Pug, thought to
be from China
Dog breeds indigenous to China include the chow chow, Pekingese and shar pei. Because China was closed to outsiders for such a long time, the outside world knew little of these dogs until relatively recently. This has also meant that their genes have not entered breeds that originated from Europe.

Chinese breeds did not really appear outside of China until around 1780. Some were smuggled out of China by sailors in the 1800s. A few of these dogs were displayed at the London Zoo under the sign “Wild Dogs of China.” These dogs had been fed grains their whole life and had a hard time adapting to Western meat diets.

Good Websites and Sources: Bringing Pets to China question ; One-Dog Policy in China ; Dog and Cat Meat Ban ; Dog Life Photos ; Dog and Cat Fur Trade ; Chinese Dog Breeds ; Wikipedia article on Chinese Dog Breeds Wikipedia Links in this Website: PETS IN CHINA ; DOGS IN CHINA ; CHINESE DOG BREEDS


The Pekingese, according to American Kennel Club, “combines marked dignity with an exasperating stubbornness, which serves only to endear him the more to his owners, He is independent and regal in every gesture; it would be a great indignity to attempt to make a lap dog out of him. Calm and good-tempered, the Pekinese employs a condescending cordiality toward the world in general, but in the privacy of his family enjoys nothing better than a good romp. Although never aggressive, he fears not the devil himself and has never known to turn tail and run.”

Pekingese were considered sacred in imperial times. The earliest known record of them is from the Tang Dynasty in the 8th century. Dog idols that resembled Pekinese were made of ivory, bronze, wood and other materials. Sometimes they were encrusted with jewels. For many years only the Chinese Imperial family was allowed to own them and the theft of one was a crime punishable by death.

Names for Pekingese have included lion dog, a reference to its thick man, not its use in hunting lions; sun dog, an allusion to the brilliant, golden color of it coat; and sleeve dog, a reference to fact it was so small it could be fit in to the sleeve of Mandarin-style costume.

Pekingese were first introduced to the West after the looting of the Summer Palace outside Beijing by the British in 1860. There were reports of many dead Pekingese found throughout the palace. Apparently their owners had preferred to see them dead than captured by the British. Four dogs found behind a curtain (their owner, an aunt of the Emperor, committed suicide) were given to Queen Victoria as a gift. Some other were taken by the Duke of Richmond who started breeding them

Shar Pei

The shar pei was once listed as the world's rarest breed by the Guinness Book of World records. Also known as the Chinese fighting dog, it has been praised for its courage and tenaciousness but is known today mostly for the loose folds of bristly skin all over its face and often all over its body.

Shar pei is Cantonese for “sandy skin.” The breed originated in an area near Guangzhou (Canton) in Guangdong Province. Clay statues from the Han Dynasty (202 B.C. to A.D. 220) depict shar-pei-like dogs. They were not an imperial breed and were associated mostly with peasants who used them for a number purposes: herding livestock, hunting, protection. They have traditionally been big dogs. They were eaten and their skins provided clothing.

Shar pei were originally not trained to fight, but were forced into the sport when dog fight fighting became popular around a hundred years ago. The loose skin was an advantage when it fought. A shar pei could still turn and bite when opponents grabbed the folds and opponents weren’t fond of biting the bristly folds any way.

Shar pei were often not willing fighters. There were stories of them being fed alcohol, drugs and even gunpowder to make them fight better. They were no match for a pit bulls, bulldogs and other fighting dogs that were introduced to China from the West. When dogs were banned during the Mao era, the shar pei breed was kept alive by Hong Kong breeders and continued to survive in remote rural areas.

Website: Hong Kong Shar Pei Club:

Shar Pei Characteristics

The wrinkled folds are especially pronounced on shar pei puppies, who often have so many wrinkles they look like an animal trapped in a potato sack. These wrinkles diminish somewhat as the dog matures. Shar pei originally were not supposed to have wrinkled folds all over their body. One description of the breed’s goes: “Strong, compact, active and agile. The skin must be tough and rough while the coat must be short and bristly. Tight wrinkles over the body at puppy stage. In the adult dog, pronounced wrinkling only around the forehead and withers.”

