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Home > Dogs > What Were Chow Chows Bred For? History of the Chow Chow

What Were Chow Chows Bred For? History of the Chow Chow

chow chow on a retro vintage background

The Chow Chow breed is a fascinating one with their blue tongues, lion-like manes, and scrunched-up faces. Even more fascinating is their history, with one so long that it surpasses many other dog breeds. The Chow Chow, or “Chow” for short, is a basal breed that originated in Northern China. They have been used for several different tasks, such as hunting, sledding, herding, and guarding. Their fur has been used for warmth, and their meat has been used as a food source. However, with such a long history to this breed, and few documents to confirm exactly how they came to be, there are debates about its origin.

If your interest has been sparked, keep reading because we’ve got a lot more to tell you about Chow Chow’s history, what they were bred for, and other fascinating information you’ve probably never heard before.

divider-paw Where do Chow Chows Come From?

Some researchers date the Chow Chow’s ancestors right back to the Miocene period—a couple of million years ago. Harder evidence, through a bas-relief carving, suggests that this breed was roaming the country of China around 2,000 years ago as a hunting dog.

Another theory is that the Chow Chow came from Arctic Asia 3,000 years ago and ended up in China around 2,000 years ago.

chow chow puppy lying outdoor
Image By: karygrabovski, Pixabay

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The Chow Chow Breed Over the Years

206 B.C. to 220 A.D.

We know for a fact that the Chow Chow breed was around during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.) due to paintings on pottery and ceramic models of the breed. During this time, the breed looked a bit different but had the same key features they have today, making them identifiable. They were used as guard dogs, watching over their owners’ possessions and livestock. They were also used to guard temples.

During this era, Chow Chows were still used as hunting dogs, strong and brave enough to attack wild animals such as wolves and leopards.

618 to 906 A.D.

During the Tang Dynasty (618 to 906 A.D.), one of the emperors took on such a fancy to the breed that he housed 5,000 chow chows and had an even great number of staff to maintain them and hunt with them. They were popular in China during this era and were even called the “Tang Quan” (Dog of the Tang Empire).

chow chow walking through woods
Image By: Łukasz Rawa, Unsplash

The Late 1200s

The next exciting piece of evidence we have about Chow Chows was documented by the great explorer Marco Polo, who lived between 1254 and 1324 A.D. He reached China in 1275 and continued to stay in the country for 17 years. It would’ve been during these years that we saw and wrote about Chow Chows being used to pull sleds in the snow, guard, and herd livestock. He also experienced the breeding of Chow Chows to be eaten.

The 1700s

The 1700s was a pivotal period for the Chow Chow breed. English sailors started traveling to China and brought back many goods to sell in their own country. In 1781, the first Chow Chow was bought and brought into England for the first time, changing the breed’s course of history. They were kept in the zoo and gained a lot of attention until they were finally bred as house pets.

Interestingly, another reliable piece of documentation relating to Chow Chows was written by Reverend Gilbert White. He wrote a letter to Daines Barrington in the 1780s where he describes the Chow Chow that we know today, with only a few differences. He also wrote about how the breed was fattened up on rice by the Chinese for the purpose of eating with rice and used to pull snow-sleds, backing up Marco Polo’s witness reports.

chow chow_VKarlov_Shutterstock
Image By: VKarlov, Shutterstock

The 1800s

Things really started to take off in England for the Chow Chow breed in the 1800s when Queen Victoria was given a Chow Chow as a pet, from China, in 1865. Of course, everyone wants to be like the queen, and many dog lovers got their hands on their very own Chow Chow.

Lord Hugh, Earl of Honsdale, owned a Chinese Chow Chow and showed it to Lady Granville Gordon. She took such an interest in it that she imported her own Chow Chow and started breeding the breed in England. Her daughter also took on a passion for the breed and became the top Chow Chow breeder in the country. Eventually, with the increase in their popularity and numbers, the first Chow Chow club was formed in 1895.

The 1900s

The hype around Chow Chows eventually caught the attention of other countries and continents, including North America. President Calvin Coolidge got his hands on two Chow Chows in the 1900s, and they stayed with him in the White House.

Due to all the interest in this breed and its growing popularity in America, the Chow Chow Club of America started up in 1906, after becoming recognized by the AKC in 1903.

two chow chow dogs running on grass
Image By: Bianca Grueneberg, Shutterstock

Chow Chows Today

Although not as popular as their position of “6th most popular dog breed in America”, in 1980, Chow Chows are still a much-loved breed today, now ranking in at the 84th most popular dog breed, according to the AKC.

Chow Chows today are appreciated for being excellent watchdogs that are affectionate and loyal. In China, they were bred to work and serve their people, and they still instinctively have that in them, making them great hunting companions and running buddies.

Although often seen with a red coat, they do have a range of colors within the breed, with some coats being black, blue, cinnamon, or cream.

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How The Chow Chow Got Its Name

Just like there are multiple theories surrounding Chow Chow’s origin, there are several theories surrounding the origin of their name. Although the Chow Chow originates from China, their name does not, or at least, that’s one theory.

In Chinese, “Chow Chow” is Sōng shī quǎn. However, the breed has various Chinese names. Many of them are based on features of the breed or other animals that they resemble. Some of these names are:

  • Lang gou, meaning “wolf dog.”
  • Xiang gou, meaning “bear dog.”
  • Guangdong gou, which means “dog of Canton.”
  • Hei shi-tou, meaning “black-tongued dog.”

Some researchers believe that their name did start in China, with them being called “Chou.” Chou refers to “edible” in Chinese slang. It’s believed that because this breed was used as a food source for some Chinese people, they referred to them with this name. English sailors may have heard them being called Chou and evidently called them “Chow.”

The most likely theory is that they were given the name Chow Chow by the English sailors. Throughout the 1800s, the sailors would collect bits and pieces from the far East to take back to their country to sell. They called these knick-knacks “Chow Chow,” and when they brought the Chinese dogs back, the name stuck.

chow chow dog in the grass
Image By: Flower_Garden, Shutterstock

How Chow Chows Have Changed Over the Years

We know from the sculptures that were created during the Han Dynasty from 206 B.C. to 220 A.D. that the Chow Chow had a square-ish body, ears that stood straight up, mane-like hair around their neck, and a curled tail that went over its back.

Looking at Reverend Gilbert White’s description of this breed written in the 1700s, it closely matches the sculptures from the Han Dynasty Era. In Rev. White’s letter, he describes them as having “sharp upright ears” and that “their tails are curved high over their backs.” He also notes that they have straight hind legs and blue tongues.

It’s believed that Chow Chows weigh about 25 pounds more than they used to and have more wrinkled faces. However, apart from those minor features, they haven’t changed much in the past few centuries.

divider-paw Conclusion

Chow Chows are one of the few oldest breeds still living in the world today. Their true origin isn’t known, but there are several theories. However, the first strong pieces of evidence of this breed were found in the form of sculptures and paintings created over 2,000 years ago in China. Since then, they’ve been described in history by Marco Polo, Reverend Gilbert White, and several other recognized people.

With a history so long, this breed has been through it all, from the highs to the lows. Chow Chows were bred for hunting, guarding, hauling, and herding. They’ve been alongside warriors in battle and next to royalty. However, they have also been bred for their meat for consumption and their fur to be used in clothing.


Featured Image Credit: dezy, Shutterstock

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