of them.
The Chinese peasantry also greatly favored the breed, but for different reasons. The Chow Chow was raised for its meat and its fur, often in a farm-like setting. Although distressing to Western sensibilities, the dog was one of the only available sources of protein and clothing for many millions of people throughout China’s long history. Both the Chinese nobility and the peasantry also used the breed as a guard dog and a combatant in dog fights. It is generally believed that the facial wrinkles and loose skin of this breed were favored because it made the dog more difficult to grab a hold of, both by human and animal assailants as well it served to protect vital areas of the neck. Although it is unclear when, eventually two distinct varieties of Chow Chow developed, one with a long, rough coat and another with a shorter, smooth coat. The few surviving European reports seem to indicate that the rough-coated variety was preferred by the nobility and the smooth-coated variety was favored by the peasantry, but it not sure to what extent this was the case.
Westerners first encountered the Chow Chow in the 1700’s and 1800’s. Western traders made a fortune selling European goods and Central Asian opium in China, and then bringing highly valued spices, pottery, and other Oriental goods back to Europe. In the both 19th century America and England there was a tremendous interest in anything from East Asia, especially China. The first record of a Chow Chow outside of China dates comes from 1780, when an employee of the British East India Company brought a pair to England as curiosities. The breed did not become established in England until almost 50 years later, when the London Zoo imported a pair in 1828. The London Zoo advertised the dogs as the “Wild Dogs of China” and the “Chinese Black-Mouthed Dogs.” These zoo dogs sparked n interest in the breed and more and more were imported from China. Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 to 1901, greatly increased the breed’s status as she kept several as her personal pets.
It is unclear how the Chow Chow earned its name, and there are two competing theories. The more commonly published one holds that the term chow chow was a slang term used by British sailors to describe the various types of Chinese merchandise carried in a ship’s cargo areas. According to this theory, because the dog was just another type of Chinese merchandise to these sailors, they called it a Chow Chow. The more unpleasant theory, but the more likely, is that Chow Chow is an Anglicized version of either the Chinese word chou, which means food or edible or the Chinese phrase ch’ao, which means to fry or cook. This theory holds that the Chow Chow earned this name because it was so commonly eaten in its native country. The American slang term for food chow is also thought to come from these words, although directly from Chinese immigrant laborers in the American West.
By the end of the 1800’s, the Chow Chow was well-established in England as a pet and the first breed club was established in 1895. Although initially brought from China to Britain, it was in America where the breed became most popular. The earliest record of a Chow Chow in America comes from 1890, when a breed member won third place at Westminster in the Miscellaneous Class. The first Chow Chows in America were imported from Britain, but later on some were imported directly from China as well. The American Kennel Club (AKC) granted full recognition to the Chow Chow in 1903. In 1906, the Chow Chow Club of America was founded to protect and promote breed interests. The club eventually changed its name to the Chow Chow Club, Inc. (CCCI) and became the official parent club of the Chow Chow with the AKC.
The 1920’s saw a rapid growth of the American economy in a period known as the Roaring Twenties. The decade also gave birth to Hollywood’s Golden Age, and the modern celebrity culture. The Chow Chow was seen as elegant, beautiful, and exotic, and became perhaps the most fashionable breed of the time. President Calvin Coolidge owned a Chow Chow, as did many members of Hollywood’s A-List at the time. This of course led countless other Americans to acquired Chow Chows in attempts to emulate the rich and famous. Although the Great Depression dampened the American economy, the Chow Chow had become a permanent fixture in American canine life and would remain very fashionable and popular until World War II. In 1934, the United Kennel Club (UKC) also granted full recognition to the Chow Chow.
The breed’s success in America was in direct contrast to its fate in its homeland. Maoist revolutionaries seized control of mainland China in the years following World War II. They saw dogs as a useless fancy of the rich, and something that took away food and resources that should go to the poor. Initially dog ownership was heavily taxed, and then banned altogether. Millions of Chinese dogs were slaughtered by Communist forces, including most of the surviving Chinese Chow Chows. Although it is difficult to get a real gauge on Chinese dog populations, the Chow Chow either went totally extinct in China or nearly so, and to this day the breed remains very rare in its homeland.
