Mizunderstood:Home for Life's Chow Chows

"I've been poor but never broke. Thank God for that" Denise Cobb Hale

In memory of Home for Life's Missy

People who advocate on behalf of pit bulls often talk about how in years past, other breeds were just as feared and maligned : rottweilers and dobermans are examples cited. Chows chows are another.The chows' bad reputation still seems to dodge them, causing these dogs to be unfairly shunned by rescues and potential adopters. Chows need a voice,and I have struggled with this blog post to try to do them justice -it has taken forever to get it done. There's so much to say about this complex and beautiful dog .

Though they're not found as often in rescue and shelters as pitbulls, chows chows frequently fall on hard times, and is a breed Home for Life is most often asked to help. Many chow mixes resemble pitbulls; Home for Life's Fozzie Bear ( right) and Posie are examples. In Home for Life’s 14 years, we've seen chow chows and chow mixes as abused and neglected as any pit bull.

Posie and Fozzie Bear
Unlike pit bulls, though, Chows don’t seem to have the champions, advocates and rescue groups
to help and run interference on their behalf. Chow chows lack the will to ingratiate themselves with unfamiliar people .They are reserved and will take their time to get to know someone . And this tendency to be aloof works against them in the rescue world where animals have to sell themselves and do so quickly if they want to have that second chance. Then there's the almost alien appearance of Chow Chows. They don’t have that cherubic face, short clean coat and smile of the pit bulls. Instead their thick coat *, wrinkled face and blue tongue gives them an exotic and even bizarre appearance. A chow's exotic looks don't always serve the dog in a shelter or rescue setting, appearing even more odd with their now probably shaved fur. The Chow Chow can be a beautiful dog but with their thick coat, they need frequent grooming. If they end up in a neglectful situation where they're not receiving proper care, their appearance will deteriorate quickly. In shelters, where there's little time to care for a chow’s coat, their thick fur is often cut off because it's so difficult to maintain, so they end up looking like a beautiful girl with a shaved head. Like the singer Sinead O’Connor they might be intriguing but not necessarily the one you want to take home.
I read something on line about the chow that they are considered one of the dumbest breeds. This opinion must be held by someone too dumb to appreciate these special dogs, a person who probably doesn't appreciate cats either.
Chows have often been described as the most cat like of dogs in terms of their attitude and approach to life. Like cats, chows aren't servile. If intelligence in a dog or in any animal is measured by the degree to which they'll follow commands, then of course that's an unfair context to evaluate a chow or a cat. Chow chows have a mind of their own, and they aren't command oriented. Like cats, chows do seem to land on their feet no matter what challenges they face. That resourcefulness and resilience is surely a sign of intelligence. And, as with cats, the chow's courage and independent attitude will antagonize some people who view that spirit as a challenge to be crushed. Many chows, like cats, become victims of outright abuse like Home for Life's chow chow mix Ashley who was left paraplegic when just a small puppy, after being brutally kicked and stomped on.

The first chow chow we ever had at Home for Life was the beautiful red female Foxy, who'd been at a no kill shelter for over a year, with no adoption prospects in sight. Even the volunteer dog walkers wouldn't take her out because they were intimidated by her reserved nature and the chow's daunting reputation The kennel workers who knew Foxy well vouched for her gentleness and her fastidious nature- she never ever had an accident in her kennel in the entire time she was at the shelter.


They also talked about her steadfast and reliable personality, despite being in the stressful shelter environment. Her  fur was shaved,so it was hard to envision the beautiful dog that Foxy was in the kennel and shelter setting,where she hung back quietly in her cage, observing any visitors. She was age 6 when she came to Home for Life, and she lived at the sanctuary for another six years,before she passed away from cancer. At Home for Life, Foxy quickly became the leader of her dog group. She was regal and naturally assumed alpha dog position though she didn't attain top dog status thru aggression but rather through her natural leadership qualities which the other dogs recognized. Foxy's innate confidence reassured the other dogs in her group.One example of Foxy's leadership occurred when any dog in her group was injured or ill: she was concerned for that affected member of her group and would draw staff attention to that dog by standing near them and staring at the wound or the area of illness until we noticed that there was a problem. Dogs and staff alike came to rely on her powers of discernment and judgment.
Chow chows are an ancient breed and were developed in China. One of the oldest breeds, they are believed to have evolved from wolves in Northern China and Mongolia and Siberian Asia. Drawings dating from 150 BC depict chow chow dogs hunting and interacting in a friendly manner with children. In China they were considered to be working dogs, hunting, herding and protecting hearth and home, Chows are thought by many to be the ancestor of the Siberian husky, the Norwegian Elkhound, the Pomeranian and the Keeshond.

