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What Were Shar-Peis Bred For? Breed History Explained

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By Nicole Cosgrove

Sharpei Dog Walking

Like most dogs that originated in China, the history of the Shar-Pei is surrounded by uncertainty. Many people believe that they were first bred by farmers as working dogs before they found themselves among the many canines used in dog fighting.

They’re one of the oldest breeds alive today, and their past only goes to show how loyal, brave, and reliable these dogs are. If you’re interested in learning more about these dogs, this guide will tell you everything that you need to know.

What Are Shar-Pei Dogs?

Recognized by their “hippopotamus” muzzle, purplish tongue, and wrinkled skin, the Shar-Pei is calm but fierce. While they’re more than comfortable with their family and people they know, they’re notoriously wary about strangers and other dogs. Their suspicious nature makes them perfect guardians.

This breed’s wariness around others isn’t the only thing going for them, though. The Shar-Pei is also incredibly intelligent and affectionate to their pack mates. Their name means “sand skin” and is a result of their short but coarse fur.

As medium-sized dogs, they range from 18 to 20 inches tall and weigh between 40 and 60 pounds. Their coat color ranges from black, cream, fawn, lilac, red, and sand.

chinese shar pei
Image Credit: Zuzule, Shutterstock

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History of the Shar-Pei

The Shar-Pei was first introduced in China. Their history involves more than just their country of origin and the village that they started in, though.

The Han Dynasty

The second imperial dynasty of China, the Han Dynasty ruled from 206 B.C. to 220 A.D. Although marked by unrest among the royalty, it’s also known for reviving Confucianism and the start of the Silk Road trade route with Europe.

For the Shar-Pei, their story started in Tai Li, a village in southern China. How the breed started is a little unclear. Some people believe that they’re descended from the Chow-Chow, another Chinese breed that originated in northern China. Both breeds have the same purplish tongue and sense of loyalty and were depicted in artwork and pottery from the Han Dynasty.

Bred as working dogs for peasants, they had little to do with the conflict within the royal court. Some people believe that some of these dogs did protect members of the royalty, but the vast majority of the breed were hunters, herders, and livestock guardians.

Due to their main focus being for farm work, these dogs were bred to be versatile. Their fierce loyalty to their human companions and the wariness of strangers stems from their early farming days. With their need to watch over their territory from predators and poachers, the Shar-Pei make great guard dogs.

Image Credit: fifathesharpei, instagram

Venture into Fighting

The Shar-Pei wasn’t destined to only be part of the farming scene, though. Due to tenacity and thick, wrinkled skin, they were soon introduced to dog fighting rings.

Protected by the dense folds of their skin, Shar-Pei dogs were considered excellent fighting dogs because of their personal, inbuilt armor. Predators and other dogs could grab them but otherwise miss their vital organs, giving the Shar-Pei an edge over their competition.

With the introduction of large Western dog breeds, the Shar-Pei gradually became less popular among the fighting crowd.

Road to Near-Extinction

Most Chinese breeds were almost made extinct after the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949. While the Cultural Revolution put an end to dogfighting, it also led to the mass slaughter of several breeds. The Shar-Pei was one of the breeds that survived through breeding efforts in both Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Slaughtering these dogs left a mark, though, and the breed held the Guinness World Record for the rarest dog during the 1970s.

Matgo Law’s Plea

Shar-Pei dogs were first introduced to the U.S. in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until the late 1970s that their popularity skyrocketed. A breeder from Down-Homes Kennels in Hong Kong, named Matgo Law, helped ensure the survival of the Shar-Pei.

Hong Kong was originally a British colony, which enables it to continue breeding dogs despite the restrictions on the rest of China. Law worried about the survival of the breed if Hong Kong ever rejoined China and appealed for help.

Although Law’s plea first appeared in Dogs Magazine in 1973, the real success story started with Life Magazine’s involvement in 1979. The American magazine published Law’s plea and featured a Shar-Pei on its cover. After that issue, the popularity of Shar-Pei in the U.S. increased exponentially, saving the breed from extinction.

Chinese Shar pei puppy portrait at garden_Waldemar Dabrowski_shutterstock
Image Credit: Waldemar Dabrowski, Shutterstock

Modern Day

Recognized by the AKC in 1992, Shar-Pei dogs are now popular companions and show animals. Their independent and cautious natures around other people make them more suited to experienced dog owners.

The breed was common in puppy mills due to their sudden rise in popularity at the end of the 70s. Their size and dislike of other dogs make them unsuitable for this type of forced breeding, however, and they’re less likely to be found in these places. Instead, look for reputable breeders and rescues.

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Popular Crossbreeds

The Shar-Pei is favored for more than their affectionate and loyal dispositions. Their appearance often makes them a fascinating choice for hybrid breeds.

Commonly seen Shar-Pei mixes include:
  • Pit Pei (Pitbull mix)
  • Lab Pei or Shar-Pei Lab (Labrador mix)
  • German Shar-Pei or Shepherd Pei (German Shepherd mix)
  • Walrus Dog or Ba-Shar (Basset Hound mix)
  • Sharpeagle (Beagle mix)
  • Box-a-Shar or Boxpei (Boxer mix)

Are Shar-Pei Dogs Aggressive?

With their history of dog fights and their dislike of other canines and strangers, the Shar-Pei can be aggressive. Untrained and improperly socialized, they can be dangerous dogs to other animals and people, including young children, despite being loyal and affectionate companions to their family members.

Their over-protective and cautious nature means early socialization is essential. Familiarizing your puppy with a range of people and places will help them be more comfortable in unfamiliar situations. Keeping up with your Shar-Pei’s training is important too. These requirements are what make the breed unsuitable for first-time dog owners.

Despite their history and renowned tempers, properly socialized and trained Shar-Pei dogs have been known to win the AKC’s Good Canine Citizen certificate.

Final Thoughts

Since they were first introduced in China during the Han Dynasty over 2,000 years ago, Shar-Pei dogs have been through a lot. From working farmhands and fighting dogs to rising in popularity just in time to avoid extinction, they’re a breed with a history as tenacious as they are. Whatever you may think about their tempers and wariness toward strangers, the Shar-Pei is loyal and intelligent and adores their human best friends.

Featured Image Credit: Pikist

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