The frowning forehead wrinkles should resemble the shape of the Chinese character for longevity. Its tail is supposed to reach over the back like a “sickle” or a “double ring coin.” Like the chow chow, the shar pei has a blueish black tongue and mouth. The shar pei is generally quiet. When it does bark it make a throaty “chuffing” noise before all out barking.

Shar pei also have small ears, a trait associated with many fighting dogs, and have a head that has been compared with that of a hippopotamus. They have curved teeth that create a locked bite that in fights was difficult for opponent’s to break. Many owners say that shar pei’s appearance is not what attracts them. They value the dog’s intelligence and loyalty and say they are great house and family dogs.

Shar Pei Problems

Shar pei puppies sell for around $1,000 in the United States and $700 in Britain. In Hong Kong and southern China they sell for only $300. Inbreeding and crossbreeding with chow chows, bulldogs and bull terriers has produced shar pei dogs with a number of health problems,

The problems began in the 1970s when the American magazine Dog World urged dog lovers “to save the Chinese sher pei from extinction.,” giving the impression that only a few remained. Shei peis of all kinds were exported to the United States, where they became all the rage and sold for thousands of dollars. With greed as a primary motivation, they were bred no matter what their family history was and in some cases cross bred with bulldogs to increase their wrinkling. The general feeling was the wrinkles were cute and the more of them the better.

The inbreeding caused genetic problems and the wrinkles turned shar peis into “walking skin problems.” The skins proved be an ideal breeding ground for bacteria and fungus. Many shar peis suffer from teh dkin disease mange dermatitis. Some animals have terrible itching and infection problems. They develop sores. The yeasty bacteria that grows in the folds gives them an unpleasant smell.

Many shar pei suffer from entropion, a painful condition in which excessive folding around the eyes causes the eyelashes to turn inward and rub against the eyeball. If untreated it can cause blindness. The folds can also drop over the lips into the mouth---a condition sometimes called “meatmout”—and make eating difficult and painful. Face-lift-like surgery is sometimes necessary to correct the problems. In recent years, an effort has been made to track down pure breed shar peis in China and restore genetic diversity and restore the health of the breed.

Shar-pei Genetic Mutations

Shar-peis are an ancient Chinese dog breed characterized by two singular traits: thick, wrinkly skin and frequent bouts of fever. The wrinkles were a result of excess production of a substance called hyaluronic acid distributed throughout the dogs’ skin. That excess is likely caused by to the overactivation of a gene called hyaluronan synthase 2. [Source: New York Times, March 22, 2011]

Researchers now say that the same gene mutation is responsible for both the wrinkles and the fever. “All shar-pei dogs have this mutation that causes the wrinkles, but the more copies they have, the higher the risk to have this fever,” Mia Olsson, a doctoral student at Uppsala University in Sweden who worked on the study, told the New York Times. The research appears in the journal PLoS Genetics. Dogs that carry multiple mutations of the gene seem predisposed to periodic fever, Ms. Olsson and her colleagues reported. Although the fever is short-lived, it can be intense and frequent, and cause inflammation. March 22, 2011

With more information, breeders might be able to avoid breeding shar-peis that have duplications of the gene mutation, Ms. Olsson said. The research was conducted with the help of breeders in the United States, Sweden and Spain. “Our highest priority right now is to see if there’s some way to create some kind of test or tool to reduce the number of dogs with the fevers,” she said. The fever closely resembles certain periodic fevers that humans inherit, and studying the mutation in the dogs could help human geneticists develop treatments. The most common periodic fever among humans is known as familial Mediterranean fever. It tends to affect people of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern descent, and there is no cure.

Chow Chows

Chow chows are the breed of dog perhaps most closely associated with China. They are big dogs, standing 20 inches or so at the shoulder, and weigh 45 to 70 pounds, They come in variety of colors and are known best for their long, thick coats of hair and mains, which makes them look a bit like lions.

