These Cuddly Lapdogs Were Once Used as Stealth Weapons

For Year of the Dog, we look into the origins of East Asian dog breeds—including the surprisingly ferocious Pekingese.

This is the Year of the Dog, according to the Chinese Zodiac, and in the holiday spirit we decided to sniff out the facts on some canine breeds native to China.

Here are a few "pekes" into some special breeds that originated in East Asia.

Lion Dogs

Some well-known East Asian breeds include the chow chow, the Chinese shar-pei, and the Tibetan mastiff.

These breeds likely had a common East Asian ancestor about 20,000 years ago, John Bradshaw, animal behaviorist at the U.K.'s University of Bristol, says via email. (Read why dogs are so friendly.)

The chow chow and the shar-pei belong to the spitz group. Spitzes, heavy-coated dogs with tails that flop over their backs, are the only dogs in the world with blue-black tongues.

Both chows and shar-peis are popular pets worldwide—the former for their leonine appearance, the latter for their charismatic wrinkles. Shar-pei literally means "sand skin," a reference to the dogs' short, rough coats. (Related: "Why Are Elephants and Other Animals So Wrinkly?")

Chows were historically used as hunting dogs, while shar-peis were all-around workers that hunted, herded, and guarded their homes. Both breeds were depicted in ancient artwork—chows appear in a sculpture dating to the Han Dynasty, circa 150 B.C.

Tibetan mastiffs are heftier than shar-peis and chows, with males weighing up to 160 pounds. Researchers in China recently revealed these double-coated canines to be closely related to the Labrador retriever, a North American breed.

Fit For Kings

The royally adorable pug was an imperial favorite as far back as the first century B.C.

"The theory is that the pug was one of the earliest Asian breeds to be exported from China" to Europe, says James Serpell, professor of animal ethics and welfare at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

"There are quite early paintings of pugs from 17th- and 18th-century Dutch masters, suggesting the Dutch brought these little dogs from Asia and then crossed them with local breeds," Serpell says.

Dog breeds have long been hybridized—think Labradoodle—and in the 19th century, "dog breeding became a fashionable middle-class hobby" in Europe, he says.

As a result, many Asian and European toy dogs share pug genesBrussels griffons, for example, resemble pugs with facial hair.

Furbabies

Other small East Asian breeds like the Lhasa apso, Shih tzu, and Pekingese "are derived from small, flat-faced dogs that were bred as companions in China some 5,000 years ago," Bradshaw says.

Pekingese were bred as "an ornamental accessory for emperors and courtiers in the Forbidden City of imperial China," according to the Pekingese Club of America.

After her first capybara died of liver failure, Melanie Typaldos bought Garibaldi Rous. The Texan was attracted to the giant rodents, which tend to die in captivity, after seeing wild ones in Venezuela.
After her first capybara died of liver failure, Melanie Typaldos bought Garibaldi Rous. The Texan was attracted to the giant rodents, which tend to die in captivity, after seeing wild ones in Venezuela.
Photograph by Vincent J. Musi, Nat Geo Image Collection

The smallest and most ferocious dogs were called "sleeves" because royalty would tote the canines in their garments' roomy sleeves. Serving as an "ancient Chinese version of mace," the dogs would scare off anyone threatening the courtiers, according to the club.

In modern-day, Pekingese and shih tzus tend to be very dependent on their owners, likely triggering our nurturing instincts, Serpell says. That's why these breeds so often function as substitutes or replacements for children. (Read why dogs are even more like us than we thought.)

I can vouch for this: As an empty nester, my mom got an adorable, ever-present Pekingese which she often hand-fed.

Being replaced by someone younger and cuter? Check.

Have a question about the weird and wild world? Tweet me or find me on Facebook. Weird Animal Question of the Week answers your questions every Saturday.

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