The Chow Chow was popular in the Roaring 20’s among the rich and famous. Like pit bulls Chow chows have their famous champions. Martha Stewart is the most well known of the famous people who love these dogs She's back on top of the world again but at her lowest point, it was her chow chow that was there for her. Martha Stewart’s tribute to her chow chow Paw Paw "Paw Paw: I will miss him" reveals why perhaps the most misunderstood woman in America has such an affinity for her canine kindred spirit- arguably the most misunderstood of dogs. While incarcerated, Martha missed her animals most of all, and when she returned home after five long months, she wrote how touched she was that the loyal chow chow Pawpaw remembered her and was so overjoyed to see her.

Other famous chow chow fans include President Calvin Coolidge who had a black chow chow named Timmy. Sigmund Freud had a chow named Jo-Fi who attended all patients sessions. Freud believed dogs have the sense to judge a person’s character, and Freud admitted depending on Jo-Fi to evaluate his patients’ mental state. Janet Jackson has a chow chow named Buckwheat and actors Mathew McConaughey and Drew Barrymore and singer Selena Gomez have lab/chow chow crosses as pets. The famous poet and writer Vannna Bonta has a cream Chow named Sky,a blue chow chow named Seraph and a red Chow named Beowulf who was immortalized as a fictional dog in her novel Flight.

It's one thing to have a celebrity for your owner but another to be a star in your own right.  Home for Life's chow chow Anook causes a near riot every time he makes an appearance at our annual 6 week Mall of America holiday event. By the time he walks from the parking lot, down the Mall of America corridors to our display at the rotunda, there's usually several people following him and several dozen standing around him, including several who have spotted him from the upper levels and rushed down on the escalators to meet him. No other Home for Life dog attracts as much attention from the public. With his huge fluffy coat and blue tongue, people can't even believe he's real. The fascination he generates is far cry from his humble origins.
Anook was abandoned on a reservation in northern Minnesota when his owners just moved away and left him outside, to sink or swim. The problem was, Anook was an older dog who had double entropia and was virtually blind. Had kind neighbors not made sure to leave him water and food, each day Anook surely would have died a slow, painful death from dehydration and starvation. As the cold weather approached, the neighbors realized the forsaken dog would never make it through the winter, so they brought Anook to the Beltrami Humane Society, outside of Bemidji Minnesota. He was in rough shape -blind,thin and matted fur full of burrs.He was positive for heartworm. Yet Anook was friendly, and grateful for the care he was receiving. He thought the shelter was great after his many hard months outside on his own at the abandoned home. The shelter workers knew Anook would have no chance for adoption with his age and in the condition he was in, and his eyes needed expensive medical attention, so they asked Home for Life to help him. Volunteers coordinated a transport to bring Anook to the Twin Cities and then to Home for Life.


Anook looked exhausted and wretched when he showed up at the sanctuary, and it took nearly six months to restore his health. Even though his eyes were painful and had made him miserable for years, we couldn't do anything to help him for several weeks until the heartworm was resolved because he couldn't have survived the anesthesia. Anook then had the complicated surgery on his eyes which restored some of his sight. We had to shave his coat to get the mats and debris out of his thick fur. It would have been torturous--for both Anook and our groomers- to try to comb out all the tangles. It took months for him to gain weight and for his coat to grow out so he looked liked the dog he was born to be.
Anook is a great ambassador for Home for Life AND for his breed. At the Mall, it'is not unusual for toddlers and small kids to run up and throw their arms around his neck before our volunteers or the children's parents can stop them. The little ones are enchanted by this dog who looks like a storybook character Another time at the Mall, a guy who obviously recognized the breed, came up amidst the usual crowd surrounding Anook and started aggressively pushing at him, trying to provoke Anook to see if he would react. Anook at first didn't seem to understand that someone was being so hostile to him, but even then never responded in kind though he had every right to retaliate. Anook was indignant but showed admirable restraint in not putting the guy in his place. I told the guy to leave Anook alone and get lost;he skulked away like a typical coward. I was upset and angry but, Anook just let the whole episode roll off his fluffy back.

