Chow Chow

By | Posted: Mon Nov 11 00:00:00 PST 2002

By Eve Adamson

Casey, a young red Chow Chow with an impressive ruff of fur and an even more impressive dose of self-confidence, leaned into his collar, dug his nails into the ground and pulled to the left. His owner, Vicki DeGruy, braced herself and held on to the leash. Unable to move her, Casey sat on the sidewalk near their Janesville, Wis., home and refused to budge. DeGruy would give a little slack on the leash. Off Casey would go in his direction. When DeGruy told him "No," he sat down again.

After a half-hour battle of wills without an inch of progress in either direction, DeGruy gave up and dragged Casey's 175 pounds of muscle and fur home. "He would have sat there all day if I would have let him," she said.

Some may call Chows stubborn, but this striking, blue-tongued breed comes by its strong will honestly. As a sporting dog of Chinese royalty, Chows needed independent minds and extreme self-confidence to match their proud owners'. "This breed is not emotionally dependent on people as most dogs are," DeGruy said. "You must earn his respect and his trust. He chooses to make you his [owner], and your relationship with him is based on mutual respect."

Chows often mystify their owners with their self-possession. "They truly don't act like people expect a dog to act," said Charlene Grayson, a breeder in Lakeside, Calif. "They are much more like a cat than a Labrador Retriever, and they are highly intelligent."

Foxie, a small black Chow belonging to Love Banghart, a breeder and judge in Santa Ana Heights, Calif., hunted groundhogs with breathtaking logic. "Most of the groundhogs had two or three holes in their tunnel system," Banghart said. "Foxie would take sticks and drop them down all but one of the holes, then she would stand by the third hole. When one of the sticks would move, she would know to run there and wait for the gopher to come up. It was almost eerie."

The Chow's excellent memory makes it a devoted companion. When Earl Palm was in failing health, his wife, Mae Palm of Helenville, Wis., brought home a Chow puppy named Bobby. "He spent a lot of time in his recliner holding Bobby on his lap and playing with him," Palm said. When Earl died, 6-month-old Bobby would sit by the recliner, occasionally peering over the arm, looking for him. Ten years later, Bobby still seems to remember. "He knows he's not allowed on the furniture, but he still jumps in that recliner now and then," Palm said.

Casey's mother, Kai, was exceptionally attached to her breeders even after coming to live with DeGruy. While in the yard for a potty break during labor, Kai suddenly dashed to the street, barking and wagging her tail. DeGruy didn't recognize the new car until Kai's breeders stepped out. "Everyone knows dogs can recognize the sound of their owners' cars, but she had never seen this car," said DeGruy, mystified at Kai's uncanny perception, especially mid-labor. "Somehow, from way down the street, she knew who it was."

Despite their loving, loyal natures, Chows have a reputation for being aggressive. "Probably the biggest surprise to a first-time Chow owner will be the amount of negativism they encounter from the public about their chosen dog," DeGruy said. As chair of the national Chow Chow Club's Welfare Committee, she receives countless e-mails from owners worried their friendly puppies will turn on them or attack the children.

DeGruy herself has encountered Chow prejudice. She took a puppy and an adult Chow to a shopping center so passersby could help her socialize the pup by petting the dogs. "A woman marched up to us and said, 'How dare you raise such vicious dogs!'" DeGruy said. "I was so shocked, I didn't know what to say."

The reputation of Chow viciousness may have started with its flat face - to some it looks as if the dog is scowling in anger. Their face also gives Chows tunnel vision - they see poorly above or to the sides - ma king sudden peripheral movements, such as a hand coming down to pet them, startling. To be safe, always approach a Chow from the front.

Unscrupulous breeders hoping to cash in on puppy sales during peaks in Chow popularity added to the problem by breeding without regard for temperament and creating aggressive dogs. Fortunately for the breed, it no longer ranks among the top 10 in American Kennel Club registrations - it was 52nd in numbers registered in 2001 - and breeders have made progress in eliminating aggressive dogs from breeding. When buying or adopting a Chow, ask to see the parents to make sure your pup comes from a line with good temperaments.

