Two brown and white shih tzus with front ponytails lay in a yard

10 Centuries-Old Chinese Dog Breeds Still Living Like Royalty Today

With blue-black tongues, adorable wrinkles, and lion-like locks, is there any wonder why Chinese dog breeds have been loved as pets since, well, fur-ever?
By Ashley Flaws
March 26, 2021

With centuries of history rooted in royalty, Chinese dog breeds have stood the test of time and today are beloved by pet parents around the world. Bred to be companions for emperors of ancient China, many Chinese dogs were prized possessions kept close as pets for the emperor, his family, and the imperial court—so it's no surprise that many Chinese dog breeds make the perfect lapdogs today.

Historically, ancient breeders were awarded valuable gifts from the emperor for producing top-tier litters, and the pups that were produced rarely left Chinese soil, says Jerry Klein, DVM, chief veterinary officer at the American Kennel Club. In fact, outsiders could only obtain one of these pampered pets as a gift from Chinese royalty. Thankfully, the popularity of these pooches still has staying power today, and 10 of these popular Chinese dog breeds continue to warm the hearts—and laps—of those lucky enough to own them.

chinese crested dog standing outside
Dental hygiene is a must for hairless Chinese cresteds, as they can be prone to missing, overcrowded or decaying teeth.
| Credit: Kseniya Abramova / Getty

Chinese Crested Dog

Those prone to sniffles and scratchy throats may take well to the Chinese crested dog, a 'hypoallergenic' hairless dog breed typically weighing no more than 12 pounds. (While no dog is truly hypoallergenic, this breed is low allergen.)

"There are two varieties of this toy breed: the hairless, which has soft, smooth skin and can have tufts of hair on the head, paws, and tail, and the powderpuff variety, which is completely covered with a soft, silky coat," Klein says. "Other than that there's very little difference between the two varieties and both can be born in the same litter."

What they lack in size, they make up for with fierce loyalty to their owners, often serving as the perfect comfort companion. Their little bodies also pack a lot of life—they are a long-living breed, often living to age 13 and even well into teenagehood.

While Chinese crested dogs do not shed, the hairless variety may be susceptible to skin irritation and should be protected by sunscreen while outdoors, Klein says.

chow chow dog face close up
Credit: Dyrefotografi.dk / Adobe Stock

Chow Chow

With links to China's Han Dynasty, the Chow Chow is one of the oldest dog breeds to exist, gaining popularity in the 18th century when the breed was traded with the British. With their frowning facades and fluffy fur, the Chow Chow has a very distinct bear-like appearance—made more so by their blue-black tongues, a feature seen in only one other dog breed, the Chinese Shar-Pei.

Independent and "cat-like," it's important to socialize and train this breed at an early age, Klein says. Exercise should be limited in warm weather as they can easily get overheated, but during cooler months, when this Chinese "bear dog" thrives, they should be taken on regular walks.

Tan shar-pei with curly tail portrait
Some pups are more wrinkly than others. Shar-pei start growing out of their rolls once they reach adulthood, with some staying roly-poly-esque and others only keeping a few folds.
| Credit: Tara Gregg / EyeEm / Getty

Chinese Shar-Pei

The Chinese shar-pei also originated with the Han Dynasty but has a more troubled past than its relative, the Chow Chow. In 1949, the breed came close to extinction with the establishment of the People's Republic of China, when the Communist regime was opposed to dog ownership. Thankfully, the Chinese shar-pei persevered and was officially recognized as a breed by the American Kennel Club in 1992.

Along with their distinct blue-black tongues, these pups are also recognized for their wrinkly appearance. "[They] should be bathed on a monthly basis and the folds between the wrinkles kept dry and clean," Klein says. "Ear cleaning should be prioritized and done weekly using a cleaning solution recommended by a veterinarian."

The Chinese shar-pei does best when they can make their own decisions, so it's important to prioritize obedience training with positive reinforcement to help them respond to your cues.

White and orange japanese chin stands in front of red door
Companionship is what Japanese chin were bred for. They are perfectly happy to spend the whole day by your side—or in your lap.
| Credit: jenngarcia / Adobe Stock

Japanese Chin

Despite its name, the Japanese chin is most commonly believed to have originated in China amongst Buddhist monks and emperors, though its introduction to Japan is ultimately what shaped the breed as we recognize it today.

The Japanese chin is a lovable lapdog with a quiet demeanor well-suited for apartment living.

Lhasa Apso dog standing on rocky hill
Credit: Ricant Images / Adobe Stock

Lhasa Apso

Known as the "bearded lion dog," this thousand-year-old Lhasa apso breed protected palaces and Buddhist monasteries high in the Himalayan Mountains and is often linked to the Dalai Lama.