The Great Depression and World War II caused many families to give up their Chow Chows and many of these dogs, along with all other breeds, ended up on the streets. Although many people assume that their dogs will be capable of caring for themselves, this is simply not the case. The vast majority of released dogs end up dead of starvation, accidents, animal attack, poisoning, and disease within the first few weeks or months, and many barely make it for a few days. This is the fate likely to be suffered by all breeds. However, certain dogs are much more likely to survive than others. The Chow Chow not very far removed from the wolf retained far more of its natural instincts and abilities (such as its keen senses and weather resistant coat) than did almost all other modern breeds. The Chow Chow is one of the few breeds capable of not only surviving long periods as a stray, but thriving enough to actually reproduce. This capability has had a lasting effect on many stray and feral dog populations in America as by the fact that a comparatively high percentage of American stray dogs (dogs which were once pets and then later released) are partially Chow Chow and a grossly disproportionate number of American feral dogs (dogs which were born on the streets and never had a home) have some Chow Chow ancestry. Although every area is different, some genetic studies of feral dog populations have indicated that more than 80% of their ancestry comes from Chow Chows and similar Spitz-type dogs such as the Siberian Husky and Alaskan Malamute. It is easy to tell Chow ancestry even after many generations because of the blue-black tongue, although a few other breeds do have partially black tongues. An unfortunate result of so many Chow Chow mixes living on the streets is that a very large number of them end up in animal shelters, where they form a sizable percentage of the shelter population in most areas. Because of the negative reputation this breed has earned, these dogs also tend to be euthanized at very high rates.
The Chow Chow remained a relatively common type of dog, until the 1980’s. That decade saw the breed’s popularity rise. Over time, the Chow Chows natural instincts to guard its territory and family had made the breed a popular choice as a guard dog. Because this dog has a relatively low exercise requirement, it became especially popular in urban areas where it frequently guarded apartments and alleys. Unfortunately, many who acquired this breed as a guard dog did not understand responsible dog ownership or they actually wanted as vicious a dog as possible. Although the Chow Chow doesn’t need a great deal of exercise, any dog will become unpredictable and aggressive if it is tied up for long periods of time, or for its entire life. Irresponsible and uneducated ownership meant that the Chow Chow soon earned a negative reputation. Many came to see this dog as vicious and unpredictable. This reputation was enhanced due to a series of widely reported attack incidents, some of them fatal.
The Chow Chow earned a particularly negative reputation with children, especially for seriously injuring them. Many Chow Chows again ended up on the streets. Regrettably, media attention did not focus on the heroism that many breed members displayed protecting their families or the defense that was made unnecessary by their mere presence. By the end of the 1980’s, pure bred Chow Chows had again fallen out of favor, although untold thousands of Chow Chow mixes still roamed the streets of America. The Chow Chow also began to be targeted legally. Some areas put legal restrictions on the dog’s ownership, and others banned it outright. Insurance companies often refuse coverage to Chow Chow owners or charge them much higher rates. The dog is also subject to many other restrictions, such as the fact that many groomers and dog boarding facilities will not cater to Chow Chows.
Although the Chow Chow has fallen out of the canine spotlight, it is very well-established in the United States and has a number of very dedicated fanciers. The Chow Chow currently ranks 65th out of 167 total breeds in terms of AKC registrations and is considered neither common nor rare. Although the Chow Chow has historically served many purposes, in modern America it is largely limited to three: companionship, personal and property protection, and conformation showing, although many breed members serve some combination of all three roles. The Chow Chow will probably remain a companion animal and protection dog for the foreseeable future, although its popularity will likely rise once again.
