Posts Tagged ‘chow chow’


Dog breed origins are often shrouded in a “creation myth.”  If you ever read an all-breed dog book, the official breed origins come across as awfully fanciful. Virtually every breed is regarded as ancient or derived from some private stock belonging to some notable:  Afghan hounds were the dogs Noah took on the Ark.  Beagles appear on the Bayeux Tapestry. Pharaoh hounds were the hunting  dogs of the Ancient Egyptian dynasties.

These stories posit the breed as being part of something deep in the past and maintaining the breeds is magnified as a way of paying homage to the past.

Some breeds are, however, pretty old, or at least genetically distinct from the rest of dogdom to be seen as something unique. Chow chows are a good example. They retain a lot of unique, primitive characters, and as East Asian primitive dogs, they may be among the oldest of strains still in existence.

Konrad Lorenz deeply admired the breed’s wolf-like attributes, believing they represented the best of the so-called “Lupus dogs.” Lorenz believed that most dogs were actually the descendants of golden jackals, and the dogs were friendly to most people and easily broken to fit the will of man. These were the “Aureus dogs.” But the dogs that were more aloof and more independent of the wishes of their masters were seen as the direct descendants of wolves. Lorenz preferred this type of dog, and he kept many chows and chow crosses in crosses as his own personal dogs and “study subjects.”

Lorenz later rejected the dichotomy between the jackal and wolf dogs, but the idea is still worth exploring. What Lorenz actually discovered was a profound division that exists in domestic dogs:  the primitive versus the derived.

In terms of evolution, an organism is considered primitive if it retains characters and behavior that are very like the ancestral form.  For example, lemurs are considered more primitive than other primates because they have the long muzzles and wet noses of the ancestral primates.

Primitive dogs are those that retain many features in common with the wolf. These features include erect ears, pointed muzzles, howling rather than barking, bitches having only one heat cycle per year,  pair-bonding behavior, and general tendency not to be obedient.  Many primitive dogs bond with only a single person, and in the most extreme cases, allow only that person to touch them.

Lots of “Nordic” breeds fall into this category, but this list also includes many of the drop-eared sighthounds from Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and the Indian Subcontinent. It also includes many of the village dogs from undeveloped countries, as well as the semi-domesticated pariah dogs and dingoes.

The chow chow sort of fit between both Nordic breed type and the village dog type.  It has many of the features of the Nordic breeds– curled tail and prick ears– but it also has had a long history as a village dog in China, where it had periods in which it freely bred.

One would think that chow chow fanciers would be into celebrating their dogs as primitives, like owning something between wild and domestic.

But dog people being dog people are more than willing to add embellishments.

Westerners have done a lot to add to the bear-like features of the chow chow, which Konrad Lorenz actually castigated.

However, dog breeders will often go to great lengths to justify breeding decisions, including putting out absolute science fiction as scientific fact.

A few years ago, I heard an acquaintance mention that a well-educated chow owner she knew firmly believed that chow chow were derived from bears.

I laughed at it.  I did not think there was a serious discussion that chow chows were derived from bears.

And then I received notice of this website, which purports to have the full history of the chow chow. The history begins as follows:

It´s assumed that during the Miocene period (between 28 to 12 million years back), the evolution of the Hemicyon, an intermediary between the Cynoelesmus [sic], “father” of all the canine ones, and the Daphoneus [sic] – from which the bears descend as we know them today, – originated the Simocyon, an animal that varied between a fox and a small bear that inhabited in the sub-Arctic regions Siberia and the Northwest of Mongolia and of which it is known had 44 teeth.

I don’t know where this actually comes from, but it is entirely in ignorance of what we now know about the evolution of bears and dogs.  Dogs and bears are indeed closely related, but the division between the two is much deeper than the dates proposed here. Their most recent common ancestor was the ancestral stem-caniform miacid, which lived about 40 million years ago.  Most of the “ancestors” mention here are actually evolutionary dead ends that have little to do with modern bears or dogs.

First of all Hemicyon was not an intermediary between dogs and bears. The Hemicyon family was actually a branch of the bear lineage. Unlike the true bears, it was digitigrade and was probably a cursorial predator like wolves are today. The Hemicyon family lived between 11 and 17 million years ago, and it has left no living descendants.  That is, it is in no way an intermediary form between dogs and bears.

The author mentions “Cynoelesmus,” probably meaning Cynodesmus. My guess is this discrepancy comes from a poor cut-and-paste job, but although Cynodesmus was a primitive dog. It is not the ancestor of all living dogs. The ancestor of all living dogs was Leptocyon. Leptocyon was once considered part of Cynodesmus, but it is no longer.

