A truly ancient breed, the Chow Chow originated in the Far East somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago. Having been bred to fulfil a variety of roles, including ‘war dog’, herder, hunter, protector, and even food source, the Chow has many characteristics not seen in most of the modern breeds, both in terms of appearance and temperament. While devoted and loyal to one or two masters, Chow Chows are not generally considered suitable as pets for young families, as they have a tendency to be irritable, and even aggressive, particularly in warm weather.
Their thick double coat means these dogs can overheat at warmer times of the year, and having been bred to withstand exposure to freezing temperatures, they tend to be at their most active and cheerful in the winter months. Chow Chows require firm and confident handling by an experienced owner. However, they should never be physically reprimanded for bad behaviour, as they tend to react particularly badly to this, quickly becoming shy of physical contact. They tend to be suspicious of strangers, and are very protective of their owners and their home. This behaviour needs to be channelled, and early, positive socialisation is very important to prevent problems with aggression later in life.
Their characteristic blue-black tongue and lips are shared by only one other breed, the Shar Pei. The breed is prone to a number of congenital and developmental health issues, but most Chow Chows have a life expectancy of 11–13 years.
About & History
With its origins lying deep in Oriental history, there is some debate regarding the detail of the breed’s development. Known as Songshi Quan (or ‘puffy-lion dog’) by the Chinese, it is believed the Chow Chow originated on the Mongolian or Siberian steppe between two and three thousand years ago. Controversy abounds as to whether the breed was created through the crossing of Tibetan Mastiffs and Samoyeds, which is the more generally accepted theory, or whether Chows were actually the progenitors of the Samoyed and other breeds, including the Norwegian Elkhound and Keeshond.
While unpleasant to contemplate, it appears that Chow Chows were an important source of food in times of hardship, and their thick coat would have been a valuable commodity in the manufacture of warm clothing. Early artwork and sculpture from over 2,000 years ago clearly indicate that the Chinese, Mongolians, and Tibetans employed Chows as guard-dogs, hunters, and herding dogs. Based on historical records, it seems likely the Mongol hordes of the 13th century used Chow Chows as their ‘war dogs’ to strike fear in their enemies. The Chow’s natural aggression would have suited them perfectly to this role.
In more recent times, the first Chows to be recorded in the West were brought to Britain by the East India Trading Company in 1780. The breed was recognised by the Kennel Club as early as 1894, and by the American Kennel Club in 1903. Queen Victoria was famously fond of her pet Chow, and legend has it that the first Teddy Bear, made by a dressmaker, was modelled on this dog, in the hope that the Queen might favour the stuffed version rather than be seen with a creature so ‘undignified’ as a dog.
The Chow Chow is a compact, strong dog, with a lion-like appearance due to the ruff of hair around its neck. The breed has a thick, double coat, which may be either rough or smooth. Several colour variations are recognised:
- Fawn (known as Cinnamon in the USA)
Solid colouring is preferred, although most Chows will have slightly lighter-coloured hair on the undersides of their tails and behind the hindlimbs.
The Chow Chow has a broad, muscular head, with ‘padding’ evident around the eyes and ears. There is no pronounced ‘stop’, with the forehead sloping directly to the wide and powerful muzzle. The teeth should be close-set with the upper and lower rows sitting snugly between each other. The lips are often blue-black in colour, as is the tongue. The ears are small and rounded, and point forwards and towards each other, giving the breed its trademark ‘scowling’ appearance.
Chows have very muscular forelimbs, with the shoulders and upper limb being well-developed, with reasonably heavy bone in an upright forearm. The hind limbs are unusually upright, with the paws sitting directly below the hip joints. This results in a stilted, short stride which is typical of the breed. The rump and back are broad and strong, and the Spitz-like tail is carried over the back.
Males generally measure 48–56 cm (19-22 in) at the shoulder, and weigh between 25–32 kg (55–70 lb). Bitches are slightly shorter, at 46–51 cm (18–20 in), and weigh 21–27 kg (45–59 lb).
Character & Temperament
As described above, the Chow Chow is not a breed for everyone. Famously stubborn and potentially aggressive, this breed is likely to become a ‘problem dog’ in the hands of a novice owner. Chows are independent and dominant by nature, and in order to enjoy a happy relationship with their owners, need to be kept under control and in a submissive role. This requires firm, confident handling, which should never take the form of physical reprimand, as this is something that Chows, in particular, respond badly to.
However, in the right hands, Chow Chows can be obedient and loyal pets. They are not especially playful, but rather play the role of an aloof and elegant companion, fond of affection but not fuss. They can be fierce guard dogs, as they are naturally distrustful of, and even aggressive towards, strangers and other animals. An important part of responsible Chow Chow ownership is early and intensive socialisation to avoid these characteristics becoming a problem later in life.
Having been bred as hunting dogs, as well as their other roles, Chows should generally not be trusted with other small pets, and are also not ideal companions for young children who may not read the warning signs from a dog that is becoming intolerant of handling. For older children and adults, however, this breed will be a devoted and fearless guardian.
Given their rather unique personality traits, training a Chow can be a different challenge to training most breeds. They respond best to training from one individual, as they usually bond most strongly to one person, to whom they will respond best when corrected or given an instruction. Verbal reward and reprimand usually works well, but persistence is required to overcome the Chow’s natural stubbornness. The key to successful training of a Chow Chow is early establishment of a healthy dominance by humans, as any dog which does not have this level of respect for the owner’s authority from puppyhood is likely to become a very difficult animal to train in later life.