The breed’s name is thought to have been derived from the pidgin English term chow chow, a broad term used to describe anything novel. Others believe it comes rom the Chinese word chou, meaning edible. In China, the dog goes by various names, including hei she-t’ou (“black tongued”), kwantung kous (“Canton dog”), lang kou (“lion dog”) and hsiun kou (“bear dog”).

Chow Chows are believed to be one of the oldest dog breeds. They seem to be relatives of Tibetan Mastiffs and Nordic Spitz dogs such as the Samoyed of northern Siberia. Some historians trace the dogs back to 11th century B.C. invasion of China by Mongol-like tribes. Reliefs from the Han Dynasty (202 B.C. to A.D. 220) depict Chowlike dogs engaged in hunting. An 8th century Tang emperor is said to have had 5,000 chows and an staff of 10,000 huntsmen.

Chows were used as guard dogs and hunting dogs. Marco Polo described them being used to pull sledges. They were highly valued as a source of meat. The upperclass fed them an all grain diet and butchered them when they were young. Their long hair was used to make clothing.

In the early 1900s chow chows were fairly plentiful. They were sold in markets as pets. During this period many chows found their way abroad. This was fortunate because the breed suffered in China under Communist rule, particularly during the Cultural Revolution.

Chow Chow Characteristics

Chow chows are strong and fast. They are still used in China to hunt Mongolian pheasants and a kind of Yunnan bird. They have massive heads and wrinkled faces that make them look as if they are scowling. Their long hair requires constant brushing and grooming and can make the dogs very uncomfortable in the summer.

The standard of the breed description of the American Kennel Club goes: “A massive, cobby, powerful dog, active and alert, with strong muscular development, and perfect balance...head, broad and flat, with short, broad and deep muzzle, accentuated by a ruff; the whole supported by straight, strong legs. Clothed in a shining, offstanding coat, the Chow is a masterpiece of beauty, dignity and untouched naturalness.”

Chow chows have blue-back tongues, lips and gums, which are also found on polar bears and a few Asiatic bear. This and the fact that chow chow puppies are little furballs that resemble teddy bears lead many Chinese to believe they descended from bears.

Chow Chows have a reputation for being independent, suspicious, nasty to strangers, aloof, and rude. It is said they will protect their family and territory to the death. Dangerfield and Howell wrote in the International Encyclopedia of Dogs, “It has been said that the Chow will die for his master but not readily obey him; walk with him but not trot meekly to heel; honor him, but not fawn on his friends and relations.”

Chow chows have been involved in some serous attacks on people in the United States. There were 44 percent less of them in the U.S. in 1994 than in 1990.

Hairless Chinese Crested

The Chinese crested is a hairless breed that some people regard as ugly and others view as charming. Sometimes referred to as “Treasure House Guardians,” they were bred by mandarins and members of the Han family and have a history in China that my go back hundreds of years. They were made famous in America by the flamboyant stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, who owned several of them and took them with her wherever she went.

According to the book A Celebration of Rare Breeds, “The Chinese crested is a fine boned, small dog who is wonderfully graceful. His ears are erect and rather large. His almond shaped eyes are dark and radiate warmth...The Chinese crested has long and amazingly dexterous toes. Owners say they can curl their toes around your fingers. Males measure less than 13 inches at the shoulder, while females may not exceed 12 inches.”

Like other hairless breeds, the Chinese crested is not completely hairless. It gets it name from the “crest” of hair on its head that is often tied into a topknot. They also have hair on their feet, which is often referred to as socks, and small plumes on their tail. The skin is very warm and some say it is has a satiny feel.

Chinese crested dogs are a hairless species like the Mexican hairless and the Peruvian hairless. It was discovered in 2008 that a single gene, which scientists call FOX13, is responsible for the baldness.

