The Chinese Shar-Pei is a breed that was originally native to China, where it was bred as a multi-purpose dog. Throughout history, the Chinese Shar-Pei has been used for hunting, herding, guarding, and fighting. At one time famous for being the rarest dog in the world, the Chinese Shar-Pei has since become well-established in America and around the world. The breed is now best known for its heavily wrinkled skin, especially around the face. There are two distinct varieties of Shar-Pei, one popular in the West and the other popular in Asia, but both varieties are still considered the same bred. The Chinese Shar-Pei is also known as the Shar-Pei and the Chinese Fighting Dog.
The Shar-Pei was created in a time when few records were kept of dog breeding and in rural areas where literacy was extremely rare. As a result, very little is known for sure about the origins of this breed. What is known for sure is that this breed is very ancient and that was developed primarily, if not entirely, in China. It is unclear what, if any, larger dog group the Shar-Pei belongs to. The closest relatives of the Shar-Pei are commonly assumed to be the Chow Chow and especially the Chinese Chongqing Dog, but what the exact connection is between these breeds remains a mystery. The name Shar-Pei means, “Sandy skin,” in Chinese a reference to the breed’s unique coat.
It is commonly suggested that the Shar-Pei is a descendant of either the Chow Chow or the Tibetan Mastiff, and that it was bred from short-haired members of those breeds. There is little to no evidence to support either assertion. In fact, the Shar-Pei is likely just as old as, and quite possibly older than, either of those breeds. Recently, some experts have begun to think that the Chow Chow may be the result of crosses between Shar-Peis and Spitzen. Supporters of that theory usually think that the Shar Pei was developed by the people of China from native dogs, which were probably similar to an Akita Inu. It is widely accepted that the Shar-Pei was developed in Southern China because the breed was considerably more common in the more southerly regions of that nation in more modern times and its short coat provides little protection from the harsh winters found across Northern China.
It is sometimes claimed that the Shar-Pei either originated around the small village of Tai Li in the Kwangtung Province or in the nearby Guangdong province, but it is unclear how these claims originated. The first record of a Shar-Pei comes from the Han Dynasty. Statues and paintings of dogs resembling the modern Shar-Pei began to appear in the archaeological records from this period, and have been dated to between 210 and 200 B.C. Another potential example of an early Shar-Pei can be found in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which has a 3rd Century A.D. statue which bears a striking resemblance to the modern breed. One of the earliest known written records of the Shar-Pei is a Chinese manuscript dating from the 13th Century. This manuscript describes a wrinkly dog that is very similar to the modern breed. Unlike most supposedly ancient breeds, the great age of the Shar-Pei has been confirmed through genetic testing. This testing has placed the Shar-Pei in a group of 14 breeds that are considerably closer to the wolf, and therefore almost certainly older, than are other dogs.
While we cannot be sure exactly when or how the Chinese Shar-Pei was developed, it has been used by Southern Chinese farmers for millennia as a multi-purpose working dog. Although it is somewhat unclear, it appears that Shar-Pei’s were primarily kept by the lower and middle classes of Chinese society, and were not especially favored by the aristocracy. Shar-Peis were often used as hunting dogs, tasked with some of the world’s most dangerous quarry including boar, wolf, and tiger. It is thought that hunting was the breed's original purpose and that its wrinkles were developed to protect the dog when it did battle with other creatures. If a boar or wolf tried to bite the face or neck of the Shar-Pei, all it would get was skin, allowing the dog to twist around and bite back.
Eventually, farmers began to use the Shar-Pei for many purposes. The dog became a property and livestock guardian, driving away predators and thieves. The farmers who bred the Shar-Pei deliberately selected for black mouths and a face that looks like it was scowling. It was thought that the dark mouth and scowl both intimidated the living and frightened off harmful spirits. Although the ability to ward off ill-intentioned supernatural beings may seem unusual or silly to modern Westerners, it was incredibly important to the ancient Chinese to whom the spirit world was no less real than science and medicine are today. It is widely believed that the Shar-Pei not only served as a livestock guardian but as a herding dog as well. If true, the Shar-Pei would be one of the only, if not the only, East Asian herding dogs to survive to the present time.