The other two ancient creatures mentioned in the opening have nothing to do with bears or dogs.

“Daphoneus,” which refers to Daphoenus, a type of Amphicyonid. Amphicyonids were are really spectacular sister family to the canids, which had traits in common with both bears and dogs but really behaved more like big cats. This family has nothing to do with evolution of dogs, except that this is a sister lineage that went extinct.

Simocyon was actually something even a little bit cooler. It was not a dog. It was not a bear. It wasn’t even in the lineage of either family. Instead, it was a genus of leopard-sized animals much more closely related to the red panda. In case you were wondering, red pandas are not closely related to giant pandas. Giant pandas are actually a primitive form of bear. Red pandas are their own thing. Modern red pandas are the only species in their family known as Ailuridae. Millions of years ago, there were several species of red panda, and Simocyon was actually a large predatory red panda. Like the modern red panda, Simocyon had a thumb formed out of its sesamoid bone.  Giant pandas have this thumb, and it was thought to connect both modern species of panda.  Now, we know that the giant panda, which is a true bear, actually evolved its sesamoid thumb in parallel to the red panda. The red panda lineage evolved this trait so they could more easily climb in trees, while the giant panda evolved it to hold bamboo.

So that entire introduction to chow chow history is simply wrong. It may have been correct carnivoran paleontology at one point, but it also seems that the originators of this theory just went around looking for creatures that sounded like they might be fossil dogs that could be found in Asia.  “Cyon” does mean dog, but it doesn’t always refer to dogs in scientific names. Remember that there is a primitive whale the unfortunate name of “Basilosaurus,” which is in no way related to any lizard or dinosaur, and the raccoon family is called “Procyonids,” even though they aren’t that closely related to dogs.

Again, I don’t know why this theory is so popular, except that it can be used as a defense for breeding more and more bear-like features into chow chows than they had when they first came into the West. It’s also a way of making chows so much more super-special than the were before.

But it really makes chow fanciers look silly to anyone who has ever looked closely at carnivoran evolution.

It’s a fun story, but it’s not based in reality.

And when you get the paleontology this wrong, then virtually nothing of value can be trusted until the error is corrected.

Chows are cool as primitive dogs. They don’t need all the malarkey.




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Chow chows and shar-pei are from China.

Both have black tongues.

Both carry their tails over their backs.

Both are normally solid-colored.

And both can come in smooth and long coats– although long-coats (“bear coats”) are fault in shar-pei.

The truth is these dogs likely derive from a single landrace that is found throughout China. With this landrace, as with the landrace that includes the tazis, taigan, saluki, and Afghan hound types, there always was a bit natural variance and muddled fuzziness between types.

In the West, we like the concept of breed over landrace.

But that’s not how the dogs have existed in their native country.

The image above is a smooth-coated chow chow from 1904. I don’t know its source, but both Nara Uusihanni and Pai have this dog displayed in their historical dog photo collections.

The dog almost looks like a transitional form between chow chow and a “bonemouth” shar-pei.

Most Western show shar-pei don’t look very spitzy, but the truth is they really should always be classified as a type of East Asian spitz.

In the West, we’ve got ga-ga over wrinkles. These excessive wrinkles cause the dogs lots of health problems. The eyelids of puppies are often surgically tacked up to prevent severe entropion. In adult dogs, the skin of the eyelids may have to be removed to correct the condition.

And the wrinkles themselves are caused by the same gene that causes periodic fevers. The more wrinkles the dog has, the higher the risk for the fevers. The fevers are almost as much a trait of the breed as the wrinkles.

And although the fevers aren’t necessarily life-threatening, there is an ethical question about whether we should be breeding dogs that are so predisposed to them.

If we know that excessive wrinkling increases the chances of the fevers, should we be breeding for the wrinkling in the first place?

Shar-pei have been modified from the chow-type in order to have a better fighting dog. They do have looser skin than the typical chow, and this looser skin allows the dog to move around when another dog holds onto its hide, allowing it greater range of motion in  a fight.

But it is not ethical to breed dogs for fighting.

The shar-pei phenotype is a great historical legacy.

But it never existed independently of the greater chow chow-type landrace.

It’s very likely that there always were outcrosses to chow chows, even during the days of the dog fights.

A bear-coated shar-pei. Another transitional form.  

Our concept of “breed” in the West is one of the most blinding notions we’ve ever divined.

We put breeds into boxes. We declare them an “ancient” heritage, as if they always existed in a pure form.

The story of dogs– especially those from non-Western landraces– is much more complex.

There is a fuzziness and a blurriness that the modern dog fancy cannot handle.

It cannot comprehend it.

It conflicts with the blood purity dogma.

And it conflicts with the historical framework in which the breed clubs like to cast themselves.

Breed clubs really don’t do anything but capture a type that they happen to like and cull away what they don’t.

They never fully appreciate how a particular breed developed or how it really relates to others.

Much of the thought that goes on in dog breed clubs is a sort of “species-ization” of a particular breed.

The worship it as a phylogenetically distinct entity, when the truth is no dog breed is that distinct.

They’ve all developed with close cousins. “Foreign blood” has always trickled in.

It does not matter if the breed is Western or non-Western.

This concept of breed is very new, and even when it was first contrived, it was always fuzzy and muddled.

Too many dog people don’t want to understand these simple facts.

Much to the dogs’ detriment.


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Recreating defunct breeds and strains is an old obsession in the dog world.  The earliest historical record I can find of people trying to save and restore a breed occurred in the late eighteenth century, when the great “wolf-dogs” began to disappear. There was a mass scramble to find Irish wolfhounds in various parts of Ireland in order have a workable bloodline.

Of course, the Irish wolfhound was still around when it was decided to restore and preserve it. The same cannot be said for the ancient Eurasian spitz dog.

Before I begin even discussing the particulars of its reconstruction, I must make some points about the existence of this dog. The first of these is that there was probably no single ancient Eurasian spitz breed or even landrace from which all of these spitz-type dogs descend.

But it is something that makes a good romantic story.

The well-known zoologist Konrad Lorenz extolled he virtues of puppies resulting from a cross between his German shepherd dog and his chow bitch. This cross occurred when Lorenz was firmly pushing his since disproved theory that dogs were derived from two different species of wild dog. German shepherds and all of the other tractable dogs from Europe were believed to be derived primarily from golden jackals. The chow and the other extremely aloof yet extreme loyal breeds were believed to be derivatives of the wolf.

After the Second World War,  German named Julius Wipfel took in a dog that had been accompanying Canadian troops. The dog was named the Canadian, and it often conjectured that he was an actual Canadian Inuit dog or something like one. This dog made a very strong impression on Wipfel. He was very different from the typical Western European dogs he had known. He was intensely loyal and protective, but he was also very intelligent. When the Canadian died, he purchased a Wolfspitz (Keeshond) bitch.  Of course, she was nothing like the Canadian. She was a typical Keeshond, very friendly and quirky. (Wolfspitz is usually spelled “Wolfsspitz” in German. For my purposes, I’m dropping the possessive “s,” which looks weird in the English language.)

It was around this time that Wipfel read of Lorenz’s chow/shepherds, and he began to think. Now, this is always a dangerous thing. Wipfel had experienced life with a dog he believed to be a Canadian Inuit dog, and as is often the case, an experience with one profound dog can totally shape one’s understanding of what a dog or type of dog should be. His mind was also full of Lorenz’s dog theories.

And out of that melange of ideas, came the decision to breed the Wolfspitz with the Chow Chow. He tried to register his dogs as “wolf-chows,” but the chow and wolfspitz clubs refused.

He also got involved with Charlotte Baldamus, a woman who had become an expert in producing purebred poultry. Wipfel needed someone with practical experience to help him found his strain.

Baldamus was a follower of Robert Bakewell’s breeding philosophy. Breed “in and in” to establish desired characteristics in your line. However, after several generations of breeding “in and in,”  Wipfel was warned to add new blood. He consulted with a geneticist at the Institute for Breeding and Genetics of Domestic Animals at the University of Göttingen, who told him to find some new blood soon.

It was decided that the Samoyed would be the outcross. Although I can find no evidence that the Keeshond is related to the Samoyed, they are related in original utility. Both are originally derived from herders. The Keeshond’s ancestors were the German and Dutch farm spitz, which herded stock and killed vermin. The Samoyed’s ancestors were the dogs that helped the nomadic Samoyedic people herd reindeer. The dogs do have similar temperaments, although the Samoyed is more independent. They are both generally docile animal that are often recommended as family pets.

Of course, at that time, no one was recommending the chow-chow as family pet. They were bred in China for a variety of purposes, but the most infamous reason is that they were meant to be edible. The dogs bond very strongly to just a few people and are quite protective of their families. This breed has a reputation for aggression that has since subsided in recent years.

By adding Samoyed to the line, the Eurasier’s breeders were essentially choosing to create a more docile breed than the typical chow chow of that time period.

And it worked.

It was not long before this breed became relatively popular in the German-speaking world. The breed was popularized as being based upon the work of Konrad Lorenz, who was something of a celebrity and public intellectual. This connection was made stronger when Lorenz offered his words of support to the breeding program.

Today’s Eurasier is often recommended as a family pet. It is a docile, tractable dog that bonds very strongly with its family. Although Wipfel wanted to created a dog that was something like the Canadian, he actually created something new. The growing West German middle class had a new breed to purchase for their families.

Of course, the dog was sold as a recreation of something ancient. Supposedly, a dog with Samoyed, Chow, and Keeshond blood would be something like the ancient ancestor of all three– a breed that once roamed Eurasia with bands of nomads for thousands of years.

Wipfel also had designs on producing a line of sled dogs from his breeding program. After all, he believed the Canadian was a sled dog. However, I have not heard of any major sled dog teams that use Eurasiers or Eurasier crosses. Perhaps these exist in Europe, but I have not heard of any in North America.

But whatever Wipfel wanted, the Eurasier is now a family pet. It supposedly is like those dogs of yore that once followed nomads across the continent. However, it is really a dog that was developed to live one of Europe’s most densely populated countries. It is more at home in the suburbs of Berlin and Munich than roaming those ancient steppes and forests. It is as domesticated as we are.

(More on Eurasiers here)


Wipfel was inspired to create his breed after experiencing life with one dog and after reading some of Konrad Lorenz’s writings. I would like to say that those influences have no effect on me, but of course, I would be in denial.

I think a lot of what influences my views on golden retrievers is my experience with one field-line golden that was very driven and very smart.  She lived to retrieve. If she was called a golden retriever, that would be an understatement. There was no such thing as refusing to retrieve. The joy of doing so was reward enough for her.

She was also leggier in framed and darker in color than many goldens are today,  and she  possessed thinner features than one typically sees in show dogs. She was a brilliant animal, very easily trained and very well-versed in the vagaries both human and dog communication. I never once saw her fight another dog, but she did have her ways of getting them to do what she wanted. She also responded very quicky to both human words and body language.

In Lorenz’s formulation, she would have been an aureus dog, but I liked to think of her as a “golden wolf.”

I also have been influenced by the book Merle’s Door.  The dog in that book is a retriever cross of some sort, and his behavior is very similar to hers, with one notable exception. He doesn’t like to retrieve at all.  However, he relates to people, dogs, and other animals in much the same way as my first golden.

I suppose we dog people are always a bit influenced by romance and nostalgia. I think those influences are healthy, but they are only acceptable if they are sublimated to a simple understanding that the dog is an organism with it own needs for a healthy gene pool and its own “being presence.” I am not so sure we can call that “being presence” a mind, but it is a close approximation.

Dogs also exist within the cultural and economic conditions of their time period, which is why I don’t think we can recreate the St. John’s water dog and the Irish wolfhound probably isn’t the animal you want to use when you go to Alaska on a wolf hunt. The selective pressures that produced these animals disappear or are distorted once the exact conditions no longer exist.

I don’t think my romance and nostalgia would ever lead me to do what Julius Wipfel and his colleagues did. After all, that project cost a lot of money and took decades to perfect.

But I can’t say I’m not influenced by these same forces.

Dog people wouldn’t be much without some romance and nostalgia.

It’s just got to be kept in perspective.

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I would show chow chows:


I just love their gaits. They are the exact opposite of what you’d want in a working retriever. It’s this stilted, yet smooth and rolling gait.

The temperament of this breed is far better than it once was, and they have no specialized working instincts or abilities that can be ruined through breeding for the show ring.

They are just aloof creatures that bond really strongly with their people. The bond very strongly with only a few people.

I could see me showing these dogs.

However, I much prefer working dogs like retrievers and active herders.

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Chow-types in Hong Kong

Here’s a video that features some chow-type dogs in Hong Kong. These are the smooth coated version, which makes sense for Hong Kong’s climate. Ignore the black and white puppy at the beginning of the video. The dogs I’m talking about are at the end.

From holewisym.

The chow dogs have definitely changed as they have been developed in the West.

There are two smooth chows in that photo that are a bit different from the dog in the video.

There are two smooth chows in that photo that are a bit different from the dog in the video.

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