The Fascinating ‘Edible Dog’ · The Chow Chow
By Lee Connor
Isn’t it incredible how early childhood experiences go on to shape and color our lives? A vivid recollection of mine is visiting the home of a dear friend of my mother’s and discovering in the garden the strangest and most wonderful looking creature I had ever seen. I was introduced to Tao and told that he was a dog from China. A dog…really? He didn’t look like any dog I’d ever seen before and certainly didn’t behave like the dogs we had at home. Tao didn’t rush excitedly around when we entered the garden, he didn’t bark and he most definitely didn’t want to be patted or hugged. In fact he wasn’t remotely dog-like. To my childish mind, with his richly-colored red fur, he looked for all the world like a lion or possibly…a bear!
And then he did something that my mother recalls left me completely spellbound – he yawned.
The adults rocked with laughter as confused furrows appeared on my brow.
This ‘dog’ had a blue-colored tongue and mouth!
This was my first introduction to the unique Chow Chow – a breed that has intrigued me ever since. It’s an unwritten rule among cynologists to prove the antiquity of any chosen breed. Look at any breed handbook and you will often find the first chapter devoted to ‘breed history’ and the claim will be made that the breed’s roots extend right back to the earliest times. On so many occasions, after careful scrutiny the accounts, references and descriptions prove to be of doubtful accuracy, but this aloof breed really can lay claim to quite an impressive antiquity.
In a book, ‘Chinese Pottery of the Han Dynasty’, by Berthold Laufer, there is an illustration of a dog in green glazeware that is undeniably a Chow, despite being wrongly labeled as a Tibetan Mastiff. Now I am always wary when presented with early carvings and models and attributing them to specific breeds but there is no mistaking the unique conformation of the Chow, especially the very straight hocks, which are splendidly represented on this pottery dog.
So, it appears that Chow-like dogs have been known in China for thousands of years but when did this mysteriously charismatic oriental first make its appearance in the West?
Unusually for any breed of dog it is quite easy to give an arbitrary date of the Chow Chow’s arrival into Great Britain because noted naturalist, Gilbert White, obviously thought the breed was worthy (or unusual) enough to be recorded in his famed, ‘Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne’ first published in 1789. It refers to a pair of dogs belonging to his neighbor that had arrived from Canton.
The Chows of 1789 are described by Gilbert White as being:
‘About the size of a moderate spaniel, of a pale yellow colour, with course bristling hair on their backs, sharp up-right ears, and peaked heads, which give them a very fox like appearance. Their hind legs are unusually straight, without any bend at the hock, or ham, to such a degree as to give them an awkward gait when they trot. When they are in motion, their tails are curved high over their backs like those of some hounds, and they have a bare place each on the outside from the tip midway, that does not seem to be a matter of accident, but somewhat singular. Their eyes are jet black, small, and piercing; the inside of their lips and mouths of the same colour, and their tongues blue. The bitch has a dew claw on each hind leg, the dog has none. When taken out into the field, the bitch showed some disposition for hunting, and dwelt on the scent of a covey of partridges till she sprung them, giving her tongue all the while. These bark much in a short manner, like foxes and have a surly, savage demeanour like their ancestors which are not domesticated, but bred up in sties, where they are fed for the table with rice meal and other farinaceous foods. These dogs, having been taken on board as soon as weaned, could not have learned much from their dam; yet they did not relish flesh when they came to England.’
The above description is amazingly detailed and what is even more fascinating is how the same characteristics we look for today (as defining the Chow) are the very same ones noticed by this famous naturalist over two-hundred years ago.
It is fifty years before we hear of the arrival of another pair of Chow Chow…this time in America.
The American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine, recorded the following item;
To the Editor of the Turf Register from the Pacific by Mr. Slacum of the Navy – a pair of ‘Chinese Edible Dogs’.
N.B.- They will not be eaten until the breed has been secured for the country, though Purser Slacum, after feasting on them often, assures us they are very fine.’
There are no records of either pair producing young and there follows a short blank in Chow history until the Victorian times when the Chow Chow resurfaces in Victorian England. Queen Victoria kept a Chow in her kennels at Windsor. However, like a number of her more unusual dogs, it appears that this Chow was kept more as an interesting foreign curiosity than a domestic pet. Chows were also to be seen in the London Zoo, exhibited alongside Dingoes and Coyotes. There was also a bitch, called ‘Chinese Puzzle’ who was described and exhibited as a ‘genuine Edible Dog of China’ and she is generally accepted as the first Chow Chow to be shown in Britain…entered into the ‘foreign Class’ at the Crystal Palace Show of 1880.
The orthodox colors at the time were dark red and jet black yet other colors were creeping in and the late nineteenth century dog writer, Rawdon B. Lee, recalls an interesting article in a shooting and hunting magazine which speaks of the arrival of early cream Chows and the development in puppies of that defining Chow trait, the blue tongue.