Although it is unclear exactly when, at some point, dog fighters began to pit Chinese Shar-Peis against each other. The wrinkly skin that protected the dog against wolves and boar also served it very well in battles against others of its own kind. If another dog grabbed a hold of the Shar-Pei’s skin, the dog could still turn and face its attacker head on. Its use as a fighting dog made the Shar-Pei more popular in urbanized areas that had little use for a hunting or herding dog but did have large markets for entertainment and gambling. Perhaps because the Shar-Pei’s use as a fighting dog that predominated in cities, it became best known in the West as a fighting dog, earning the name Chinese Fighting Dog.
The Chinese Shar-Pei was apparently very popular in Southern China and may have been one of the most common, if not the most common, breeds in the region. This changed in the 1940’s when Communist rebels led by Mao Zedong completed their takeover of mainland China from the Kuomintang. As was common among Communists in many countries, Maoists viewed dogs both as an expensive toy of the oppressive rich and a drain on resources better spent elsewhere. At first, dog ownership was heavily taxed, but the policy quickly turned to elimination. Countless millions of Chinese dogs were killed in a series of purges. Many breeds undoubtedly became extinct as a result; a fate that nearly befell the Shar-Pei as well. Luckily for the breed, a number of fanciers, many of them refugees fleeing the Communist advance, had successfully brought Shar-Pei’s to areas which remained outside of Maoist control. Most of these dogs were taken to Hong Kong, which at the time remained a British possession, Macao, a Portuguese colony until 1999, or Taiwan, an island which the Kuomintang had managed to hold against Maoist advance. The Hong Kong Kennel Club had long granted recognition to the Shar-Pei. In 1968, the Hong Kong Kennel Club merged with the Kowloon Kennel Club and both kept a unified Shar-Pei registry. The original Shar-Pei was very different from the modern Western variety. The dog was somewhat lighter and more athletic. Additionally, it was considerably less wrinkly, especially on the face. Consequently, the head was much narrower and less fleshy, and the eyes were largely unobstructed.
Despite being recognized by the Hong Kong Kennel Club, the Shar-Pei was very rare as few had made it out of China to areas where the Communists were not in control. Additionally, the breed’s long term future was in great jeopardy. Beginning in the 1970’s, it became increasingly clear that Macao and Hong Kong would eventually be reunified with mainland China. Additionally, the Kuomintang of Taiwan was no longer internationally recognized and its long term status was in serious doubt. Several organizations including the Guinness Book of World Records declared that the Shar-Pei was the world’s rarest dog. Many Shar-Pei fanciers feared that this ancient breed would become totally extinct unless it could be established in other lands. In 1966, the first Shar-Peis were exported to the United States; dogs which had previously been registered with the Hong Kong Kennel Club.
In 1970, the American Dog Breeders Association (ABDA) registered a Shar-Pei for J.C. Smith, becoming the first American dog registry to recognize the breed. One of the most prominent Shar-Pei fanciers was a Hong Kong Businessman named Matgo Law. Matgo Law came to the conclusion that the best way to secure the long-term future of the Shar-Pei would be to export it to America, a country known for its great love and massive populations of dogs. In 1973, Law appealed to an American dog magazine for help. That year an article was published with the title, “Save the Chinese Shar-Pei.” The magazine included photographs of this unique looking breed and the response was very enthusiastic. Many Americans wanted to own such a unique and exotic animal, and more wanted the prestige of owning the world’s rarest dog. In 1974, around two hundred Shar-Peis were exported to America and breeding efforts proceeded in earnest. The recipients of these dogs almost immediately formed a breed club and registry, and the Chinese Shar-Pei Club of America (CSPCA) was in operation by the end of 1974. The vast majority of Shar-Peis outside of East Asia are descended from these 200 dogs.
