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.

By Liz Langley
Published 25 Feb 2018, 10:58 GMT
A Pekingese named Malachy poses after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog ...
A Pekingese named Malachy poses after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on February 14, 2012.
Photograph by Michael Nagle, Getty

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 behaviourist at the U.K.'s University of Bristol, says via email. 

Dog Facial Expressions Change When Watched By Humans

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. 

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 closely related to the Labrador retriver, a North American breed.

Photograph by Robert Clark&& National Geographic Creative

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 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.

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

Photograph by Mark Raycroft, Minden Pictures, National Geographic Creative

"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 hybridised—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.


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.

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.


Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2024 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved