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The History and Origin of the Chow Chow: A Comprehensive Look

Written by: Ejay C.
Ejay Cris C. Camposano, hailing from the Philippines, is a proud fur dad to two lovable dogs: a Beagle and a Shih Tzu. A college graduate with a degree in Electrical Engineering, Ejay has a diverse background that combines technical expertise with a passion for pets. His love for dogs and cats has profoundly influenced his life, leading him to a fulfilling career as a content writer at iHeartDogs. In his writing, Ejay captures the heartwarming bond between pets and their owners, sharing valuable insights and stories with a broad audience of animal lovers.Read more
| Published on February 28, 2024

The Chow Chow, with its distinctive lion-like mane, deep-set almond eyes, and unique blue-black tongue, is a breed that commands both admiration and curiosity. This ancient breed, one of the oldest dog breeds in the world, originates from Northern China, where it was revered as a symbol of power and affluence. The Chow Chow’s history is as rich and mysterious as the breed itself, stretching back over thousands of years. Historically, they served a variety of roles from noble guardians to hunters, and even as sources of fur and meat. The breed’s regal and somewhat aloof demeanor belies its capacity for loyalty and affection towards its owners. Its unique physical characteristics, combined with a complex and fascinating history, make the Chow Chow a subject of interest not only among dog enthusiasts but also among those interested in the cultural history of China. This article aims to provide a comprehensive look into the history and origin of the Chow Chow, exploring its evolution from a working dog in the cold Northern territories to a beloved companion across the globe.

The Ancient Origins of the Chow Chow

The origins of the Chow Chow are steeped in antiquity, with their history tracing back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 22 AD) and possibly even earlier. Archaeological discoveries, including pottery and sculptures, suggest the presence of Chow-like dogs in China over 2,000 years ago. These early ancestors of the Chow were likely used for hunting, herding, and protection. Their thick coats and sturdy build made them well-suited to the harsh, cold climates of Northern China. The breed’s distinct blue-black tongue is mentioned in Chinese literature and art, signifying its long-standing recognition and breeding. Over centuries, Chows were not only working animals but also became symbols of prestige and were often kept by Chinese nobility.

The Chow Chow in Imperial China

During the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD), the Chow Chow’s status rose significantly. It is said that one of the emperors had a kennel facility that housed thousands of these dogs, a testament to their value and prestige. They were used for hunting and as guard dogs, protecting the temples and palaces of China. The breed’s lion-like appearance and dignified demeanor made them favorites among the imperial families. The Chow Chow’s association with Buddhism, where they were considered protectors of sacred sites, further enhanced their mystical status. This period solidified the Chow Chow’s role in Chinese culture, not just as a utilitarian breed but as a symbol of power and spirituality.

The Chow Chow’s Journey to the West

The Chow Chow began its journey to the West in the late 19th century when it was brought to England by merchants and sailors. The breed caught the attention of Queen Victoria, which sparked a fascination and demand among the British aristocracy. This royal endorsement led to the breed’s rapid spread across Europe and eventually to America. The American Kennel Club officially recognized the Chow Chow in 1903. Throughout the early 20th century, the breed’s exotic appearance and unique personality traits made it a popular choice among celebrities and the wealthy, cementing its status as a fashionable and desirable companion.

Modern-Day Chow Chow

Today, the Chow Chow is known worldwide, cherished for its distinct personality, appearance, and rich history. While they are primarily companion animals, the breed retains many of its ancestral traits, including a strong hunting instinct, aloofness with strangers, and an independent spirit. Modern breeding practices have focused on health and temperament, addressing issues such as hip dysplasia and ensuring the breed’s well-being. The Chow Chow remains a symbol of elegance and mystery, a living link to the ancient world of China.

The Chow Chow’s journey from the cold northern regions of China to the homes of dog lovers around the world is a testament to its enduring appeal. This breed’s ancient lineage, coupled with its unique characteristics, has cemented its place in the pantheon of canine royalty. Understanding the history and origins of the Chow Chow enriches our appreciation for this noble breed, reminding us of the depth and complexity of our companions’ backgrounds. Whether serving as a regal guardian in Imperial China or as a beloved family pet today, the Chow Chow continues to fascinate and captivate those who come under its spell.


Frequently Asked Questions About The History of Chow Chows


1. Where did the Chow Chow originate?

The Chow Chow breed originated in northern China, where it is known as the “Songshi Quan,” meaning “puffy-lion dog.” This breed has a history that dates back over 2,000 years, making it one of the world’s oldest dog breeds. Archaeological evidence, including sculptures and pottery, suggests the existence of Chow-like dogs during the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 22 AD). Initially bred as working dogs, they were used for hunting, herding, and protection due to their sturdy build and thick fur coat. Over time, the Chow Chow’s role expanded from a utilitarian work dog to a status symbol among the nobility and a guardian of imperial palaces. The breed’s distinct features, such as its blue-black tongue and lion-like mane, along with its dignified and somewhat aloof demeanor, have made it a unique and cherished breed throughout its history.

2. How did the Chow Chow get its name?

The name “Chow Chow” does not have a clear origin but is believed to have emerged in the 18th century when the breed was first imported to England. The term “Chow Chow” was used to describe the miscellany of goods brought from the East by English merchant ships, including curios, artifacts, and exotic animals like the Chow Chow Dog. The breed’s name likely originated from this term, which was used to denote the cargo of the East India Company ships. It’s important to note that the name is not of Chinese origin and does not have a specific meaning related to the breed’s characteristics or appearance in Chinese culture. In China, the breed is known as “Songshi Quan,” reflecting its noble and lion-like appearance rather than the catch-all term used by English traders.

3. What roles did Chow Chows serve in ancient China?

In ancient China, Chow Chows served several vital roles, reflecting their versatility and importance in Chinese society. Initially bred as working dogs for their strength and endurance, they were used for hunting game in the rugged terrains of northern China. Their thick fur and sturdy build made them excellent for herding and guarding livestock against predators. Beyond their utilitarian roles, Chow Chows also held a place of significance in Chinese nobility and culture. They were esteemed as guardians of temples and imperial palaces, a role that capitalized on their imposing presence and territorial instincts. Additionally, Chow Chows were symbolic of prosperity and were often kept as prestigious pets by Chinese emperors and aristocrats. Their distinctive appearance and noble demeanor made them favored subjects in art and literature, further cementing their status as an integral part of Chinese heritage.

4. When did the Chow Chow breed first arrive in the West?

The Chow Chow breed first arrived in the West in the late 19th century, with the earliest recorded imports to England occurring in the 1780s. However, it was not until the 1880s and 1890s that the breed became more widely known and sought after, particularly in England. The breed’s introduction to the Western world is often attributed to merchants and sailors who brought them back from China. Queen Victoria’s interest in the breed, after seeing them at the London Zoo, significantly boosted their popularity among the British aristocracy and upper classes. This royal endorsement led to the breed’s rapid spread across Europe and eventually to North America. The American Kennel Club recognized the Chow Chow in 1903, marking the official recognition of the breed in the United States and contributing to its growing popularity worldwide.

5. What are the unique features of the Chow Chow?

The Chow Chow is known for several unique physical features that set it apart from other dog breeds. One of the most distinctive characteristics is its blue-black tongue, a trait shared with few other breeds. This unusual coloration extends to the Chow Chow’s gums and is considered one of the breed’s hallmark traits. Additionally, the Chow Chow has a dense double coat that can either be smooth or rough, with the rough-coated variety featuring an abundant mane or ruff around the head and neck, giving it a lion-like appearance. Another notable feature is its stilted gait, resulting from its straight hind legs, which gives the Chow Chow a distinctive manner of movement. The breed also has deep-set, almond-shaped eyes that contribute to its characteristic scowling expression. These features, combined with its dignified and aloof demeanor, make the Chow Chow a unique and recognizable breed.

6. How has the Chow Chow’s role changed over time?

Over time, the Chow Chow’s role has evolved significantly from its origins in ancient China. Originally bred as working dogs for hunting, herding, and protection, their roles expanded to include guarding temples and palaces, reflecting their importance in Chinese culture and society. As they were introduced to the West in the late 19th century, their role shifted towards that of a companion and show dog. The breed’s unique appearance and royal patronage in England helped establish its status as a fashionable pet among the aristocracy and wealthy. Today, while Chow Chows still possess the strong instincts of their ancestors, they are primarily kept as companion animals. Their independent nature and loyalty make them well-suited to family life, although they retain a dignified and somewhat reserved demeanor towards strangers. The modern Chow Chow combines the regal presence of its imperial past with the qualities of a devoted pet.

7. What is the significance of the Chow Chow’s blue-black tongue?

The significance of the Chow Chow’s blue-black tongue is one of its most distinctive and intriguing features, setting it apart from nearly all other dog breeds. The exact reason for this unique coloration is unknown, but it is believed to be a genetic trait that has been present in the breed for thousands of years. In Chinese culture, the Chow Chow’s blue-black tongue was seen as a sign of purity in the breed. Some folklore suggests that the Chow Chow licked drops of the night sky while the world was being created, which turned its tongue to the color of the dark sky. Scientifically, the blue-black tongue is caused by the presence of pigment cells, similar to those that determine skin color. This trait is so characteristic of the breed that a Chow Chow without a blue-black tongue is considered atypical. The blue-black tongue, along with the breed’s lion-like appearance and noble demeanor, contributes to the Chow Chow’s mystique and allure.

8. What challenges did the Chow Chow face during its history?

Throughout its history, the Chow Chow has faced several challenges, especially as it transitioned from its origins in China to becoming a beloved pet worldwide. One significant challenge was the cultural and environmental adaptation required as the breed moved from the harsh climates and terrains of northern China to various parts of the world. This shift necessitated changes in breeding and care practices to maintain the breed’s health and distinctive features. Additionally, the Chow Chow’s strong-willed and independent nature, while valued for its original roles as a guardian and working dog, posed challenges in adapting to life as a companion animal, requiring owners to invest in proper training and socialization. In the 20th century, the breed also faced challenges related to overbreeding and popularity, which sometimes led to health and temperament issues. Responsible breeding practices have since focused on preserving the breed’s health, temperament, and unique characteristics, ensuring the Chow Chow’s continued legacy.

