The origin of the Chinese Shar-Pei can be traced to the province of Guangdong and has existed for centuries in the southern provinces of China. These dogs helped their peasant masters with various tasks, such as herding cattle and guarding the home and family, and have proven themselves to be qualified hunters of wild game—usually wild pigs—and, of course, they were used for generations as fighting dogs by the Chinese nobility, although the practice became rarer after the communist revolution, when such activities were seen as the preserve of the decadent classes.
Geneticists have shown that the Shar-Pei is one of four breeds that all dogs have as their ancestor. By mapping subtle differences in each breed’s genes, searching for patterns of relationships and designing a tree to fit them, they could finally gain insight into this marvel of evolutionary engineering. In 2004, the foundational analysis of purebred dog genetics was published in Science Genetic Structure. The resulting tree was profoundly asymmetrical. After wolves, just four groups sat its base: Asia’s shar-pei, along with shiba inu, akita and chow chow; central Africa’s basenji; malamutes from the Arctic, along with Siberian huskies and samoyeds; and from the Middle East, Afghan hounds and salukis.
It was believed in ancient times that the dark mouth of the Chow-Chow, exposed when barking, helped to ward off evil spirits. Shar-Pei, when translated, means “sand skin”. This uniquely rough, loose, prickly coat enabled the Shar-Pei to wriggle out of its opponent’s grasp while fighting in the dog pits. When stroked against the grain, the coat may be abrasive, producing a burning, itching sensation. The tail is carried over the back on either side, exposing the anus. The first tail set is a tightly curled tail, a “coin” tail. The second tail set is the loose curl, and the third is carried in an arch over the back. Any Shar-Pei with its tail sticking out straight or between its legs was thought to be cowardly. The tail should connote bravery.
According to old-time dog-fighting fanciers, when a dog’s toes were slightly turned out as the body was viewed head-on, it was thought to help the dog with balance. The Chinese crawling dragon with its feet pointed east and west was considered a sign of strength. Because of poor breeding practices, many of the Shar-Pei have bad fronts. A dog with straight forelegs is correct.
Incidentally, Western breeders maintain that any dog in China that protects property is called a fighting dog, whereas in Canada and the United States, they are referred to as guard dogs. This is still a moot point. Up until the introduction of Breed Specific Legislation, designed to target breeds alleged to be “more likely” to attack and largely aimed at criminalising the American Pit Bull Terrier, the Shar-Pei was regarded as a breed designed, bred and selected for dog fighting. After the introduction of various Breed Specific Legislation, many breeders started to deny the fighting ancestry and concocted fanciful tales of a hunting heritage. It is worth mentioning that the Chinese and Taiwanese still regard the Shar-Pei as a dog-fighting breed, although the prohibitive cost of the breed has done much to discourage such abuse.
Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China as a communist nation, the dog population was virtually wiped out. If not for the efforts of Matgo Law of Hong Kong, the Shar-Pei would not be here today. Due to his dedication to the breed, a small number of Shar-Pei were brought to the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1974, American and Canadian fanciers answered Matgo’s appeal for help, and, in 1976, the first Shar-Pei was registered. The foundation stock brought over from Hong Kong were of poorer quality than the Shar-Pei we see today. In August 1991, the Shar-Pei officially completed the requirements for recognition by the American Kennel Club and was placed in the Non-Sporting Group. In 1992, the Canadian Kennel Club also officially recognized and grouped the Shar-Pei in group 6, Non-Sporting events. Since that time, several Shar-Pei are now and are continuing to become CKC and AKC champions.
Over 100,000 Shar Pei exist in the United States. This unique breed is also recognized by the FCI, HKKC, and the CSPCGB. The CSPCGB operates independently, receiving no input or influence from the Kennel Club FCI recognizes the HKKC standard, which is based on the traditional type, and not the AKC’s Western modified type at this time, as per its general policy of using the standard from the country of the breed’s origin.
Small, triangular ears, a muzzle shaped like that of a hippopotamus, and a high-set tail also give the Shar Pei a unique look. For show standard, “the tail is thick and round at the base, tapering to a fine point” (AKC standard February 28, 1998).