American breeders greatly exaggerated the Chinese Shar-Pei’s characteristics to the point where their dogs were very different from those still found in Asia. American Shar-Peis were somewhat thicker and stockier than their Asian ancestors as well as having more heavily wrinkled skin. The biggest differences involved the head which became larger and absurdly heavily wrinkled. The fleshy wrinkles gave the breed a distinctive “hippopotamus head.” Many breed members have largely obscured eyes. These changes turned the once unique and distinctive looking Shar-Pei into one of the most unusual-looking of all dogs. The newer look Shar-Pei proved to be very popular in the United States. It also found great favor abroad, and fanciers from across the world began to import American-bred Shar-Peis. The breed was very fashionable for several years in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and was actually advertised in catalogs. In 1985, the Shar-Pei was granted full recognition with the United Kennel Club (UKC), which originally was heavily focused on working dogs but has more recently become a champion of rare breeds.
Many owners of these Shar-Pei’s discovered that the adorable wrinkled puppies could become quite challenging as they aged, and a large number were abandoned. A large part of the problem was that these owners did not understand the history or the temperament of the Shar-Pei. These early Shar-Peis were only a few generations removed from being fighting and working dogs, and were often very hard-tempered. American breeders put a great emphasis on temperament and the modern breed is substantially more suited for life as a companion animal than its ancestors. Although these changes impacted virtually all Shar-Peis outside of Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan, those Shar-Peis which remained in China stayed very similar to their ancestors. Most international kennel clubs now recognize two distinct varieties of Shar-Pei, although neither major American kennel club does. The older, Chinese variety is known as the Bone-Mouth because of its narrower and bonier muzzle and the younger, American variety is known as the Meat-Mouth because of its fleshy head.
The rapid increase in Shar-Pei populations was often accompanied by careless breeding. This breeding was conducted by either inexperienced breeders or by breeders who cared only for the profit they could make selling rare Shar-Pei puppies and not the quality, temperament, or health of the breed. Such poor breeding practices have regrettably continued until the present day, and Shar-Peis are often bred in so-called puppy-mills or commercial dog breeding operations. Many dogs from these operations have poor health and temperamental problems. It is therefore extremely important that anyone considering acquiring a Shar-Pei carefully select a breeder or rescue organization. Unfortunately, many owners who buy a cute and wrinkly Shar-Pei puppy from a pet store or catalog discover that their dog is in extremely poor health or has an aggressive or unstable temperament. Many of these dogs end up either abandoned on the streets or in animal shelters.
The Chinese Shar-Pei continued to increase in popularity in the United States throughout the 1980’s, and it was considered one of the most fashionable and desirable breeds during that time. In 1988, the American Kennel Club (AKC) put the breed in its Miscellaneous Class. In 1992, the AKC granted full recognition to the Chinese Shar Pei as a member of the Non-Sporting Group. By the end of the 2000’s, the Shar-Pei had become somewhat less trendy in the United States, but had become firmly established in that country. In 2010, the Shar Pei ranked 50th out of 167 total breeds in terms of AKC registrations. Additionally, the breed has become firmly established across the world. Although it is impossible to get exact statistics, it is estimated that there are at least 70,000 Shar-Peis around the world, and possibly many more. Although the Shar-Pei was a multi-purpose working dog until the 1960’s, very few breed members still have a job. The vast majority of modern Shar-Peis are now companion animals, and that will almost certainly remain the case for the foreseeable future.
The Appearance of the Meat-Mouth/Western Chinese Shar-Pei
The Chinese Shar-Pei is one of the most unique looking of all dogs, and a most breed members would never be mistaken for any other type of dog. The Shar-Pei is a medium-sized breed. Most breed members stand between 18 and 20 inches tall and weigh between 45 and 60 pounds. This breed is very well-proportioned, and the ideal Shar-Pei should be equally as tall as it is long. The Shar-Pei is a sturdily built breed. Some breed members are relatively thick, but an adult Shar-Pei would probably not be described as stocky. In particular, the Shar-Pei has a deep and wide chest. The entire body of the Shar-Pei is covered in wrinkles of varying sizes. Often the loose skin collects on the lower parts of the legs forming bulges. Most Shar-Peis are actually very muscular, but usually do not appear so because of the wrinkly skin. The tail of the Shar-Pei is naturally quite short, and curls over either side of the back. The high set and curling tail makes it appear as though the breed’s anus is tilting upwards.