‘A writer in the ‘Field’ some time ago said that white specimens were not uncommon, and he described these Chow-chows as useless excepting as guards or watch dogs, and said they were great cowards. It may be interesting to mention that many years since, a well-known breeder and judge of Scottish Terriers, residing in Scotland, was good enough to tell me of a pair of puppies which had just arrived by vessel and which were supposed to be Esquimaux dogs. I decided to buy them, but on arrival I saw they were crossed with something, and on examining their mouths was satisfied there was Chinese blood in them. These puppies were a very light fawn. When old enough I mated them to a black dog of my own. In due course she presented me with five puppies, all jet black, but my disappointment was great on finding that not one of them possessed the special feature of the breed – a black, or rather blue-black, tongue. My first impulse was to destroy the litter, but fortunately I did not adopt this course of action, as in a short time I observed dark spots appearing, which gradually increased in size until the whole tongue was the correct colour.’
Then, of course, there is the rather curious tale of the ‘wolf-colored Chow Chow’, Mr. Bosco II. His owner put his color down as ‘Tan, with black markings.’ He was duly registered and shown. However at one particular show he was sent out of the ring on the grounds that his color was a fault. Later in a letter addressed to the secretary of the L.K.A. show, the judge added his opinion that Mr. Bosco II possessed, ‘certain qualities which are not characteristic of a Chow, but which are so of a different breed.’
The Chow Chow Club was appealed but it decided that Mr. Bosco II, not being whole colored, was not eligible for show.
In 1896, the first Challenge Certificates were issued for the breed and surprisingly enough they were both won by Blues!
This appears rather strange as the early writers all seem in agreement that Blues were not sought after and in fact there is one story of an early breeder, who, on discovering three odd slate-colored puppies in her litter, believed them to be mongrels, and promptly drowned them! However, it wasn’t long until the reds quickly came to the fore and by 1907, Mrs. B.F. Moore (owner of the Hildewell Chow Kennel) wistfully claimed (possibly because of the furor caused by the Mr Bosco II scandal) that:
‘Modern judges will not look twice at a light or parti-coloured dog, and I fear that if even Ch. Chow VIII could revisit the scenes of his by-gone triumphs, his beautiful light markings would prove a fatal bar to his success. The judges of course would be quite wrong, but if you want a dog for show you must be sure to get a good whole coloured dark red. If on the other hand, you have a Chow as a companion and friend, do not be at all troubled if his ruff, culottes and tail are white or cream coloured. These are natural, correct and typical marks though present day fanciers are trying to ‘improve’ them away.’
I am particularly fascinated by how and why certain colors (and I am talking of those colors recognized from a breeds earliest days) ebb and flow in popularity. This strikes a note with me as I own the only Standard-smooth Dappled Dachshund in Britain – a color that has had a remarkable fall from grace and, just like the Blue, Black and Cream Chow Chow, was left trailing in the wake of its more successful Red brothers and sisters.
The early 1900s was dominated by the rather aptly named, ‘Red Craze’. He was described as an intensely rich, self-red cobby dog with the obligatory scowl and small black eyes. He reportedly (in his day) won more CC’s of any dog of any breed.
And from 1907 onwards began a Chow Chow exodus to the USA. American breeders were most anxious to buy up the best English-bred Chows and by 1924 there were only four champion male Chows left in Britain!
Around this time Mr. J.T. Hartwell’s, ‘Kang Shi’ kennels were at their peak and were the first port of call for the discerning American Chow-buying public. Mr. Hartwell proudly claimed that he had sent more Chows to America than all the other UK kennels put together and he was quite right in his boast; however surely the most famous kennel name linked to the American exports has to be ‘Choonam.’
Mrs. Mannooch established the Choonam kennel in the early 1920s and within the space of three short years made history by breeding Choonam Brilliantine and Choonam Brilliantina in one litter, both of which became champions in six months.
Renowned canine author Arthur Croxton-Smith was at Crufts, 1925, when he was asked to look at a wonderful Chow puppy. He was so impressed by the pup that he wrote about it in his account of the show:
‘Another significant feature was the imposing array of Chow Chows, the occasion of an unusual entry being very properly signalised by the appearance of a new luminary that excited the envy of all beholders. One cannot avoid superlatives in speaking of Mrs. Mannooch’s Choonam Brilliantine, a gorgeous red puppy that recalls all the glories of the past. He is the sort that gladdens the heart of a judge, who realises instinctively that there is going to be neither hesitation nor doubt about the destination of the Challenge Certificate.’
And that was the beginning of a career as brief (so far as England was concerned) as it was startling. He quickly won his title and within a few months of his appearance in the ring he was sold to Mrs. Earl Hoover in America for the then-record price of £2,000. His career in the States was as splendid as his short one in England and this legendary Chow went on to become the sire of at least fifteen champions. So, although ‘English-bred’ surely this Chow deserves his place in the Pantheon of American greats standing alongside the likes of the Standard-smooth Dachshund, Ch. Herman Rinkton and the Boston, Ch. Million Dollar Kid Boots.
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