The Chow Chow is among the most distinctive-looking of all dogs, famed for its long coat, wrinkly face, and blue-black tongue. The Chow Chow is the epitome of a medium-sized dog, with the average adult height ranging from 17 to 22 inches tall at the shoulder and weighing 40 to 70 pounds. The Chow Chow is a relatively thick and stocky breed, but the coats of both varieties make it appear much larger than it actually is. Unlike some other breeds, most of the Chow Chow’s stockiness comes from thick bones and a very heavy musculature. Although most of its body is obscured by hair, the Chow Chow is almost perfectly square in proportion. The Chow Chow’s tail is very typical of a Spitz-type dog, long and carried above the back in a tight curl.
The head and face of the Chow Chow are very distinctive for a member of the Spitz family. The head is noticeably large for the size of the body, but not excessively so. The muzzle and face are quite distinct from each other, and meet at a nearly 90 degree angle. The muzzle itself is quite short, but should never be less than one-third the length of the skull. Although short, the muzzle is very wide and deep, to the point that it is nearly cubical in shape. One of the most important breed features is the mouth. This breed’s tongue, gums, and interior mouth tissue should be a solid blue-black, and the darker the better. The face of the Chow Chow is quite wrinkly, although dogs from show lines tend to have far more wrinkles than dogs from other lines. These wrinkles make it appear that the dog is constantly grimacing. The eyes of a Chow Chow are relatively small for the size of the dog, and look even smaller than they actually are because they are set very-deeply and far apart. The ears of this breed are relatively short, but fairly wide. They are triangular in shape and prick up naturally. The overall expression of a Chow Chow is one of scowling seriousness.
The coat of the Chow Chow is probably the breed’s single most important characteristic. The Chow Chow comes in two different coat types. Both coat varieties are double-coated, with a soft, dense undercoat. The rough-coated variety is by far the more common and well known. These dogs have very long fur, although the actual length varies tremendously. The hair is very abundant and thick, as well as being straight and somewhat coarse. This variety often has a ruff of longer hair around the head and neck and heavy feathering on the tail and legs. The hair of the rough-coated Chow Chow is most similar to that of the Pomeranian. The smooth-coated Chow Chow has a hard and dense outer coat, but also smooth. This variety has significantly shorter hair than the rough-coated, but its hair is still medium to long in length. The smooth-coated Chow Chow has no obvious ruff or feathering, and its coat is generally similar to that of the Siberian Husky. For the show ring, the coat of both Chow Chow varieties should be left as naturally as possible. However, many owners choose to have their dogs’ coats trimmed very short in the summer months. The head, tail, and legs are often left with longer hair creating the distinctive lion cut. The Chow Chow is found in five different colors. All of these colors are solid, but usually vary in shade over the dog’s coat. Red or orange is by far the most common color, but black, blue, white, and cream are all given equal consideration in the show ring.
The Chow Chow is perhaps most like other primitive dogs in terms of temperament. This breed is often used in behavioral studies of early dogs because its nature is thought to be very much like theirs. The Chow Chow is known for being among the most independent and cat-like of any dog breed. The average Chow Chow is quite aloof, even from those it knows best, and breed members are very rarely overly affectionate. Chow Chows are definitely not lap dogs, and prefer to have their own space. This breed likes to do its own thing, and is one of the best-suited of all dogs for owners who have to be gone for long periods of time. However, this dog is known for its intense loyalty. Although Chow Chows will form bonds with all members of a family, this breed is the epitome of a one-person dog. Chow Chows typically become extremely close with one person, and sometimes completely shut out all others. This bond happens very quickly, and often lasts a lifetime. While most Chow Chows will eventually accept the presence of a new person such as a spouse or roommate, some never do and many never form a bond with that person.