The Shar-Pei’s head is perhaps the breed’s defining feature. The head of this breed is completely covered in wrinkles, sometimes to the extent that they completely obscure any other facial features. The head itself is relatively large for the size of the dog, but not excessively so. The muzzle and head are approximately the same length. The muzzle is among the widest of all dogs, and this dog is often described as having a “hippopotamus mouth.” This is accomplished partially by correct bone structure but largely by the excessive wrinkles. The edges of the tongue, gums, lips, and inner mouth are bluish-black, but are lavender in lighter-colored dogs. The mouth color often lightens in warm temperatures. The nose of the Shar-Pei is determined by the coat color, which are often the same. The eyes of this breed are relatively small and deeply set. Most breed standards state that eye function should not be impaired by wrinkles, but many Shar-Peis do experience vision problems, especially with their peripheral vision. The ears of the Shar-Pei are very small in size and triangular in shape. The ears usually fold down and slightly forwards.
Although more well-known in the West for its wrinkles, the breed is named for its unique coat. The coat of the Shar-Pei is one of the harshest, if not the harshest, of any dog. The coat is so harsh that the Chinese named the breed “Sand-Skin.” The Shar-Pei is a single-coated dog, with hairs that are straight and stand away from the body and lie flatter against the legs. The hair on the body stands to the extent that some dogs are almost prickly. Some Shar-Peis are very short-coated, and are said to have “horse coats.” Other Shar-Peis have coats up to an inch in length, and are said to have a “brush coat.” Shar-Peis must have solid-colored coats, but often have darker shading on the ears and down the back. Many Shar-Peis have darker hairs of the same basic color scattered throughout their bodies. As long as the coat is solid, the color does not matter and all solid colors are acceptable. In practice, red, fawn, tan, and black are the most common colors seen in Shar-Peis.
The Appearance of the Bone-Mouth Chinese Shar-Pei
The Bone-Mouth Shar-Pei is substantially different than the Meat-Mouth variety. Like the Meat-Mouth, the Bone-Mouth usually weighs 45-60 pounds. However, this dog is considerably taller and lighter in build. Most Bone-Mouth Shar-Peis stand 19 to 23 inches tall at the shoulder. The body of the Bone-Mouth is much less wrinkly than the Meat-Mouth and many have close-fitting skin. Additionally, the Bone-Mouth Shar-Pei comes in three different tail varieties, curled over the back, upright and curved, and an erect double-ring. The biggest difference can be seen in the head. The Bone-Mouth Shar-Pei has a much narrower head and muzzle than the Meat-Mouth. Most of the difference is related to the comparative lack of wrinkles found on the Bone-Mouth. While still quite wrinkly, the Bone-Mouth Shar Pei has fewer and smaller wrinkles. This is a much more “normal-looking” dog. One of the most important features of the Bone-Mouth Shar-Pei is the shape of its wrinkles. These wrinkles must form the shape of the Chinese character for longevity.
The Chinese Shar-Pei is more variable in terms of temperament than most modern breeds. This is the result of many irresponsible breeders not paying enough attention to temperament. However, well-bred Shar-Peis usually have predictable temperaments. Shar-Peis are known for forming very close bonds with their families, and often exhibit tremendous loyalty to them. This breed has a tendency to become a one-person dog, and many form very close attachments to one person to the exclusion of all others. However, it would be fairer to say that Shar-Peis are one family dogs, who form equally close bonds with members of their immediate family to the exclusion of all others. Although very devoted, Shar-Peis are very independent and enjoy doing their own thing. This is a breed that prefers to be in the room as its family but not on top of them. The Shar-Pei is affectionate, but in a reserved manner rather than an openly displaying way. This breed has a tendency to challenge authority and can pose training difficulties, and as a result is often not advised for a novice dog owner.