"In Tibetan folklore, the country's protector is the mythical Snow Lion, and Lhasas, the 'bearded lion dogs,' are the Snow Lion's earthly representatives," Klein says. "Lhasa is the name of Tibet's sacred city; apso means 'longhaired dog.'"

Despite their relatively small stature, these Chinese "lion dogs" live up to their nickname—and their long history, always watching over their family members. Better yet? The Lhasa apso has a long lifespan and may very well be your canine companion for 12–15 years.

Close up of tan pekingese
Credit: Батуленко Тетяна / Getty


Pekingese

Legend has it, the Buddha created the Pekingese by shrinking down a lion. Well-known for its regal mane and snuggly fluff, the Pekingese was held as sacred by the imperial family of the Tang Dynasty during the 8th Century, Klein says. If they were stolen, the offender would be punished by death.

Today, the Pekingese dog remains a valued member of families around the world, though they prefer cooler climates. Because the Pekingese is a brachycephalic breed, it's important to keep these pups out of the heat for long periods of time. Klein recommends traveling with an ice pack or fan to keep them cool in warm weather.

pug with tongue hanging out
Credit: Elli Luca / Getty

Pug

Ranked the 29th most popular breed in America by the American Kennel Club, many pet owners may forget that the pug first gained prominence in ancient China 2,000 years ago. Emperors and royal family members kept pugs as treasured members of the family, and the pug continues to be the ideal family dog today.

"Pugs are content whether they live in the city or country, with kids or older people, as an only pet or in a pack," Klein says. "The pug's motto is the Latin phrase 'multum in parvo' (a lot in a little)—an apt description of this small but muscular breed."

Couch potatoes by nature, pugs do not tolerate heat well and should not practice strenuous exercise in warm or humid weather.

Two brown and white shih tzus with front ponytails lay in a yard
Shih tzus love companionship, be it with their humans or other animals. They coexist well with cats and other dogs, making ideal furry siblings.
| Credit: Alex / Adobe Stock

Shih Tzu 

Beating the pug as the most popular dog breed in America included on this list—coming in at number 20—the shih tzu, or "little lion," is more well-known than its fellow long-maned counterparts. In fact, the shih tzu most likely was bred as a cross between the Lhasa apso and Pekingese.

Ancient breeders who produced the best looking and well-tempered shih tzus were awarded by royal emperors, who pampered these pooches for hundreds of years as royal lapdogs.

"Being cute is a way of life for this lively charmer," Klein says. "The shih tzu is known to be especially affectionate with children. As a small dog bred to spend most of their day inside royal palaces, they make a great pet if you live in an apartment or lack a big backyard."

Red tibetan mastiff walks through brush
Credit: Kat_marinina / Shutterstock

Tibetan Mastiff

Many Tibetans believe Tibetan mastiffs are host to the souls of monks and nuns who weren't reincarnated into people or crossed over into a heavenly realm. Fittingly, the breed protected Himalayan villages and their residents and were often gifted to Tibetan travelers.

Despite their thick double coat, Tibetan mastiffs do not require as much maintenance as other breeds but do have a heavy shedding season in the spring or summer, referred to as a "blow." In the market for a playful puppy? Tibetan mastiffs typically give birth in the winter months, with the majority of these puppies born during early winter, Klein says.

Tibetan Terrier sanding on beach
Credit: Happy Images / Adobe Stock

Tibetan Terrier

Known as the "Holy Dog of Tibet," the Tibetan terrier is linked to ancient Buddhist monasteries and the Dalai Lama, serving versatile roles as companions, watchdogs, and herders. Thought to be native to the Lost Valley of Tibet, they historically have also been known to bring good luck.

Certainly, anyone who owns one of these long-haired beauties feels lucky to have them, as they are a very adaptable breed well-suited to family life, Klein says. They also make the perfect winter weather companion.

"With their protective double coat and large, flat, round feet to provide traction — in much the same way as snowshoes — they're well suited to homes in snowy climates," Klein says.

Choosing the Right Chinese Dog Breed for You

Steeped in history spanning centuries, Chinese dog breeds have long been highly coveted companions, and it's easy to see why.

When considering which Chinese dog breed is the perfect fit for your family, here are a few things to think about to help you make a decision:

From the royal manes of the Lhasa apso, Pekingese, and shih tzu, to the lovable wrinkles of the Chinese shar-pei and pug, there is a Chinese dog breed well suited to any home. No matter which breed you choose to adopt, when Fluffy graces your lap, it will be hard not to feel like royalty yourself.