Chow Chows can be socialized and trained to accept strangers, but this process must start at a very young age and takes a great deal of effort. However, it is very important that it be completed properly because the Chow Chow is inherently wary. With proper socialization, most Chow Chows will accept the presence of strangers, but the vast majority never approve of them and are extremely aloof. Chow Chows that have not been socialized typically see every new person as a threat to their families and territory and very frequently show human aggression. Although definitely not a vicious breed, the Chow Chow is more than willing to use force if it feels the need, often in inappropriate situations. The Chow Chow makes a peerless watchdog and an excellent guard dog. This breed is very alert and is perhaps the most territorial of any breed. Chow Chows will not let any intruder approach unannounced or unchallenged, even those it knows very well. This breed greatly prefers to use intimidation at first, but is quicker to bite than most. Chow Chows are famed for their courage when defending their families, and this dog will fearlessly drive off any danger, including gangs of armed robbers and bears.
Chow Chows have a very mixed reputation with children. Breed members that have been raised with children are generally very gentle and affectionate with those children, and typically become extremely protective of them. However, Chow Chows that have not been properly socialized with children are usually untrustworthy around them. Chow Chows like to have their personal space (some to the point that they do not let any stranger enter it), and many children do not understand this. Additionally, the jerky motions and loud noises of children are usually interpreted as either a threat or prey drive stimulation by an unsocialized Chow Chow. Even those Chow Chows which are best around children are very intolerant of rough-housing. It is very important to say that Chow Chows are not inherently vicious or aggressive. However, they are generally quicker to bite than other dogs and due to their size and power can bite very hard. For these reasons, many dog experts and Chow Chow breeders do not recommend placing Chow Chows in homes with children under the age of 10.
Chow Chows are generally accepting of other dogs, especially those which they are very familiar with. Territorial issues are a frequent problem, as are same-sex aggression issues to a lesser extent. Chow Chows are more wolf-like than most dog breeds and have a very strong pack instinct. Chow Chows often revert to pack behavior in groups of as few as three or four dogs, which can cause serious problems. This breed is generally untrustworthy around very small dogs. Chow Chows don’t distinguish between breeds such as Yorkshire Terriers and rabbits, and there have been more than a few incidents of Chow Chows killing a small dog in the belief that it was prey.
Chow Chows which have been raised with larger non-canine animals are generally tolerant of those individual animals and give them few problems. However, this dog has one of the highest prey drives of any breed and will pursue and kill other animals. Chow Chows left in backyards for any length of time will almost certainly bring their owners presents of dead animals, ranging in size from a cockroach to a raccoon. Chow Chows have a well-earned reputation as a cat-killer and will pursue and probably attack cats with which they are unfamiliar. Leaving a Chow Chow unsupervised with a small pet such as a hamster or guinea pig is essentially the same thing as killing the animal because the Chow Chow certainly will.
The Chow Chow is not regarded as being a very trainable breed. These dogs are highly intelligent and learn very quickly, but they are also strongly independent and one of the most stubborn of all dogs. When a Chow Chow decides that it is not going to do something, that is the end of that. Correction-based training methods go absolutely nowhere with Chow Chows, who either complete ignore them or choose to retaliate. Most Chow Chows are very responsive to rewards-based training methods, but they reach a point where performing a behavior is no longer worth the treat. Those looking for a hunting dog or a guard dog will have few difficulties as the Chow Chow takes to these tasks naturally. Those looking for a dog to compete in obedience trials or other canine sports should definitely look elsewhere as Chow Chows usually perform very poorly in such events. Although the Chow Chow is not actively resistant to socialization, this process is particularly challenging with this breed.
It is absolutely imperative that Chow Chow owners maintain a position of dominance at all times. The Chow Chow is more than intelligent enough to figure out exactly what it can and cannot get away with, and they live their lives according to their own rules unless someone else enforces a different set. Chow Chows are a very dominant breed, and most actively attempt to gain control on their own. Chow Chows that come to see themselves as the pack leader will not obey commands, and often become unmanageable and even dangerous. Owners unwilling or unable to maintain dominance are strongly discouraged from Chow Chow ownership and many dog experts strongly suggest that this is not a breed for a first time dog owner.
