The Chow Chow in the West  



The Chow Chow is a member of the Spitz group, a family of breeds which are very closely allied and were probably one of the original canine types, the others being the sight hounds and the mastiffs.

The scenting breeds, the retrieving breeds, the shepherding breeds – both guard and guide – the terriers and the other domestic breeds can all trace their ancestry back to this basic trio. The Spitz group itself can be roughly divided into four branches. There are the large hauling breeds, the smaller hunting and shepherding breeds, the domestic guard dogs and the Chow Chow.

The Chow Chow is quite definitely a Spitz breed but it must be considered separately from the others for although the Chow Chow also fits into the overall ‘spitz’ pattern it also has a number of remarkable features that have led palaeontologists to speculate that the breed is an evolutionary accident and has descended from the Llemicyon, which was an intermediate animal between the Cynoelesmus (from which descended the true canids) and Daphoneus, the direct ancestor of the modern bear.

Much of this is speculation, of course, but bears normally have 44 teeth and dogs 42. The Chow Chow has 44 milk teeth! All mammals have pinkish tongues except two – some bears and Chow Chows. The bears that have blue tongues all come from the same area of Central Asia, as does the Chow Chow.

Most people imagine the Chow Chow to be of Chinese origin but in old Chinese manuscripts the breed is usually referred to as ‘the foreign Chow Chow’.

From what historians have been able to piece together, Chow Chows were first used as hunters, guards and war dogs by the nomadic fighting tribes of Mongolia and were first brought into China and Tibet a thousand years before the birth of Christ.

There are several references to what must be this breed in ancient Chinese texts from 100 BC onwards and many pieces of pottery and China have been found which closely resemble the Chow Chows we see today. The only colours mentioned are red and black and references to blues and creams only appear much later and were usually associated with Western Chinese and Tibetan monasteries.

These stories were thought to be legendary but according to a Dr Abshagen, a Llamist monastery which he visited had a pack of at least fifty blue Chows, “bluer than the finest blue Persian cats”, and had been breeding and maintaining records since its foundation in the thirteenth century. New blood was periodically introduced into the breeding programme through the exchange of dogs from other monasteries, sometimes many hundreds of miles away. Both in the monasteries and in the palaces of China the Chow Chow was highly prized.

Most breeding of Chows would have been conducted according to carefully fixed principles. The Chinese were certainly the first nation to apply selective breeding to livestock and have evolved species of birds and fish, as well as dogs, which to this day have constant colour characteristics. Naturally, the breed deteriorated as this selective breeding was halted when the Imperial hunts came to an end and only a few wealthy householders and the monasteries preserved the original, pure-bred Chows after the upheavals of the turn of the century.




The name of the breed is commonly supposed to have come from the pidgin English ‘Chow Chow’ which meant ‘miscellaneous cargo’ but it is more likely that the word ‘Chaou’ which means ‘dog of great strength’ is the true derivation. The first reference to the Chow in Britain is in a letter written by Gilbert White to a friend in 1781. These specimens were brought in as zoo animals and it was not until the establishment of dog shows in 1859 encouraged the importation of foreign breeds that other references occur.

The first appearance of the breed at a show could have been in 1876 but the entries were merely described as ‘Chinese Dogs’. It is not until 1880 when a dog ‘bred in China, red dog, purple tongue’, was exhibited that the Chow Chow really arrived. In 1881 the Prince of Wales exhibited a Chinese dog called Chang who, from the published critique, was a true Chow Chow and whose owner naturally gave the breed a boost in the right direction.

In 1895 the Chow Chow Club was formed and by this time many of the breeders who were responsible for establishing and popularising the Chow Chow were already exhibiting. One dog and one breeder of this time deserve mention. The breeder was Mr WR Temple who not only dominated the breed with his Leyswood prefix for many years but was also responsible for the formation of the Chow Chow Club and the compilation of the Standard. The dog, which was imported by Miss E Bagshaw, is Chow VIII who was described as ‘the first of the great ones’ and who was the model for the standard of the breed. He was only beaten on two or three occasions at a time when competition was particularly keen.

During the following years the Chow Chow continued to increase in popularity and between the wars became one of the fashionable breeds. At the outbreak of the Second World War, when three of the most influential kennels were disbanded almost simultaneously, many Chow Chows of outstanding quality had been bred, some of which were sold for what, at that time, were outstanding prices. They have been a breed of record breakers from Chow VIII to Ch Choonam Hung Kwong, who won a total of 44 Challenge Certificates and was Best in Show at Cruft’s 1936, to Ch Ukwong King Solomon, who was retired in 1976 and won 78 CCs, was Dog of the Year twice and had seven Best in Shows at all breed Championship Shows to his credit.




Concern has been expressed recently about the possible incidence of hip dysplasia in the breed and an HD scheme has been introduced to ensure that this does not become a problem. However, entropion (ingrowing eyelashes) and heat stroke due to the emphasis placed by some breeders on the heavier build and shorter muzzle remain endemic in some lines. Attempts have been and are being made to eliminate these dangerous problems but in a breed as popular and successful as Chow Chows there will always be those who will not heed warnings.

Prospective owners of Chow Chow puppies should ensure that they see the dam and the sire if possible and ask for a veterinary certificate of health before purchase. No reputable breeder will object to this!

Like the other Spitz breeds, the Chow Chow has no doggy odour but there are one or two points of health and care that should be mentioned. The Chow Chow is anatomically and physiologically slightly different from most other breeds of dog. The breed has a liver and kidneys which make it prone to diseases of the intestine. It is most important, therefore, that the breeder’s recommendations as far as feeding is concerned are followed carefully.

The same is true for the skin; the least departure from normal habits of feeding can cause skin troubles which may be very difficult to clear up. It is important to be able to recognise immediately if your Chow Chow is off colour so that you can take the dog along to your vet as soon as possible.

I do not think you should be put off buying a Chow Chow because of hereditary problems but, if you are aware that they exist, the extra care that you take will be well repaid. Your breeder will certainly give you full and detailed instructions about feeding and care, and all that is required is to follow these to the letter.




The Chow Chow has a typical Spitz type coat of thick, woolly under coat and harsh ‘standing off’ top coat. It is very, very dense and must be brushed every day. Five minutes is enough but it must be done regularly. The coat does not pick up dirt easily, neither does it get wet right through. However, if the surface of the coat is damp it should be rubbed with a rough towel and left to dry before brushing out.

It is most important, as with every breed, that a dog is not allowed to sleep with a damp coat. Once a week a thorough groom is required and it is important that the thick hair around the neck and at the back of the legs and under the tail is carefully combed. All dead coat should be removed by brush, comb or plucking. If you take it out during regular grooming it will not land in tufts onto your carpet! Bathing should be left until the dog is right out of coat and even then is not always necessary.

Occasionally long straggling fur between the toes needs trimming as well as any wispy ends around the neck and ears but any other trimming, which will alter the look of the dog, is unnecessary and undesirable.


The most usual colours for Chow Chows are red and black. The reds vary from deep chestnut to light red with the underpart of the tail and the back of the thighs often of a much lighter colour. A pigeon blue is highly desirable but not common, while fawn and cream are also recognised colours.




The Chow Chow is definitely a one-man dog and only tolerates the attention of those he does not know. This has led to an undeserved reputation for bad temper but this is seldom the case in the UK although when I judged them in Moscow last year I could only handle three from my entry of fifty!

They are usually aloof with strangers, most of whom want them to behave as they would expect a ‘normal’ dog to behave. The Chow Chow couldn’t care less. He has the Spitz breed characteristics of independence and, although anxious for affection from his master or mistress, will not stoop to show that affection in company. The deep-seated instincts for hunting and guarding have been carefully preserved and so training is long, difficult and unrewarding.

The Chow Chow is a creature of habit and routine and shows his disapproval if that routine is upset. Miss CE Collett, who wrote the standard work on the breed between the wars, has summed it up beautifully: “He will die for you but not readily obey you. He will walk with you but not abjectly at heel, and his inquisitiveness and his hunting instincts make it advisable to keep him on a lead. Harsh tones and shouted commands leave him unmoved but he will respond in his own good time to the quiet voice and gentle handling of authority.” This quotation, or something like it, will probably be found engraved on the heart of dedicated owners of almost any Spitz breed!




The Standard based on Chow VIII was drawn up in 1895 has been altered only in very minor respects. Its essential requirement is for a powerful, well-boned, muscular dog, which should be active, compact and well balanced.

The minimum height at the shoulder should be 18 inches although there has been a tendency for the breed to get smaller without retaining the correct proportions and this has resulted in a number of Chow Chows too heavily built for their size. The word used in the Standard to describe the overall look of the dog is ‘leonine’ and there should be a lot of the lion in the head, mane and expression.

The breed is unique in its blue tongue and stilted gait. The movement of the hind legs is the result of an almost straight hock which has a pendulum movement rather than the up-and-down movement of other breeds. It is said that the purpose of this is for easy movement in snow, the rear parts being used to flick the snow out of the way as the foot moves through the snow instead of the leg having to travel up and out of the snow before it can move forward. I am not convinced about this one but certainly many of the Spitz breeds have a little of this look about their movement, although not as much as the Chow Chow. However, this should never prevent a Chow Chow having movement which is straight and free.

The tail should be tightly curled, set very high, carried well over the back and lie on the back rather than carried to the side. The body should fit nicely into the square frame that we expect from the Spitz breeds with the neck arching at an angle of about 60 degrees.

The head is not absolutely typical of the Spitz. The pricked ears are small but slightly rounded at the tips and placed well forward on the skull with a slightly forward slope. This helps give the head the scowl expression which is desirable. The muzzle does not have the well defined stop called for in most of the Spitz breeds. The shape is there but is more of an indentation than a stop. The proportions of muzzle and width of skull are rather more ‘blocky’ than the classic Spitz head but some Chow Chows are being bred with too short muzzles.

Black is the preferred colour for the nose but creams, blues and fawns will have noses that are self-coloured. Eyes almond-shaped and dark for red and black Chows while blues and fawns will tend to have matching eyes which are very attractive. Expression is most important. Although a scowl is desirable this should not be taken to mean that the dog is, in fact, unhappy in any way. The tail of a Chow Chow is his indication of mood – not his expression!

  The breed is rich in folklore and history and has been bred true for many thousands of years. It deserves the high place it has attained in the world of dogs. The Chow Chow is not every man’s pet but its marked individual characteristics appeal to many and once you have been owned by a Chow Chow you are unlikely to transfer your allegiance to another breed!  
    Navigation Button - The End    

Written by David Cavill.

David Cavill is an English chowist of long standing.
He has bred, judged and worked with dogs for more than thirty years.
This article was first made available in July 1996 via the Dogs UK website.

Unless otherwise specified, all content - text, graphics, photographs - copyright Mishna Chow Chows / Vanessa Munro. All rights reserved.
Copying, reproducing, storing or quoting content or extracts thereof must include site context and credits and written author permission.
site map