Tibetan Dogs

Tibetan mastiff
Many Tibetan cities and villages are filled with stray dogs. The killing of animals, especially dogs, is considered a sin in Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism holds that dogs are the last reincarnation before rebirth as human. Many dogs live in packs around temples, surviving off handouts by monks and tourists.

Pet dogs are greatly valued and pampered. There is a dog sign and “year of the dog” on the Tibetan calendar as there is on the Chinese calendar. Dogs found in the Tibetan countryside can quite fierce. For protection against dogs Tibetans carry a heavy tapered metal rod with a leather chord known as a "goubang."

Tibetan mastiffs used to own the streets of Lhasa at night. Now they are largely gone. One reason for this is a massive culling of dogs that took place in the early 2000s. The culling greatly angered Buddhists. Dog ownership is discouraged by the Chinese and for a while was banned but is now permitted within limits.

There are four primary breeds native to Tibet: the Tibetan terrier, the Tibetan spaniel, the Tibetan mastiff and the Lhasa Apso. All these dogs have two common features: long heavy coats of hair to keep them warm in the Tibetan winters and tails that curl up over their backs. The KyiApos, or bearded sheepdog of Tibet, is a very rare breed.

Tibetan Mastiffs

Tibetan mastiffs are huge, ferocious dogs traditionally kept by Tibetan nomads to watch over their animals and guard their tents while nomads followed their herds of yaks, sheep and goats. The countryside is filled with them. They are generally kept on chains during the day and released at night to protect herds from wolves and snow leopards. One Tibetan breeder told the Times of London: “They are extremely loyal and great guard dogs. They have no fear. They will attack a bear or a tiger to protect the owner’s herd of yaks and sheep.” It is said a bite from a Tibet masstiff can kill a person.

Tibetan mastiffs are about the size of a leopard or a jaguar, and some say have a temperament to match. They make cycling and walking alone on the Tibet plateau a dangerous proposition. A number of tourists have been bitten and forced to abandon their trip out of fear of rabies. Some tourist carry thick walking sticks and firecrackers---to toss in a dog's face---for protection.

Tibetan mastiffs are thought to be one of the oldest dog breeds still in existence. Domesticated at least 6,000 years ago, their genes have found their way into many other breeds and may the source of all mastiffs and livestock breeding breeds. Hailing from the greater Himalayan-Tibetan region, they were given to Alexander the Great, who used them for protection against lions and elephants. Their descendants may have been used in Rome in gladiator contests and in warfare.

There are several different kinds of mastiffs with dogs fitting such descriptions appearing on monuments in ancient Egypt dating back to 3000 B.C. The earliest Chinese reference to mastiffs is in about 1121 B.C. All of these dogs are thought to have originated from dogs in Asia, with the Tibetan mastiff being the most direct descendant of the prototype.

The Tibetan mastiff, lore says, was organized by Genghis Khan into a 30,000-dog K-9 corps Early explorers to Tibet often commented on the dog’s deep, blood-curdling bark. Marco Polo wrote they are “as tall as a donkey with a voice like a lion.” Under the Communists, the dogs had a rough time. During the Cultural Revolution, monks were ordered to beat their own dogs to death with sticks. If they didn’t obey the orders, the monks themselves were beaten. The breed managed to stay alive in remote areas.

Tibetan Mastiffs guard monasteries, villages, homes and caravans as well as tents.The Dalai Lama used eight Tibetan Mastiffs to guard his summer home, in Norbulinka. Two of the dogs were posted at each of the four entrances to the estate. Many of the Tibetan Mastiffs found in the United States are descendants of dogs given in the 1950s by the Dalai Lama to U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, who in turn gave them to a Senator, who raised them and gave one puppy to the famous explorer Lowell Thomas. Others came from drug smugglers who used to hide drugs in the crates of the meanest, nastiest dogs the could find.


Tibetan Mastiff Characteristics

Tibetan mastiffs have deep chests and well muscled bodies. Their walk has been described as “a stalking, determined gait.” They have a large, distinctive head, harsh outer coat, soft wooly undercoat. They come in variety of colors. Some are white. Some are wolf-like in color. Others are black with yellow brows.