Because Chows are protective, owners must properly socialize and train puppies early. "It doesn't take a physically strong person, but it does take a strong-willed person to live with a Chow," said Mary Wuest of Mason, Ohio, who shows Chows and judges conformation. As soon as possible, begin to hold and gently pet your new puppy. Once it has received its first set of vaccinations, take it with you wherever possible to meet new people, especially children. Let people hold and pet your Chow, always under your supervision, and start training classes with other dogs and owners. "Your well-behaved Chow may not need much instruction, but the socialization alone is worth the effort," Wuest said.

The perfect dog for apartment living, Chows require little exercise. They are exceptionally clean, shed only twice a year, rarely bark and practically house train themselves. Naturally dignified, Chows rarely pester, fawn, jump on people, destroy furniture or soil indoors. "They have an inborn sense of good manners," Banghart said. "But if you want them to do obedience work, it takes patience because they are quickly bored with repetition."

Owners who keep their Chows motivated find this intelligent breed can excel in obedience. Several Chows have earned the UDX, or Utility Dog Excellent title, the highest obedience title.

Grooming may present the biggest challenge. Both long- and smooth-coated Chows require twice-weekly combing to prevent matting of the woolly undercoat and daily combing when shedding the fuzzy puppy coat and during the biannual shed. Fortunately, Chow hair tends to clump together, making after-grooming clean up easier. "You'll find balls of hair instead of single hairs everywhere," said Colleen Majkrzak, a breeder in Monticello, Minn.

A protective instinct makes the Chow an alert guard dog. "On their own ground, most strangers will be greeted by a fierce 'Who goes there?' bark," Banghart said. "A well-mannered Chow will shush and stand aside when its owner tells him."

One of the oldest known breeds, Chows have held nearly every known canine job - tracking, pointing, hunting, herding, guarding and pulling - during their history and some still excel in tracking or hunting. Whether the breed originated in China or developed from Arctic Circle dogs that migrated to Mongolia, Siberia and China more than 2,000 years ago, by the 7th century A.D., the T'ang emperor kept 2,500 Chows to accompany his 10,000 royal hunters.

The Chow first appeared outside China in the 1800s when trade ships took merchandise to the West. European traders referred to the merchandise as "Chow-Chow," slang referring to all things Chinese. The name stuck.

Because the breed originated so long ago, the source of its distinctive look is impossible to ascertain. Some believe the Chow resulted from a cross between Mastiff-type and Spitz-type dogs. Others think the Chow is the ancestor of the modern Spitz dogs such as the Samoyed, Norwegian Elkhound, Pomeranian, and Keeshond.

Whatever its heritage, the Chow is a spectacular and beautiful animal particularly suited to the show ring. Its lion-like coat and mane-like ruff (more pronounced in males) impresses in any of the five colors - red, black, blue, cinnamon or cream.

While gen erally healthy, hip dysplasia remains a problem. Puppy buyers should request proof the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals has certified the parents free of the disease. They should also look for puppies and parents with bright, clean eyes to avoid entropion, a genetic condition in which the eyelashes turn inwards causing symptoms from mild discomfort to blindness. Other concerns include skin disorders, thyroid problems and a particular sensitivity to anesthesia.

Flat faces and heavy coats make Chows susceptible to heatstroke, especially during periods of high humidity. Because heatstroke can be fatal, owners must avoid strenuous activity and make sure their dog has access to fresh water and air conditioning in warm weather. "Chows are not for someone who wants to go jogging on the beach or mountain climbing or Frisbee playing," Banghart said.

However, for those willing to take on a Chow's training, socialization, grooming and health needs, no pet can quite equal the breed in loyalty and dedication to family. People loved by a Chow say that love resembles no other - an enduring, to-the-death devotion. "They aren't overly demonstrative dogs," Wuest said. "If I get a tail wag when I come home, I consider myself lucky. Their attitude is that we should be very happy they are there." Indeed, we are.

Eve Adamson is a free-lance writer in Iowa City, Iowa.


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