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An Oriental Masterpiece - The Chow Chow

"What kind of dog is that? It looks like a bear!"

"Mom, that lady's got a lion on a leash!"

"How did that dog get a black tongue?"

Definitely one of the most impressive of all dogs, the Chow Chow is an awesome creature with his lion-like appearance and regal manner. With puppies that look like walking teddy bears, it's no wonder that the Chow is one of the most admired breeds today.

More than 2,000 years old, the Chow was bred to be an all-around working dog capable of surviving in a hostile environment. Hunting, herding, guarding, pulling sleds the Chow could do it all. First kept by fierce Mongolian tribes in China as a hunting and guard dog, the Chow was also used for their meat and fur. The true origin of the breed is unknown; some historians believe it descends from ancient Roman Mastiff-type dogs crossed with Spitz types. Others believe the Chow is the ancestor of the modern Spitz group of dogs as well as the Akita and Shar-Pei.

How the Chow got his blue-black tongue is also a mystery. A delightful old fable provides an answer: When God was painting the sky blue, He spilled a few drops as He worked. The Chow followed after, licking up the drops of paint and from that day forward, the Chow Chow had a blue tongue!

The Chow's first appearance outside of China (where they are seldom seen today) was in England in the late 1800's. Sailors returning from the east brought them back in the cargo hold of the great trade ships. "Chow Chow" was a slang term applied to the large variety of items carried by these ships. Like a nickname, the term stuck to these dogs.

Chows make exceptional house pets. Despite their size (17-21" at the shoulder, 45-85 pounds), they are very quiet, naturally well-behaved, not diggers or barkers and aren't destructive. They're one of the easiest breeds to housebreak. Chows do, however, have a very different personality than other dogs. They are cat-like in their attitudes: aloof, reserved with affection, independent, dignified and stubborn. Although their soft fur is ripe for hugging, they don't always enjoy being fussed over by children or strangers. For people who want a cuddly lap dog that will instantly love all their friends, the Chow is likely to be a disappointment.

The Chow Chow is very intelligent but not always easy to train. They don't have the strong desire to please their masters as do breeds like the Golden Retriever. They seem to please themselves first and don't respond to the average methods of training and motivation. They do not tolerate physical punishment and can't be forced into anything. Hitting or beating a Chow will either result in viciousness or a broken spirit. Like a cat, a Chow is   only willing to do what suits his mood at the time. He's an independent thinker and will make his own decisions if you don't stay a step ahead of
him! The Chow is a powerful, regal, beautiful animal and he knows it. He expects to be treated with dignity and respect respect that he will return if you show you're worthy of it.

From this description, I think you can see that the Chow Chow is not a breed for everyone. Its temperament is often misunderstood and many people mistakenly believe that Chows are vicious dogs. This breed is naturally suspicious of strangers and very territorial. They take their homes and family very seriously as well as their responsibility to protect what they love. On his own property and especially without his owner present, the Chow can appear to be quite fierce. He will seldom let a stranger pass unchallenged. People used to the warm welcomes of other breeds are
unprepared for the seriousness of the Chow; guests must be greeted by the owners before the dog accepts them.

The Chow's appearance also contributes to the myths about his temperament.  The scowling, sometimes wrinkled face, small deepset eyes, and lionlike ruff are intimidating. Some people complain that they can't "read" a Chow's expression as easily as other breeds'. The Chow's natural aloofness, dignity and indifference to people outside his family is often misinterpreted by people who expect most dogs to be outwardly friendly and
affectionate. The Chow saves his affections for those he loves dearly and finds little reason to seek attention from anyone else. He minds his own business and simply doesn't care what other people think of him!

The strong-willed Chow needs an equally strong-willed owner. They have definite minds of their own and can easily become your master if you allow it. Chow puppies are naturally well-behaved, more so than most breeds. They're seldom destructive or disobedient. Because of their good behavior, many people fail to train them properly. When an untrained Chow reaches adolescence, that dreadful teenage stage all dogs go through, he may refuse to accept your authority. We've found that most people who've had behavior problems with their Chows failed to train them and earn their respect.

Although the Chow adjusts well to being alone during your working hours, he prefers to be with you when you're home, not kept as an outside dog. He loves to spend time outside but tied up or confined away from people, he'll become very anti-social. Because of their hunting instincts, Chows without training don't always get along with cats or tiny dogs. They aren't "pack" dogs either and seldom get along with large dogs of the same sex.

In all honesty, some Chows do have temperament problems. The breed went through two periods of dramatic public popularity, once in the 1930's and again during the 1980's. In a rush to cash in on this popularity and sell puppies quickly for a profit, unscrupulous or inexperienced breeders and pet owners often used Chows with unsuitable temperaments for breeding. Believing the myths that Chows were supposed to be unfriendly or aggressive, they didn't know or didn't care that this kind of disposition is not acceptable in reputable circles. Experienced, responsible breeders with a sincere interest in what's good for Chows and the people who buy them refuse to use stock that is aggressive or shy.

The Chow's thick coat requires a lot of care. Puppy coat is very dense and soft, easily tangled and can take several hours a week to groom. The transition period from puppy to adult coat may take several months and your Chow needs to be groomed almost daily during that time. Adult coat is easier to care for but will still need at least an hour or two a week to look its best and prevent matting. Chows shed seasonally, not daily. Once or twice a year they shed their coats and you'll literally be filling trash bags full of hair at that time! Although the smooth coated variety would seem to be less work, it, too, sheds seasonally and needs regular, thorough grooming. You'll need to train your Chow to cooperate and lie on his side during the long hours of grooming. Most Chows would prefer to be groomed by their owners rather than suffer the indignity of going to a professional groomer.

Chows come in five colors: red, black, cream, blue and cinnamon. There's no such thing as "champagne," "silver," "lilac," "chocolate" or "white" Chows -- these "exotic" colors are just creative interpretations of the regularly accepted colors. Colors other than red are not rare and shouldn't cost more.  (For detailed descriptions and illustrations of Chow colors, click here.)

Chows' tongues are pink at birth and gradually darken. They should be completely blue-black at the age of eight weeks. Some tongues don't change completely. This fault disqualifies the Chow from the show ring and it shouldn't be used for breeding.

As with any breed, Chows can be prone to various health problems. Hip dysplasia and entropion are probably the most common. The chances that your Chow will become dysplastic are reduced if you buy your puppy from a breeder who x-rays hips of breeding animals and certifies them free of dysplasia before breeding. Ask for a warranty against crippling hip dysplasia for a period of at least two years. It has been estimated that as many as 50 percent of all Chows have hip dysplasia. This percentage would be greatly reduced if more breeders would x-ray their stock before breeding.

Entropion is a condition where the dog's eyelids turn inward toward the eyeball rather than outward as they should. This causes irritation to the eye and if left untreated, can lead to blindness. Entropion is usually inherited but can also be acquired later in life as a result of eye injury or infection. Entropion isn't always apparent in young puppies. When you're shopping for a puppy, you should expect to see, clear, dry sparkling eyes on the parents of the litter. Runny, inflamed eyes or crusty eyelids are
not normal for a Chow and should be treated by a veterinarian.

Skin and hormone problems are also seen in Chow Chows. These, too, are often inherited and seldom apparent in a young puppy. Ask questions about the parents of the puppy you have in mind. If you're not satisfied with the health, appearance or temperament of the parents, do not buy the puppy!

Good temperament in Chows is partly inherited and partly made by good training and socialization. Almost all Chow puppies are friendly and irresistible. Your puppy won't be little for long and you want to be happy with the adult dog who'll share your life for many years to come. Start out on the right foot by choosing a puppy from parents who have the kind of temperament you want! You should be able to touch and handle the parents of your puppy. They shouldn't be overly shy nor aggressive toward you with their owner present. If you don't like the disposition of the parents or can't handle at least one parent of the litter, do not buy the puppy!

Another source of healthy Chows with good dispositions is through Chow rescue adoption programs. Most homeless Chows became that way through no fault of their own. Their owners had to move, divorced, or met with family tragedies that forced them to give up their dogs. Experienced Chow rescue volunteers screen dogs for good temperament and health and look for families especially suited to each one. These dogs are usually young adults although puppies and older dogs are sometimes available. Despite the Chow's reputation as being a one-family dog, rescued Chows are adaptable and adjust well to a new home. Many of us are just too busy to raise and train a puppy. An older, rescued Chow may fit into your busy lifestyle much easier.

Those of us who know and understand Chow Chows cherish their quiet dignity, proud aloofness and their deep loyalty to those they love. To be loved by a Chow is like no other experience. After that, anything else is just another dog.

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This article was written and copyrighted by Vicki DeGruy and appears here with permission.  Contact us for permission to reprint articles that appear on our site.