Anook is a true diamond in the rough and has never changed- in bad times or good- like the small town guy who made good but never forgot his humble origins. Anook's star appeal was always there,always part of his essence but would any one have ever known as he sat on the front porch of the abandoned house on the reservation or the kennel at the shelter, when he had no other offers and no where else to turn- a run down older, unhealthy dog and a breeds shunned by most rescues?

Mia didn't seem to have much reason for hope or optimism when she landed in an Indiana shelter that gassed their unwanted dogs and cats. Due to malnutrition her black fur had turned orange, like a starving child from Africa.

Mia was found in rural Indiana wandering at large and was still unclaimed at the end of her 5 day hold Though she was thin and ragged looking,Mia possessed a gentle and sweet nature. The shelter staff did all they could to network with out of state rescues and shelters to secure placements and transports for their dogs but found no takers for Mia because of her breed They contacted HFL for help and we leaned on a Minnesota shelter from whom we had taken two hard to place dogs the year before, and negotiated with them to help two Indiana dogs. We also took some of the Indiana dogs from the transport and persuaded the shelter to take two other dogs who might be adoptable. Mia and a pitbull mix named Sparky ( who turned out to have severe heartworm) ended up at the shelter;upon their arrival the staff person in charge of dog adoptions took one look at them, and called Home for Life,stating she would never be able to place them. I will never forget the disdain in her voice as she described Mia as a chow and a "poor quality one at that". She told me that they could come to Home for Life, go back to Indiana or be euthanized by the shelter euthanasia technician to save them the stress of further transport. Our Mia. The two dogs were unwelcome at the shelter, and even though we had also taken three other dogs from Indiana, we somehow made room for Mia and Sparky too- for a total of five dogs from this transport. One of our volunteers drove down to the Minnesota shelter to get the two scorned dogs and bring them back to Home for Life.

As it turned out it was a good thing Mia came to Home for Life. She seemed to be walking with a limp, so we had her x-rayed at the veterinarian. To our astonishment, we found that Mia is completely lacking a hip socket on one side and on the other side, a socket severely affected by arthritis .The veterinarian couldn't believe she could stand let alone walk. Her legs were held in place by the ligaments and muscles, and somehow Mia had learned to function despite this disability. What a testament to her courage and tenacity- so typical of the chows- that she not only survived this disability but learned to make the best of life in spite of the condition.

Mia has now gained weight and as anyone can see from the photos is a beautiful dog Her fur is coal black and with her blue tongue, she creates an arresting first impression She can walk and trot, and although we monitor her daily for discomfort she doesn't seem to need any medication for pain control. She's still best friends with Sparky the pit bull, with whom she survived the Indiana kill shelter, a long transport to an uncertain future, rejection from the Minnesota shelter and finally finding refuge at Home for Life They refuse to be separated, and live in a spacious townhouse with Beauty a husky/border collie mix and Kitchee, an Alsatian from Saudi Arabia.

This post is dedicated to another of our chows who narrowly avoided a similar fate, and whom we just lost.