Despite their fierceness they have been raised as pets in the United States and other places around the world. One owner, quoted in A Celebration of Rare Breeds, described them as “aloof and independent yet affectionate and playful...there’s a touch of wolf in their body language and everyday living habits...He is an alert dog of impressive size, courage and stamina...and can size up a situation and decide on a course of action before acting.”

Another owner, quoted in A Celebration of Rare Breeds, said, “They are natural guardians of territory and property. The Tibetan mastiff was not bred to be an aggressive dog who kill, but rather as a protector who, if challenged, would not back down. First they warn by barking ferociously. If the intruder persists, they will attack. Usually their bark is enough to frighten intruders or strangers.”

High Prices for Tibetan Mastiff

In the mid 2000s, Tibetan mastiffs were all the rage among the Chinese elite, with some perfect specimens selling for $500,000, up from $200 in the 1990s. Pure bred Tibetan mastiffs are very rare. Only around 100 are thought to exist, which also explains why ones with good pedigree are so expensive.

Tibetan owners display and sell mastiffs during the summer at the Yushu horse racing festival on the border between Qinghai and Tibet. At a fair visited by the Times of London in 2007, a puppy with fine pedigree was selling for $4,000; a grown “iron and gold” male with a glossy black coat and black and yellow-brown paws and underbelly was going with for $20,000 to $40,000. Those with the best bloodlines had price tags of between $130,00 and $400,000.

The Tibetan mastiff has become the pinnacle of pretension. One woman from Xi’an, a city west of Beijing, was widely reported last year to have paid four million renminbi---roughly $600,000---for a single dog that was escorted to its new home in a 30-Mercedes motorcade. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, October 2010]

Some dogs are regarded as so valuable they are deemed priceless and their owners are forbidden by breeding organizations from selling them. Their owners of males still make out okay. They can earn $5,000 in stud fees each time their dog mates. By 2007 prices were starting to decline. It was not clear whether this was because the fad was over or because of an over supply of dogs.

Lhasa Apso

The Lhasa Apso is a small, long-haired dog from Tibet, where its known as "Abso Seng Kye" (“the Bark Lion Sentinel Dog”). Raised in lamaseries and villages around Lhasa, they were bred to be guard dogs on the inside of houses while Tibetan mastiffs guarded outside. For this duty, the Lhasa Apso was bred for intelligence, sensitive hearing and a sense for distinguishing friends from intruders. In the West there are sometimes called Tibet lion dogs, because of the long manes and lion-like coloring.

Lhasa apsos are keen and alert, easy to train, responsive to affection but hostile to strangers. They generally stand no more than 11 inches at the shoulder and come in variety of colors. Golden and lion-like colors are most preferred

Tibetan Spaniels

Tibetan spaniels are small dogs that look like furry Pekingese and stand about 10 inches at the shoulder They are regarded as great house pets. They are loving, comfortable hanging out on sofas and are sensitive to their owners moods. In Tibet and Nepal they are often referred to as “bedroom dogs” and are valued as family members and bearers of good luck. They also serve as watchdogs. They have very sensitive hearing and are valued for sensing intruders first and alerting Tibetan mastiffs with their barking.

Tibetan spaniels have traditionally been bred in monasteries and by wealthy families and lamas. They have been bred to be companions and taught al kinds of tricks, including the turning of Tibetan prayer wheels. The smallest dogs were often the most highly valued. There are stories about the 13th Dalai Lama’s fondness for a pair of Tibetan spaniels.

The origin of Tibetan spaniels is murky. Some believe they are the ancestors of Pekingese and Japanese and English toy spaniels. They were often given as gifts to dignitaries. The dogs arrived n England in the late 1800s but didn’t appear in the United States until the 1960s.

Image Sources:, Wikipedia, Amercican Tibetan Mastiff Association

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated July 2011

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