With patience and perseverance, most Chow Chows are more than capable of learning the usual repertoire of obedience commands, and many Chow owners describe their dogs as being fond of learning tricks such as ‘speaking’ and dancing. House-training is usually very easy with this breed as, like the Shiba Inu, they are often described as being cat-like in their cleanliness.
Chow Chows are prone to quite a number of health and behavioural disorders, and as with any breed, it is advisable to always source a puppy from a reputable breeder.
- Atopic Dermatitis – Inhaled allergens commonly cause skin irritations. Allergens can include house dust mites, moulds, and dander from other pets. Signs tend to be worse in warm, humid areas of skin such as the ears, paws, belly and perineum, and may be worsened by bacterial and fungal skin infections. It is important that these signs are managed so as not to impact the animal’s quality of life.
- Alopecia – Chows are prone to several conditions resulting in alopecia (baldness), including Colour Mutant Alopecia and Alopecia X.
- Hip Dysplasia – Quite commonly seen in Chows, likely exacerbated by the unusual hind limb conformation. Lameness is usually seen from 6 months of age, and may require surgery or ongoing medication. Affected animals should not be bred.
- Elbow Dysplasia – In common with hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia is a developmental disorder characterised by lameness in young, growing dogs. Diagnosis requires X-ray examination, and severe cases may require joint replacement surgery.
- Hypoglycaemia – Low blood sugar can cause weakness, seizures, or coma. This condition is most commonly seen in young pups soon after weaning, and most will outgrow the problem as they get older.
- Entropion or Ectropion – Inward- or outward-scrolling of the eyelids, respectively. Cause irritation and scarring of the surface of affected eyes. Corrective surgery is usually relatively straightforward.
- Glaucoma – Older dogs may develop increased pressure within the eye, causing pain and loss of vision.
- Progressive Retinal Atrophy – A genetic condition in which the visual part of the eye (the retina) loses function due to neuronal death. Can manifest from a young age, and is untreatable.
- Sebaceous Adenitis – Hair loss and scaly skin caused by autoimmune inflammation in the sebaceous glands. Secondary infection and follicular obstruction can be treated with a combination of oils, medicated shampoo, and prescription medications.
- Demodecosis – Suboptimal immune response to Demodex mites in the skin can allow infestation. While not contagious to humans or other pets, this will result in hair loss, infection, and severe itching. Requires lifelong treatment in many cases.
- Hypothyroidism – An underactive thyroid gland is the result of immune-mediated destruction of thyroid follicular cells. Results in alopecia, weight gain, lethargy, and infertility. Treatment with thyroid hormone is usually very effective.
- Behavioural Problems – Aggression-based behavioural disorders are common in Chow Chows, but can be prevented with early socialisation and firm training. Consulting a behaviourist at the earliest sign of a problem is vital.
- Cataracts – The formation of opaque bodies in the lens of one or both eyes can impair vision. These can be removed by a specialist veterinary ophthalmologist if causing the Chow serious problems.
- Cerebellar Hypoplasia – The cerebellum is a part of the hindbrain responsible for coordinating movement. If underdeveloped, it can result in ataxia, manifesting as a wobbly, unsteady gait. This is usually obvious as pups begin to walk, and can range from mild to severe.
- Lymposarcoma – This is a common malignant tumour, seen in many breeds, but to which the Chow is particularly prone. May manifest as multiple firm lumps under the skin at the angle of the jaw, in front of the shoulders, and behind the stifle joints.
- Melanoma – A cancer of the cells producing skin pigment (melanocytes). Uncommon, but Chows are predisposed because of their oral pigmentation.
Exercise and Activity Levels
Chow Chows require a moderate amount of activity, depending on their living arrangements. A dog spending much of his/her time indoors may require up to an hour of lead walking each day, although this may not be possible in warmer weather, as they are prone to overheating. They are not exuberant dogs, and are generally easy company in a home setting.
Chows can shed quite heavily; again, this is much more noticeable at warmer times of the year. They require daily brushing, both to aid clearance of shed hair, but also to avoid matting. While excessive washing is detrimental to coat and skin quality, a monthly bath is usually required for hygiene reasons. Chow Chows should never be clipped, as to do so will damage the primary hairs of the coat, leaving an unattractive and fragile ‘wooly’ coat.
While the breed standards actively discourage the development of lines with loose and folded skin, skin fold dermatitis and furunculosis (deep skin infection) can occur in the skin folds around the face. In these dogs, daily cleaning between these folds with a gentle antiseptic solution is vital to prevent scarring and permanent inflammation.
While teeth-brushing is generally a good habit in most dogs, it is generally very difficult to implement in Chows. It is worth trying to introduce this as part of the daily routine in a young puppy, but should be discontinued if the pup becomes distressed or aggressive as a result of it.
Famous Chow Chows
Chow Chows have made their way into the homes of many of the rich and famous over the years, with some of their better-known owners including:
- Sigmund Freud
- Martha Stewart
- Elvis Presley
- Janet Jackson
- Mario Balotelli
As a unique breed, both in terms of appearance and personality, Chows have been crossed with many other breeds, creating some interesting results!
- American Chow – Cross between a Chow Chow and an American Bulldog
- Chowhound – Cross between a Chow Chow and Bassett Hound
- Chow Pei – Cross between a Chow Chow and a Shar Pei
- Chow Shepherd – Cross between a Chow Chow and a German Shepherd
- Chusky – Cross between a Chow Chow and a Siberian Husky
- Eurasier – Cross between a Chow Chow and a Keeshond (Now a recognised breed in its own right)