9. How did the Chow Chow contribute to Chinese culture and society?

The Chow Chow contributed significantly to Chinese culture and society, serving not only as a working dog but also as a symbol of nobility and protection. In ancient times, their roles as hunters, herders, and guardians were invaluable in the rugged terrains of northern China. Beyond their utilitarian functions, Chow Chows were esteemed by Chinese emperors and aristocrats, symbolizing status and prosperity. Their presence in temples and palaces as guardians further embedded them in the spiritual and cultural fabric of China. The breed’s unique features, such as its lion-like appearance and blue-black tongue, inspired art, literature, and folklore, making them a cultural icon. The Chow Chow’s integration into various aspects of Chinese life, from practical roles to symbolic representations, highlights its enduring impact on the country’s heritage and society.

10. What health issues are common in Chow Chows?

Chow Chows, like all breeds, are susceptible to certain health issues. Some of the most common health concerns for Chow Chows include hip dysplasia, a genetic condition that affects the hip joint and can lead to arthritis or lameness. Elbow dysplasia is another joint-related condition that can occur. The breed is also prone to entropion, a condition where the eyelid rolls inward, causing irritation and potential damage to the eye. Additionally, Chow Chows can suffer from skin issues due to their dense coat, requiring regular grooming and care to prevent hot spots and other skin infections. Thyroid issues and certain forms of cancer are also seen within the breed. Responsible breeding practices, regular veterinary check-ups, and a healthy lifestyle are crucial for mitigating these risks and ensuring the well-being of a Chow Chow.

11. How did World War II impact the Chow Chow breed?

World War II had a significant impact on many dog breeds, including the Chow Chow, primarily due to the widespread disruption and resource scarcity caused by the war. In many parts of Europe and Asia, dog breeding and maintenance became secondary concerns, leading to a decline in the number of purebred dogs. For the Chow Chow, this meant that breeding programs were halted or severely limited, and many dogs suffered due to the lack of resources for their care. However, the breed’s popularity in the United States, where it had been established since the early 20th century, helped ensure its survival and continuation. American breeders played a crucial role in preserving the breed during and after the war, maintaining breeding records, and ensuring the genetic diversity of the Chow Chows. Post-war recovery efforts and a renewed interest in purebred dogs helped revive the breed in Europe and Asia, allowing the Chow Chow to regain its status as a beloved companion and show dog.

12. What is the average lifespan of a Chow Chow?

The average lifespan of a Chow Chow is typically between 8 to 12 years, which is relatively standard for a dog of its size. Factors that can influence a Chow Chow’s lifespan include genetics, diet, exercise, and the overall quality of care it receives throughout its life. Like all breeds, Chow Chows benefit from a healthy diet, regular veterinary check-ups, and appropriate exercise to maintain their health and longevity. Preventative care, such as vaccinations and regular grooming to manage their dense coat, also plays a significant role in preventing health issues that could impact their lifespan. With proper care and attention, Chow Chows can enjoy a full and healthy life as a cherished member of the family.

13. How are Chow Chows with children and other pets?

Chow Chows can be good with children and other pets if they are properly socialized from a young age. Due to their independent nature and strong-willed temperament, Chow Chows require early and consistent socialization to ensure they are well-adjusted and comfortable around children and other animals. They are known for their loyalty and protective instincts towards their family, which can make them excellent companions for children when their interactions are supervised and guided. However, their aloof demeanor towards strangers extends to new animals, making careful introductions and socialization crucial. Training and socialization help mitigate potential issues and ensure that the Chow Chow can be a loving and gentle member of a household with children and other pets.

14. What grooming needs do Chow Chows have?

Chow Chows have significant grooming needs due to their dense double coat, which requires regular maintenance to keep them in good condition and prevent matting. Brushing their coat several times a week is necessary to remove loose fur and prevent tangles, with more frequent grooming needed during their shedding seasons in the spring and fall. The breed is prone to hot spots and skin infections, so keeping their coat clean and dry is important. Bathing should be done as needed, using dog-specific shampoo to avoid drying out their skin. Additional grooming needs include regular nail trimming, teeth brushing, and cleaning their ears to prevent infections. Proper grooming not only keeps a Chow Chow looking its best but also contributes to their overall health and well-being.

15. How has the Chow Chow’s popularity evolved over the years?

The Chow Chow’s popularity has seen various fluctuations over the years. After its introduction to the West in the late 19th century, the breed quickly became a fashionable pet among the aristocracy and wealthy, particularly in England and the United States. The breed’s exotic appearance and unique characteristics contributed to its allure. However, like many breeds, its popularity has ebbed and flowed with changing trends in dog ownership. In recent years, the Chow Chow has maintained a steady presence in the dog world, cherished for its distinctive appearance, loyal temperament, and rich history. While not among the most popular breeds in terms of registration numbers, the Chow Chow has a dedicated following and continues to be a beloved companion for those who appreciate the breed’s unique qualities and heritage.

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