Shar pei breed history, the highlights

A Han dynasty pottery fragment shows a wrinkly dog that may be a Shar Pei. Although the origins are unclear, the Shar Pei seems to have descended from Chow Chows. Shar Peis became the “must have” dog of the 1980’s because of their looks. However, their history shows they are bred to be aggressive attack dogs (being mostly aggressive to other dogs). A Hong Kong businessman rescued many Shar Peis and exported them to Western countries. However, due to health problems and a small gene pool, perhaps this breed should be left to history.

The name Shar Pei roughly translates into English as sand-skin. The Shar Pei does have a rough skin and tough coat. Everything about this breed is tough – its personality, its physical strength and especially its history. For centuries Shar Peis were strictly Chinese. They were not allowed outside of the borders. The first Shar Pei did not reach Western shores until 1966.

There is no consensus among Shar Pei information sources where in China the breed originated. Tradition indicates the small village of Tai Lai in Southern China as the home of the Shar Pei breed. They are most likely mutations from Chow Chow crosses that were line bred or inbred in order to emphasis their mutations, most notably of the loose skin and the abundance of wrinkles. Pottery and statues of wrinkled dogs from the Han dynasty (ca 200 BCE) have been discovered. The first written reference to a wrinkled dog was in a 13th century Chinese manuscript.

Many Westerners were entranced by the Shar Pei’s incredibly wrinkled look. They were so ugly, they were cute, was the general consensus. But the history of the Shar Pei clearly shows that these are not dogs to sit placidly at the feet of yuppie owners. These are strong dogs in all respects – strong in body and strong in their wills. First they protected livestock and the farmer’s family from human and animal predators, and then they became the dog of Chinese dog fighting pits.

Although it was great for China to outlaw dog fighting during the Cultural Revolution, they also outlawed the dogs. It is estimated that most of the genetic pool of Shar Peis were slaughtered. China has recently changed its mind about the necessity of the Cultural Revolution and now allows many Chinese practices once outlawed. Sadly, it is thought that dog fighting has since resumed in China.

Today, the Shar Pei is bred to be a companion and show dog, although they do often work as guard dogs and sometimes farm dogs. It is now known that they need special consistent training from puppyhood in order to be socially acceptable canines. It is harder, but training a Shar Pei is possible. However, only those experienced in training and living with large, active dogs like Rottweilers or Boxers should attempt to take on a Shar Pei.

Shar Peis were bred to be independent – not to be team players. The life of a fighting dog is especially harsh, so a certain stoic fortitude has had to keep the Shar Pei alive to this time where it can now socialize with others. Getting and keeping a dog’s attention is crucial for training, and with a Shar Pei, this is an uphill battle. But some Shar Peis have won the American Kennel Club’s Good Canine Citizen certificate, which is hard to get.