The Chow Chow is considered to be one of the most naturally clean, and many say the most naturally clean, of any dog. Most breed members clean themselves thoroughly and do not have a doggy odor. Even Chow Chows that live primarily outside are generally quite clean. Of most importance to many dog owners is the breed’s ease of housebreaking. Perhaps no dog is as easy to housebreak as a Chow Chow, and many housebreak themselves by the age of eight weeks. However, males (and to a lesser extent females) of this breed may scent mark their territory, including furniture and walls.
Chow Chows have a very low exercise requirement for a breed of this size. These dogs will be satisfied with a long daily walk. In fact, most Chow Chows are incapable of long periods of intense exercise because they quickly become winded. Even very inactive families will likely be able to meet the needs of this dog. However, as with any other dog, Chow Chows that do not have their needs met are likely to develop emotional and behavior problems such as destructiveness and aggression. Chow Chows love to run around outside on their own, and greatly prefer to have at least a small yard. This breed certainly does not need a yard though, and most adapt very well to apartment life if given the proper exercise. Chow Chows are definitely not a breed that craves a job such as running through an agility course, and most actively resist doing so.
Both varieties of Chow Chow have very intense grooming requirements, but the rough-coated variety has extreme ones. This breed needs to be thoroughly brushed at least twice a week, but preferably every day. Because of the length and coarseness of the hair, this process can be quite time consuming. This process must start from a very young age to accustom to the dog to it. Although the breed does not need professional grooming, many owners choose to have the dog’s coat cut very short in warmer months to keep it cool. This can be problematic as many groomers refuse to cater to Chow Chows due to their tendency to bite strangers, especially those that are pulling at their fur. The Chow Chow is a very heavy shedder and not a good choice for allergy sufferers or those that hate cleaning up dog hair. Breed members will completely cover furniture, clothing, and carpets with fur. These dogs shed fairly heavily all year long, but are incredibly intense seasonal shedders. Twice a year when the seasons change, Chow Chows essentially leave trails of hair wherever they go.
The Chow Chow is known to suffer from a number of genetically inherited health conditions. These conditions are considerably more prevalent in Chow Chows bred by irresponsible and careless breeders, and responsible breeders are working with veterinarians and other breeders to eliminate such defects from their lines. Luckily for the Chow Chow, many of the problems that it is susceptible are not fatal and this breed tends to live long lives. The life expectancy for a Chow Chow is between 12 and 15 years, very long for a dog of this size.
Perhaps the most common serious problem experienced by Chow Chows is entropion. Entropion occurs when the eyelid folds inwards. This causes the eyelashes to constantly rub up against the cornea. This causes irritation, vision problems, and pain. In severe cases, it can cause too much damage to the eyes that they need to be removed. Entropion is correctable, but requires expensive surgery.
The problem of most concern to Chow Chow owners is the breed’s great sensitivity to the heat. The long double-coat of the Chow Chow offers great protection from the winter, but can superheat the dog in the summer. Additionally, the shortened muzzle of the Chow Chow means that the breed has difficulty getting its body enough air to cool itself off. Chow Chows are one of the most susceptible of all dogs to heat stroke, and more Chow Chows die of this condition than almost any breed. Chow Chows develop and die of heat stroke both more quickly and at lower temperatures than most other breeds. Chow Chow owners are highly advised to bring their dogs in when the temperature rises. Chows Chows should avoid transport in high temperatures and under no circumstances should be left in a hot car when it is warm outside.
Because skeletal and visual problems have been known to occur in this breed it is highly advisable for owners to have their pets tested by both the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF). The OFA and CERF perform genetic and other tests to identify potential health defects before they show up. This is especially valuable in the detection of conditions that do not show up until the dog has reached an advanced age, making it especially important for anyone considering breeding their dog to have it tested to prevent the spread of potential genetic conditions to its offspring.
A full list of health problems known to occur in the Chow Chow breed would have to include: