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The Chow Chow is believed to be a difficult breed to understand and evaluate. Many shelters, doing their best to provide people with safe, friendly pets and avoid liability problems, refuse to offer Chows for adoption at all. We understand your concerns. We, too, are very careful about what dogs we offer in our adoption programs. We don't want people to be hurt by our dogs. We've found, though, that many Chows have wonderful temperaments and are worthy candidates for adoption, as reliable as any other breed of dog. In this article, we hope to show you how to evaluate Chow Chows on an individual basis rather than condemn them all as a group.

When working with Chows, it helps to forget much of what you already know about the "average" dog's behavior. In many ways, Chows are not very doglike and don't behave like a typical dog. A Chow has the mind and independent spirit of a cat locked inside the body of a creature that looks like a cross between a lion and a bear.

It helps to "think cat" in order to understand Chows!

Like a cat, a Chow is.....

  • proud, arrogant and aloof. He wants you to think he doesn't need you.
  • suspicious of strangers. He can be slow to make new friends and can put on a fierce show when he's on his own ground.
  • indifferent to people other than his friends. He could care less what strangers think of him and prefers to be left alone.
  • not very eager to please his master. He especially doesn't like to obey commands from strangers.
  • smart enough to figure out how to get out of doing what you want and clever enough to pretend he didn't hear you.
  • stoic and expressionless. With their scowling face and deepset, dark eyes, it can be hard to know what they're thinking.
  • very dignified. He doesn't like to be hit, manhandled, muzzled or physically forced into something he doesn't want to do.
  • very clean, well-mannered in the house or kennel, almost born housebroken, non-destructive and quiet.
  • very affectionate, loyal and loving with the people they love and trust. They never forget their friends.

Stray Chows:
Loose and lost, even well-socialized Chows may quickly revert to feral behavior. Suspicious of strangers, wary of being trapped or cornered, they can be hard to catch. They may be aggressive when cornered. They may also fight ferociously when captured with a snare pole. This behavior can be considered normal and is not, by itself, an indication of the dog's real disposition.

Once caught and given a few days to settle in, most stray Chows are very happy to be back under a dry roof with regular meals again especially if they've been on the run for awhile. A stray Chow with a good temperament should soon welcome attention from shelter staff. We advise shelters that if the stray Chow has not made friends with at least one person by the end of the mandatory holding period (average 7 days), it's not likely to be a good adoption candidate.

Chows Surrendered by Their Owners:
An owner-surrendered Chow usually takes longer to "come around" than a stray Chow. Left at a shelter, the average Chow is confused and unhappy at first - he doesn't understand why he's there. Since he's sure that his owner will be coming back to get him very soon, he isn't interested in making new friends just yet. The noise of the shelter, confinement to a kennel run and being stared at by strangers offends and irritates him. Adding to his distress are his good housebreaking manners - most Chows won't use their kennel as a toilet unless absolutely forced to. This can result in several days of discomfort and grumpiness as he "holds it" until he just can't any longer.

A Chow that's waiting for his family to come back can be unreceptive and sometimes aggressive toward strangers. He wants to be left alone. He sees no reason to make friends with you. Unless the Chow needs immediate medical attention, it's best to leave him alone at this time. Even Chows with good temperaments can be indifferent and aloof until they finally realize that their people aren't going to return. This process of waiting, grieving and finally accepting their new situation can take a few days, a week or a month, depending on the individual Chow. Unfortunately, most shelters can't give them much time. As with a stray, if the dog hasn't begun to show a friendly interest in shelter staff within 7 days, it's not likely to be a good adoption candidate.

It goes without saying that no Chow with a bite record or
history of aggressive behavior toward people should be offered for adoption no matter how good his temperament appears to be.

How to handle unfamiliar Chow Chows
In over 10 years of working with abandoned Chows, I've never been bitten by one and rarely need to use a muzzle. My success comes from using good safety practices and common sense. Anyone can learn these simple tricks and they apply to other breeds as well as Chows.

Chows are very perceptive and quickly pick up on people's emotions. They are especially leery of people who dislike or are afraid of them. They may behave aggressively or erractically toward such people. Chows are often remarkably docile, friendly and respectful of people who aren't afraid of them.

To make friends with a suspicious Chow, ignore him! Pretend he isn't even there and go about your business as usual. If you speak to him at all, use a tone of voice that's calm and matter-of-fact. Do not make direct eye contact or try to pet him. The Chow will be baffled by your lack of fear and show of indifference. Like a cat, he'll become curious about you. Even when the Chow starts to show a friendly interest, don't try to pet him right away. Do not crouch down to encourage him to come to you. With your hands at your sides, allow him to sniff your body while you speak to him in a cheerful voice. After a few moments, walk away.

When the Chow has become eager to see you, you can try to pet him. Most Chows don't like a hand coming down on their heads from above or a casual ruffling of their fur. Instead, reach out with your palm up and scratch his chest. If he enjoyed that and didn't back away, then scratch the base of his tail. Once he's allowed you to touch him (and allowed himself to enjoy it), your relationship should continue to improve.

To put a leash on a Chow that doesn't want to be handled, use a one-piece slip lead rather than a collar and leash. Make a large noose with the lead. Open the kennel or crate door slightly. Most Chows will be anxious to get out and will try to push their heads through the opening. Drop the noose over the dog's head and pull the lead snug before opening the door all the way. If you're afraid the dog will becorne aggressive while being walked, keep the dog an arm's length away by extending your lead-holding arm parallel to the ground. If he tries to bite, you can raise your arm to keep his head away from you or lift the dog's front off the ground if necessary.

Most Chows detest being muzzled and will fight hard against it, making it that much harder to vaccinate or examine them. I've never had to muzzle a Chow for these procedures. To lift a dog you're not sure of, stand near the dog's left hip, facing the back of his head. With your left hand, take hold of the dog's collar at the back of his neck, just behind his ears. Put your right hand under his rump. With your left arm extended to keep the dog's head turned away from you, quickly lift the dog to the table using the collar and your right hand.

Once on the table and ready for examination or grooming, keep your left hand on the collar, just behind the ears, to maintain control of the dog's head. Stand away at arm's length using your outstretched left arm to keep the dog's head turned away from you or the people who need to touch him. If necessary, use the collar to raise the dog's front a little so that he's standing on his tip toes, a little off balance. Put your right hand under the dog's belly to keep him from sitting down or scooting away. Be confident and firm without making direct eye contact. Use a calm, confident, matter of fact tone of voice.

Temperament Evaluation

Judgements on the Chow's temperament should wait until the dog's had a few days to settle in and make friends with some of the shelter staff. When I evaluate a Chow for adoption, I first look at the needs of the people who may adopt him. What qualities will the average person want in a dog? What behavior will they be willing to work with and what is unacceptable? Once you've determined what the majority of your adopters are looking for, you'll be able to create a profile of an "adoptable" dog, regardless of breed.

No one will want to adopt a dog that stands at the back of its run barking or growling at them. It's not unusual for a Chow to ignore people who come to see him (or seem to have better things to do) but the dog should not be terrified, snappish or aggressive. An adoptable Chow should allow himself to be handled by strangers.

Extremely shy Chows aren't necessarily victims of abuse, many are born this way. A shy Chow that doesn't show aggression under stress might be an adoption candidate for a quiet household without small children Shy Chows that growl or try to bite should not be considered adoptable.

Some shelters evaluate Chows by trying to physically dominate them, using techniques like "alpha rollovers", "stringing them up" or forcing them into submissive positions. I strongly recommend that you do not use these procedures! Even Chows with exceptionally good dispositions will react very negatively to these methods when used by a stranger or someone the Chow doesn't trust or respect. These methods do not provide an accurate picture of a Chow's temperament.

A dog's eyes will tell you a great deal regardless of breed. Some people claim they can't read a Chow's eyes but with practice, it's as easy as with any other breed. You can read a dog's eyes without making direct eye contact. I like to see a "soft" eye, frightened maybe but it has a look to it that tells you the dog won't hurt you unless it absolutely must. It has a warm, hopeful expression. A freaky dog has a panicked look. This kind of dog will bite without much provocation even if it's not a "mean" dog. A really smart dog will have a sparkle to the eye even if it's frightened. You can see that it's thinking about what's going on and what it's going to do next. Then there are the hard, cold eyes of a truly nasty creature although it may not act nasty. Fortunately, you won't see many of those.

Body language will also tell you a great deal. A dominant dog is confident and fearless. He stands tall, head, ears and tail carried high and forward even in strange territory or when meeting new people. A dog that shows a submissive posture when approaching people - head slightly lowered, ears back or to the sides - is more desirable.

Aggression toward dogs or other animals should not be considered abnormal or vicious. Chow Chows are not "pack" dogs and can be dog-aggressive toward other dogs of the same sex even when spayed or neutered. Chows should not be kenneled in groups or with dogs of the same sex.

Chows that haven't "read the book":

All rules have exceptions and there many, many Chows in the population that don't behave the least bit like Chows at all! They act like Golden Retrievers - joyously greeting everyone they meet, are eager to please, obedient (if they've had training) and good with children. These dogs are usually very "honest", what you see is what you get - their good nature is readily apparent and they rarely give you any unpleasant surprises. Other than being a little more independent and headstrong than many breeds, Chows with this kind of personality act and react as most other dogs would. We recommend that you give this type of Chow the same chance at adoption as you would any other good-natured dog in your shelter. The adopting family doesn't necessarily have to have previous Chow experience for the placement to be successful.

Chow Chows and small children:

Because the history of strays is unknown and many owner-surrendered Chows have not had proper training, we normally recommend against placing adult Chows in homes with very small children without temperament testing before the adoption To be compatible with young children, the dog should be exceptionally good natured and easy going. People interested in adopting Chows should be told of the Chow's continuing need for socialization with children if they expect the dog to come in contact with them. It's not realistic to expect an adult Chow (or any other dog) to be tolerant of children if it's not exposed to them on a regular basis and trained how to behave around them. By the same token, it's not wise to place a Chow (or any other dog) in a home where the parents show a reluctance or inability to supervise and control their children.

Questions? Need help evaluating a Chow? Contact us!
The Chow Chow Club, Inc.'s Welfare Committee can answer your questions, help with evaluations or refer to you to a local Chow Rescue service if one exists. We maintain a nationwide adoption referral listing and can help you advertise your shelter's Chows. We can provide printed material about Chows, their care and training to your shelter staff and to adoptive owners. We're there to provide post-adoption support to adoptive Chow owners. We want to work cooperatively with you to help make your life easier and to offer adoptable Chow Chows the same chance at the life of love and responsible care that every dog deserves. We look forward to the opportunity to work with you!

written and distributed by
The Chow Chow Club, Inc.'s Welfare Committee

© 1997 The Chow Chow Club, Inc.