Bred for many centuries as a guard dog and protection animal, Shar-Peis are naturally suspicious of strangers. Most breed members are very wary of new people, and rarely warmly greet them. Although not a fan of their presence, most well-trained Shar-Peis are very polite with strangers and rarely show them aggression. Most Shar-Peis will eventually come around and make friends with a new person in their lives such as a spouse or roommate, but some never fully accept new people after puppyhood. Unsocialized Shar-Peis are often excessively wary, and it is far from unheard of for this breed to develop human aggression issues. Shar-Peis are quite alert and make good watchdogs. Although not commonly used for personal or property protection, most breed members make natural guard dogs. This breed is strongly territorial and will not allow any unknown intruder (and some known ones) to enter their property unchallenged.
Most Shar-Peis are tolerant of children when properly socialized with them. In particular, this breed rarely has issues with children in its own family with whom it often forms very close attachments. However, it is very important that all children know how to behave around dogs as the Shar-Pei is intolerant of rough housing. Additionally, special care must be taken with Shar-Peis who have their vision partially obscured by wrinkles as they are more prone to being spooked. As is the case with all breeds, Shar-Peis that have not been properly socialized around children may react negatively to them.
The most common serious behavioral problems experienced by this breed result from its strongly animal aggressive instincts. Shar-Peis tend to be highly dog aggressive. Most of these dogs do best in either a single dog home or one that they share with a single member of the opposite sex. While most breed members do not actively seek confrontation (although some do), Shar-Peis tend to be quick to anger and will not back down from a challenge. Shar-Peis exhibit all forms of dog aggression but are especially susceptible to territorial and possessiveness issues. While most Shar-Peis can be trained or socialized to the extent where dog aggression is not a major issue, some never are. Shar-Peis exhibit even higher levels of non-canine aggression. Most breed members have an extremely high prey drive, and Shar-Peis left alone in a yard will almost certainly bring back “presents” of dead animals. These dogs will chase and attempt to attack virtually every other creature regardless of size, from a cricket to a horse. Most Shar-Peis can be socialized to accept the family cat (but not smaller pets such as rabbits), but some of these dogs would attack and kill a cat they have known for years if presented the opportunity.
Shar-Peis are regarded as being highly intelligent and are considered excellent problem solvers. When a Shar-Pei is motivated to learn, they tend to learn very quickly. However, this dog is generally not motivated to learn, and Shar-Peis have a reputation for being difficult to train. Although not usually disobedient or willful, Shar-Peis are often quite stubborn and often refuse to perform certain tasks. The Shar-Pei is independently minded and most will not obey simply to please. This dog has a what’s-in-it-for-me attitude and responds much better to rewards-based training methods, especially those that emphasize treats. The highly intelligent Shar-Pei does bore quickly, and may refuse to perform repetitive tasks even if a treat is involved.
Perhaps the biggest problem is the Shar-Pei’s tendency to challenge authority. Most breed members actively try to take control and will not obey once they believe that they have done so. For these reasons, it is absolutely imperative that Shar-Pei owners maintain a position of dominance at all times. None of this means that Shar-Pei is impossible to train, quite the contrary. It does mean that training one of these dogs will take extra time, effort, and patience, and that even the best-trained Shar-Peis probably have a considerably lower training ceiling than a breed such as a Golden Retriever or Doberman Pinscher. Even the best-trained Shar-Peis should be kept on a leash or in very secure area at all times as this breed is often impossible to call back if its predatory instincts take over.
Shar Peis are considered to be moderate-to-low energy dogs. Most breed members require no more exercise than a long daily walk, and with the proper dedication most families will be able to meet the needs of this dog without too much of a problem. It is still vital that this breed is provided with the energy outlet it needs; otherwise, behavioral problems such as destruction and aggression are likely to result. Although most breed members very much enjoy having a yard to run around in, most Shar-Peis do very well in apartments. This breed tends to be moderately active indoors and will spend roughly equal amounts of time wandering through the house and resting. Although they do not require a great deal of exercise, most breed members will take whatever is provided them, including vigorous activity. Some heavily wrinkled Shar-Peis may not be healthy enough for long periods of vigorous exercise.