Missy was five years old when she came to Home for Life. Missy, from Florida like Ashley, had lived for as long as three years at a wild life sanctuary This place kept her chained to a dog house.They fed and watered her but didn't do much else to enhance her life. Prior to coming to the sanctuary she had injured her leg,probably from being hit by a car. Nothing was done about the old injury and over the years, Missy's foot curled under and became obviously lame. She was a shy dog and didn't readily meet new people. After years of being chained outside to a doghouse, she'd grown to fear the tropical thunderstorms and would cower when the bad weather blew in during hurricane season. When the sanctuary fell on hard times and had to close due to financial distress, Missy had no offers for rescue She was at least five, had a lame leg and a shy disposition, She was also a breed that was hard to place. A rescue agreed to take custody of her and were going to humanely euthanize her Thankfully one of their volunteers who knew of our rescue of Ashley asked the shelter to get in touch with us about Missy . It took a while to arrange her transport and the possibility of putting her down was again raised by some of the people involved in her rescue- a middle- aged, shy, lame ,chow: what could we be thinking to fly her all the way to Minnesota? In the end we found a donor who was willing to pay for her direct flight to Minneapolis,and we whisked her away before the euthanasia talk got too serious.
Missy made it to Home for Life and as soon as we got her settled, we brought her to the surgeons at the University to evaluate her bad leg.There, doctors had two comments about Missy : she was " such a nice dog- for a chow chow" as they were wary of her when they first met her due to her breed. They also commented how stoic she was-when it was discovered on xrays that she had a pin that had probably been used to repair the broken bone but had never been removed as it should have. Over time it had migrated and for years had pushed on her sciatic nerve causing pain-for years she had lived that way.The surgeons removed the pin which had caused her so much discomfort for so many years and put a plate on the femur bone which had been cracked but left untreated while she was in the care of the wildlife sanctuary. After her surgery, Missy made an uneventful recovery but her leg was permanently curled under and she had to wear a specially made boot to train her foot to rest with the paw pad on the ground. She was always afraid of storms even though we didn't have the Floridian hurricane storms in the Midwest. When she sensed the low pressure of a thunderstorm approaching she would beat it to the loft, where we store food and bedding, to ride it out.

Missy remained shy of people but she was friendly and would take treats, tolerate grooming and listened well. She was smart and learned our daily routines and got to live in the main entrance of our dog building where she would offer a cordial greeting to visitors. Missy made it through years of pain and neglect but the circumstances of her hard life never impacted the essence of who she was. Through everything she went through she was always the same steadfast,gentle dog with a beautiful soul.

Chow chows, like Missy, aren't the type of dog of whom it may be said "they are great 95% of the time-its that other 5%". Rich or poor, in a shelter or a mansion, chow chows know who they are and are always true to themselves. I have never heard the word optimistic used to describe chow chows but to me, their optimism seems to define them. Maybe this quality can be attributed to the fact that the chow is an ancient breed- an old soul.
Last year Missy went back to the University for ACL surgery on her good hind leg, but the doctor noticed a lump on her collarbone. Tests came back with horrible news: she had a malignant ,inoperable thyroid tumor which had spread to her lungs.The prognosis was grim: 4-6 weeks. The surgeon who had known Missy all these years, since she had first come to HFL seven years ago and had her old leg injury repaired, was as upset as we were were at the findings . " I am so sorry about this news" her doctor wrote, " Missy is a great dog."

We thought we were bringing the terminally ill Missy home for hospice care, to die, but she had other ideas. As I said chows are independent and have a mind of their own She persevered for nearly a year- 11 months. We were able to control her pain,she continued to eat her favorite foods well,had her treats and she had many quality months with her dog friends. She never changed even til the end . She made her own decision about when she was ready to go After all she had gone through I wanted to give her as much time as possible and honor her choice about the right time to say goodbye. When she stopped eating and let us know that her body couldn't sustain her spirit any longer,we helped her cross peacefully.
Einstein, once said that , “The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.” Isn't this also the most important question any unwanted dog or cat in rescue or a shelter must ask themselves? Some dogs who land in rescue after a harsh beginning seem to be unable to let go of their past. Even though their hard days are behind them, and they're treated only with kindness and understanding and have a chance for a better future, some of these haunted animals will forever be challenging and difficult. But, I've never seen this behavior in the Home for Life chows, no matter how neglected, or mistreated they were before coming to us. They somehow  retain a faith and an optimism about life and the world . They may have been poor and lost everything but they never lose hope and their spirits are never broken.

* there are smooth-coated chowchows, but we have never had one at Home for Life, and they don't seem to be found as frequently in rescue or at shelter as the long haired chow chows