With a reputation for independence and rubbing elbows with ancient nobility, the Japanese chin will likely convince you that they are, in fact, the true king or queen of the house. Japanese chin are known for companionship, and they require very little fuss from their owners. These toy dogs are rare and relatively unknown in the U.S., but the low-maintenance breed is beloved by those who live with them.
Dale Martenson, a champion Japanese chin breeder and owner of Chin of Touché, describes them as being "bred for art." As pets that were originally bred as companions to nobility, these pint-sized pups make an especially devoted best friend.
"The Japanese chin don't make a ruckus," Martenson says. "They are mannerly and entertaining and funny, but they would never be rude to the others around them. They are polite to strangers, but their heart belongs to their owner. They're like having that snarky best friend that will sit next to you and whisper in your ear."
Ultimately, the Japanese chin is a low-energy companion who appreciates being surrounded by other calming individuals. They boast a cat-like reputation, meaning they are often described as the perfect dog for someone who considers themselves a "cat person" but wants a canine companion.
"That's part of the legend: That they were half-dog and half-cat," Martenson says. "They are ideal for people who want an uber-affectionate cat."
At 8–11 inches tall, the Japanese chin is anything but intrusive. While these dogs are small in stature, they like to position themselves on household heights. Owners often will find their chin sitting atop the back of a couch or peering out of a raised window—similar to the spots staked out by a cat.
Because they only weigh between 7–11 pounds, they make an excellent lap dog—though, they cuddle on their own terms. Robin Sockness, a board member and regional representative for the Japanese Chin Care and Rescue Effort, says the breed often makes an excellent travel buddy because of their toy size and relaxed attitude.
"They are dogs who will stay at home and look beautiful," Sockness says. "They are very unique, very different than other breeds. They're also great little traveling companions. They are easy and portable. Mine don't mind going in a carrier, and they like to ride in the car."
The breed's long, silky coats commonly come in bicolored shades of black and white or red and white, and there are also tricolored chin with tan marks. They typically need to be brushed at least once a week because of their frequent shedding. Regular at-home maintenance and the occasional bath will help your chin's coat maintain its luxurious appearance.
An ideal lap dog, the Japanese chin is best suited for adult or elderly owners who will match their calm demeanor. These sensitive dogs are rarely compatible with young children or high-energy dogs because of their fragile bones and quiet nature.
Sockness often helps rehome Japanese chin who have landed in incompatible homes through the JCCRE. She says it's important for potential owners to do their research and understand the unique life of a chin before bringing one home. They live between 10–14 years, so Sockness recommends that owners have a care plan in place in case their dog outlives them.
"The Japanese chin may not be the best first dog for you if you've never had a dog before and you're expecting them to act like a typical dog," Sockness says. "Or if you're a young couple and you want to get a dog, but then the plan is to have babies down the road."
This breed will live better as the only dog in your household or alongside other chin. They aren't overly playful and shouldn't be placed in a home with dogs that will play rough or not respect their space. As a "cat-like" dog, however, they typically get along perfectly well with felines.
Unlike dogs that were bred for hunting or herding, the Japanese chin doesn't need a task to feel fulfilled—all he needs is a loving lap to snooze on.
"They're not going to have big energy requirements," Martenson says. "They don't need a job; they're happy to hang out with you. Their goal in life is entertainment and companionship. They are somebody that you can tell all your secrets to, and they'll be loyal to you."
"We always recommend a fenced-in yard," Sockness says. "Being cat-like, coming when called isn't their nature. They are also excellent climbers, so make sure your fence is cleared of things they can hop up on."
Those who live with a Japanese chin will joke that the dog is the true owner in the relationship—things are often on the dog's own terms. While positive reinforcement training and simple commands are possible to teach these pups, the chin will often reinforce their "cat-like" reputation by ignoring requests they deem inconvenient.
The Japanese chin will need to be brushed every other week, depending on whether they're shedding heavily. Martenson says that the typical owner can keep their chin's coat looking as healthy as a show dog's with occasional at-home bathing as well. He recommends using a little Johnson's Baby Shampoo to carefully clean the chin's face, then use a dog shampoo specialized for silk coats.
"That's the magic of the breed: They are so easy to take care of," Martenson says. "They have a wonderful coat, and you do not need to have them professionally groomed or trimmed. A bath or brush every week to 10 days and they are going to stay perfect."
The Japanese Chin Club of America recommends all breeders test for congenital conditions involving the eyes, heart, and patellas because of the dog's predisposition to issues with those areas. Any prospective chin owner will want to make sure they're working with a breeder who follows those guidelines.
The Japanese chin are also brachycephalic, meaning they have short noses and "smooshed" faces that can cause respiratory challenges. Because of this, the chin has small teeth and a reputation for dental issues. Sockness recommends that owners brush their dog's teeth regularly, give them dental chews, and keep them on a diet of wet and dry food.
"The have little bitty teeth, and their teeth are not always lined up, so dental care is very important," Sockness says. "You need to brush their teeth. You can fully expect that you're going to be paying for your dog's dentals at the vet. That's just a part of getting a brachycephalic dog."
The Japanese chin are stellar lap dogs because companionship was actually their original purpose. This ancient breed has been traced back to travelers on the Silk Road, where they kept traders company many centuries ago. Chin were later gifted to Chinese nobility and are often described as aristocratic in nature. These small palace pups took to royalty quite well, and they were forbidden from being owned by anyone who was not high status.
"In the culture the Japanese chin came from, the chin had almost a religious type of background," Martenson says. "You couldn't buy a chin—it would have to be a gift, or part of a dowry, or a great favor to a family."
As trading moved West, the companion dogs were given as exclusive gifts to other nobility. These Japanese pups eventually found their way to the U.S., where they continued to uphold their reputation for being proper and loyal. While the Japanese chin is not one of the most well-known dogs in the U.S. today, they are beloved by those who have the privilege of sharing a home with them.
"The Japanese chin are an easy fit into a lot of people's lives, and they're so easy to have with you," Martenson says. "They are a bit of an unknown treasure in the dog world."
- Japanese chin are known for the “Chin Spin,” a habit where they spin quickly in a circle when they’re excited. Look for the adorable move when your chin is ready to eat or when you arrive home!
- Many Japanese chins will make a soft “Woo Woo” sound when they are happy or excited. This unique chin chatter is beloved by owners, who describe it as conversational.
- Famous owners of the Japanese chin include Ozzy Osbourne and the late Joan Rivers.