Western Shar Pei come in many different colors, such as fawn, red (rose), sand, cream, black, lilac and blue. They resemble the Chow Chow due to having the same blue-black tongue. There are over sixteen recognized colors in AKC. The coat must be solid in color, and any Shar-Pei with a “flowered coat” (spotted) or black and tan in coloration (i.e. German Shepherd) is a disqualification. Colors include black, cream, fawn, red-fawn, red, sable, apricot, chocolate, isabella, and blue. The nose may be black or brick (pink with black), with or without a Black mask. A Shar-Pei can also have what is called a “dilute” coloration. Meaning the nose, nails and anus of the dog is the same color as the coat, (i.e. chocolate coat with chocolate nose, nails and anus). All of these color variations are acceptable and beautiful, but the coat color must be solid and well blended throughout the whole body of the dog.
Western Shar Pei comes in three different coat types: horse, brush and bear coat. The unusual horse coat is rough to the touch, extremely prickly and off-standing and is closer to the original traditional Shar Pei breed in appearance and coat type than the brush or bear coat. This coat is fairly prickly and can be rough or irritating when petting in the opposite direction of the fur. The horse coat is generally thought to be more active and predisposed to dominant behaviour than the brush coat. The brush-coated variety have slightly longer hair and a smoother feel to them. The brush coat is generally considered to be more of a “couch potato” than the horse coat.
Unlike the two coat types above, the bear coat does not meet breed standards and, therefore, cannot be shown. The coat is so much longer than the brush and horse coats that, in most cases, one can not see the famous wrinkles. A bear coat can occur in any litter. Bearcoats are not due to the addition of other breeds, Bearcoats were actually the Elite part of the breed owned mostly by wealthy aristocrats in China prior to Mao’s cultural revolution and the first to be exterminated by the regime for being considered bourgeois. “Sand Skin” or Short haired examples of the breed were owned by the peasant class, and were the only survivors of the extermination by the government, but fortunately the Bearcoat gene was present in most horse coats. These short haired versions were used for working dogs and fighting dogs due to their loose skin (although the breed did not have the heart for fighting and was soon replaced by more aggressive breeds). Bearcoats can be seen in Chinese art throughout history, and are considered to be one of the oldest breeds on earth.
The Chinese Shar-Pei is a unique and intelligent dog most often recognized for its wrinkles. Initially developed as a Chinese fighting dog, the breed does well today in obedience, agility, herding and tracking, with skills that would have been needed on the farm. Because the name Shar-Pei means “sand coat”, harshness is a distinctive feature in its two accepted coat types, either horse (short) or brush (up to an inch long). Other unique qualities include black mouth pigment, a slightly “hippo-like” head shape, small ears, deep-set eyes and rising topline.
All Shar-Pei, but especially the horse coat, need early socialization with children, strangers, and other animals. Like other fighting breeds, they can be stubborn, strong-willed and very territorial. Early training can help control these traits before they become problem behaviors. Some people may experience a sensitivity to the harshness of the coat of either length. This is a mild, short-lived rash that can develop on the skin that has been in contact with the coat, most commonly on the forearms.
The brush coat matures early to be a stocky strong dog; therefore, early socialization and training are essential in order to have a dog that is a good family member as well as a welcome member of society. The brush coat is not always as active as the horse coat and are often more content to laze around the house. Like their horse-coat brothers, they are strong-willed, stubborn and territorial, but these are often exhibited to a lesser degree.
Any coat longer than one inch at the withers is called a “bear coat” and is not considered breed standard, as it only occurs when both the male and female carry recessive coat genes. This coat length resembles the coat of the Chow Chow. The personality of the bear coat is very much like that of a brush coat.
Shar Pei usually come in two varieties. One is covered in large folds of wrinkles, even into adulthood (the Western type and mainly brush coat). The other variation has skin that appears tighter on its body, with wrinkles just on the face and at the withers (the original type and horse coat).
If a Shar Pei is being attacked the wrinkles keep the Shar Pei from being injured badly. Scientists from the Department of Genome Sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle announced in January 2010 that they had analysed the genetic code of 10 different pedigree dog breeds. In the Shar-pei they discovered four small differences located in the gene HAS2 hich is responsible for making hyaluronic acid synthase 2. That enzyme makes hyaluronic acid, which is one of the key components of the skin. There have been rare cases in which a mutation of the same gene has caused severe wrinkling in humans as well.
The Shar Pei is often suspicious of strangers, which pertains to their origin as a guard dog. In general, the breed has proved itself to be a loving, devoted family dog. They are also a very independent and reserved breed. Nevertheless, the Shar Pei is extremely devoted, loyal and affectionate to its family and is amenable to accepting strangers given time and proper introduction at a young age. If poorly socialized or trained, it can become especially territorial and aggressive. Even friendly and well-socialized individuals will retain the breed’s watch dog proclivities (such as barking at strangers). It is a largely silent breed, barking only when playing or when worried. The Shar Pei were originally bred as palace guards in China. This breed is also very protective of its home and family, a powerful dog that is willing to guard its family members. The breed is amenable to training but can get bored from repetition. Overall, the Shar Pei is a dog that is loyal and loving to its family while being very protective and independent. If a Shar Pei is being attacked the wrinkles keep the Shar Pei from being injured badly.
Because of its fame after being introduced to North America in the 1970s, the breed suffered much inexperienced or rushed breeding. This resulted not only in a dramatically different look for the Shar-Pei (as its most distinctive features, including its wrinkles and rounded snout, were greatly exaggerated), but also in a large number of health problems that are still slowly being worked out of the breed today.
Familial Shar Pei Fever (FSF) is a serious congenital disease that causes short fevers lasting up to 24 hours, usually accompanied by accumulation of fluid around the ankles (called Swollen Hock Syndrome). These fevers may or may not recur at more frequent intervals and become more intense. Amyloidosis, a long-term condition, is most likely related to FSF, caused by unprocessed amyloid proteins depositing in the organs, most often in the kidneys or liver, leading eventually to renal failure. There is no early test for FSF, but as it is congenital, the dog is either born with it or without it, and if one attack occurs (usually brought on by excessive emotional or physical stress), the dog will always be susceptible to another. With proper care, a Shar-Pei with FSF can live a completely normal and long life.
A common problem is a painful eye condition, entropion, in which the eyelashes curl inward, irritating the eye. Untreated, it can cause blindness. This condition can be fixed by surgery (“tacking” the eyelids up so they will not roll onto the eyeball for puppies or surgically removing extra skin in adolescent and older Shar Pei).
Chinese Shar Pei can be notoriously allergic to food products that contain soy, corn, wheat, gluten or sugars (or can develop these allergies without proper care early on). It is recommended in the breed now to use a completely grain-free food to offset and try to prevent these allergies. Often, the consumption of these types of poor-quality foods result in allergic skin reactions. Shar Pei whose food intake is restricted to better-quality foods free of corn, soy, wheat, and gluten will enjoy much healthier lives with little or no skin irritation, itching, or sores.
Responsible breeders work with great success to reduce the frequency of these genetic problems, and so finding an experienced, well-established Shar-Pei breeder is important. Some problems (i.e., the need for eye tacking) can be virtually eliminated from experienced breeders’ litters. The breeder will also give the best and most detailed diet information specific to their Shar-Pei.
The Shar Pei breed comes from the Guangdong province of China. The original Shar-Pei from China looked very different from the breed now popular in the West. People in southern China, Hong Kong, and Macau differentiate the Western type and the original type by calling them respectively ‘meat-mouth’ and ‘bone-mouth’ Shar-Pei.
The ancestry of the Shar-Pei is uncertain. It may be a descendant of the Chow Chow; however, the only clear link between these is the blue-black tongue. However, pictures on pottery suggest the breed was present even in the Han Dynasty (206 BC). A statue on display at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts dating from the second century A.D. depicts a dog that strongly resembles a modern Shar Pei. For many years, the Shar-Pei was kept as a general-purpose farm dog in the Chinese countryside, used for hunting, protecting and herding stock and guarding the home and family. During that time, the Shar-Pei was bred for intelligence, strength and scowling face.
Later, it was used for dog fighting. The loose skin and extremely prickly coat were developed originally to help the Shar Pei fend off wild boar, as they were used to hunt. Dog fighters used these enhanced traits to make the Shar-Pei difficult for its opponent to grab and hold on to, and so that if it did manage to hold on, the Shar-Pei would still have room to maneuver and bite back. The Shar-Pei’s most intriguing feature, in this respect, is that if one grabs them by any loose wrinkle, they can actually twist in their skin and face in one’s direction. This trait was used in fighting as a means for them to fight back; they would be bitten and twist in their skin to bite back at the offender. During the Communist Revolution, when the Shar Pei population dwindled dramatically, dogs were rescued by a Hong Kong businessman named Matgo Law, who appealed to Americans in 1973 through a dog magazine to save the breed. Around 200 Shar-Peis were smuggled into America. The current American Shar Pei population stems mainly from these original 200.
DNA analysis has concluded that the Shar Pei is one of the most ancient dog breeds alive.