Shar-Peis are considered very good urban dwellers for a number of reasons. Most Shar-Peis hate water and avoid it at all costs. In most cases this avoidance extends to mud and moist dirt as well. Shar-Peis are also known for being exceptionally clean dogs, who both regularly clean themselves and avoid getting dirty in the first place. Shar-Peis are known for being extremely quiet, and most of these dogs rarely bark. Although Shar-Peis will escape to chase potential prey or other reasons, most of these dogs greatly prefer to stay in their own territory and rarely wander far. Perhaps of greatest interest to many fancier is the ease with which this clean dog housebreaks. Most Chinese Shar-Peis housebreak very quickly, often months before most other breeds.
The Chinese Shar-Pei has low-grooming requirements. This dog should never need a professional grooming, and only needs a regular brushing. However, Shar-Peis do shed. In general, longer-coated Shar-Peis shed some all the time and then go through periods where they shed a great deal. Shorter-coated Shar-Peis tend to shed very little, except for a few periods during the year when they shed more heavily. Although this breed sheds comparatively little, it is known to be among the worst for allergy sufferers. The harsh and unique coat of the Shar-Pei is known to give allergy sufferers greater problems than those of other breeds, and sometimes even affects those that are otherwise not allergic to dogs.
Just because the coat of the Shar-Pei is comparatively low-maintenance does not mean that this is a low-maintenance breed. The ears and wrinkles of this breed must be carefully and thoroughly cleaned on a daily basis, and preferably after every meal or heavy drink. This is because food, water, dirt, grime, and other particles regularly get stuck in between the folds of skin and if left in their cause irritations and infections.
The Chinese Shar-Pei suffers from a number of health problems, and most experts consider it to be an unhealthy breed. The Shar-Pei suffers from high rates of problems commonly found in other breeds, as well as a number of problems that are unique to the Shar-Pei breed. The Shar-Pei suffers from so many health problems that some animal rights groups, veterinarians, and breeders of other dogs have seriously questioned whether these dogs should continue to be bred. Most of the problems experienced by the Shar-Pei are the result of two factors, the breed’s heavily exaggerated facial features and poor breeding practices conducted throughout the 1980’s. Today, responsible breeders are working with veterinarians to eliminate many of these problems from the Shar-Pei in the hopes that the breed will be much healthier in the future.
Different life-expectancy studies have come to drastically different conclusions about how long this dog usually lives, from 8 to 14 years. The truth is that poorly bred Shar-Peis tend to live an average of 8 to 10 years, while carefully bred ones live an average of 10-11 years. Although canine health surveys are very rarely conducted by Asian breeders, it appears that the Bone-Mouth Shar-Pei is considerably healthier than the Meat-Mouth variety. It has been suggested that more of this variety should be introduced into American lines to improve their health. Many veterinary experts have also recommended changing the Shar-Pei standards and breeding practices to de-exaggerate many of the Shar-Pei’s features in an attempt to return the breed to its ancestral form. However, both of these plans are highly controversial because they substantially alter the appearance of the Shar-Pei.
One of the unique medical conditions suffered by the Shar Pei is known as familiar Shar-Pei fever or FSF. FSF causes short but severe fevers, often lasting up to 24 hours. These fevers are often accompanied by ankle swelling, a separate condition often known as Swollen Hock Syndrome. FSF is thought to be associated with amyliodosis. Amyliodosis is caused by excessive protein deposits in the bodily organs, especially the liver and kidneys. Amyliodosis is often fatal as it frequently leads to complete renal failure. With proper veterinary care, FSF and Amyliodosis are not necessarily fatal and many affected Shar-Peis live long lives. However, these conditions can be fatal in some circumstances and usually cause great pain and discomfort. In recent years, a number of Shar-Peis have been killed by another complication of FSF, streptococcal toxic shock syndrome or STSS.
The heavily wrinkled face of the Shar-Pei causes a number of problems. Many Shar-Peis have their vision obscured, especially their peripheral vision. This breed is also frequently subject to a number of other eye problems such as infections and eyelid deformities. The facial wrinkles often trap dirt and grime, which leads to infections and irritations. These same problems impact the breed’s ears, and many Shar-Peis suffer from chronic and painful ear infections. Some Shar-Peis also have difficulty breathing and many are regularly short of breath.
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 them tested to prevent the spread of potential genetic conditions to its offspring.
A full list of health problems experienced by sizable numbers of Shar Pei’s would have to include: