The Origins Of The Chow Chow


Over 2000 or 3,000 years ago, the Chow Chow dog breed first came into existence. It is recognized as the most ancient breed in the world, dating farther back than the 11th century in China. In fact, historians believe that this breed originated in China, and a special reference is always made of the Chow Chow escorting the Tartars when they attacked China.

Then, there are those historians who speculate that this breed originated in the Arctic Circle and then migrated to Mongolia, Siberia and China. Of course, today we know that this breed is a native of Mongolia and Tibet.

In China, however, he was the watchdog of the entire household, and a prized possession to such an extent that Chinese emperors kept 200 Chow Chows for use while hunting. In fact, Chinese authors point out that the Pekingese, Shih Tzus and Lhasas were considered the “Royal Dogs of China,” while the humble and hardy Chow Chow was used solely for hunting.

But in the days before the Chinese took to firearms for hunting, they used Chow Chows as retrievers, pointers and sled dogs. This breed can also be seen sculpted on ancient Chinese pottery and sculptures belonging to the Hun dynasty (206 B.C. until 22 A.D.).

All said and done, the real and true origin of the breed remains unknown. While there are those who believe its earliest ancestor is the ancient Mastiff-type dog that was crossed with Spitz types, still others believe that the Chow Chow is but the ancestor of the modern Spitz, Akita and Shar-Pei.

No matter what its history really is, this thickly coated dog was first bred to be a working dog, capable of surviving the severe Arctic cold. At first, fierce Mongolian tribes kept this breed as hunting and guard dogs, while also using it for its meat and fur. The Chow Chow says that the name Chow Chow means “edible dog of China.”

Would you believe that there are actually two different theories relating to the origin of this breed’s name? First, Chow Chow or ‘chou’ is Chinese slang for edible. This connects well with the fact that the Mongolians and Chinese ate this dog’s meat.

Historians assert that the Chinese and Koreans specially bred these dogs as an epicurean delight, a delicacy to be enjoyed, particularly the smooth-coated dog variety. In 1878, a British historian, whose specialization was Chinese history, claimed to have found 25 restaurants in Canton serving Chow Chow meat on the menu.

Though the Chow Chow originated in northern China, most of this breed was found in Canton, south China, where the local people called him the ‘black mouthed dog’ since he really did have a very dark blue-black tongue. Despite this, the Chow Chow was a very popular and well-loved breed and history tells us that Genghis Khan had a kennel of 5000 Chow Chows which he took into battle around 700 B. C.

In earlier times, Chow Chows were used as guard dogs in monasteries, besides also being herding and sled dogs. Their meat was also eaten in China until in 1915, the Chinese government enacted a law banning the purchase and sale of Chow Chow meat.

The breed was saved from extinction when, after the cultural revolution in China, they were smuggled out of the country by sailors since the revolution had declared them so useless that they ought to be destroyed.

This apart, in the 13th century, Marco Polo had described the Chow Chow, pointing to the fact that they were common in those days too.

In time, this name slipped into easy everyday parlance to mean food in English. It also referred to the cargoes of spices and mixed pickles from China and it was also taken for a spicy pickle relish.

The second theory, though not logical, is still plausible. Chow Chow in the early 1800s, referred to clipper ships that sailed from China to England and brought back an assortment of cargo.

When they reached a particular port, they had to describe the contents of their cargo. Since they carried an assortment of goods, the term Chow Chow was coined, meaning knick-knacks or bric-a-brac. When the dogs became part of the ship’s cargo, the name extended to them too.

But returning to the dog breed, the first of the breed made its appearance in England in the late 19th century and grew popular when Queen Elizabeth took a shine to it. In fact, it was given this name because it had been housed in the ship’s chow chow hold all along the long voyage. After finally arriving in the United States in early 1900, the Chow Chow was quickly accepted into the American Kennel Club in 1903 as a member of the non-sporting group.

However, the breed with a regal air that we know it as today is really the result of how it was treated in England and the United States— far cry from being a hardy working dog in China and Mongolia. Over the years, the Chow Chow has evolved to be a medium sized dog and is now seen as a popular American dog. 

Please note: This article is part of a collection of dog-related content that we purchased the rights to. Opinions expressed may or may not agree with those espoused by Master Dog Trainer Adam G. Katz. When in doubt, please refer to the advice given in Adam’s dog training book.  This article is provided for your enjoyment, only. It’s relevance to real world working dog training may be limited.