The black tongued dog

The history behind the Chinese Chow Chow & how it came to having it’s unusual tongue colour.

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Photograph by: Mehrnaz Karimi

One of the most ancient dog breeds known to man is the Chow Chow.
Often compared to a bear or a lion, the Chow has a number of characteristics that makes it stand out from other dog breeds, one of which is the blue/black tongue. There are only a few dog breeds in existence that share this unusual trait, one of these is the Shar Pei, but even this dog is related to the Chow and is often referred to as its cousin. So what is the reason behind this phenomenon that has so many of us fascinated?

When Chows are born their tongues start off pink and don’t start to change colour until around eight to ten weeks of age. They usually start off by having a blue spot which spreads, eventually covering the entire tongue.

Markings in Chinese pottery dating back to the Han Dynasty reveal the dogs originated from Northern China over 2000 years ago. This makes it one of the oldest dog breeds known to man.
Chinese emperors and merchants used them for working purposes including hunting, pulling sleds and guarding.
The Chinese believed that the reason behind the colour of their tongues was for warding off evil spirits and as a result of this they were used as guard dogs outside of temples in China.
Others believe that at the beginning of time when God was painting the sky blue, a Chow licked up the drops that fell from the brush.

Whatever the reason behind this trait may be, the first thing that needs to be examined is the dogs blood line.
The exact descendants of the Chow Chow are still unknown but there is a theory that they are descendants of the Simocyon, a now extinct animal which scientists have confirmed is related to the red panda. The Simocyon has also been compared to a lion just as the Chow has although it is believed that they were the same size as a mountain lion. This draws suspicion because of the size difference between the Chow and the Simocyon but it could explain why the Chow is so often compared to a lion with their proud manes. The exact colour of the extinct species tongue is unknown however which suggests that even if it is a blood relative of the Chow, it is not necessarily the animal they inherited their tongue colour from.

The colour may seem unusual because of the fact that most canines have pink tongues but there are a number of other animals that share the blue/black characteristic. Could the Chow be a descendant of one of these? Other animals to have this feature include the polar bear, giraffes and the blue-tongued lizard.

The next to be explored is the science behind how these animals have come to have such a distinctive similarity. Research into why some animals have evolved to have tongues this colour suggests that it is because of the fact that they contain melanin which is the same pigment that causes a human’s skin to darken when in the sun. (Their dark tongues have more melanin in to protect them from getting burnt by the sun.) This makes sense for giraffes and the blue-tongued lizard because their natural habitats are in hot climates but for the polar bear and the Chow whose natural habitats are in freezing conditions it does not. However, those who are familiar with snow sports such as skiing and snowboarding, will know, it is just as easy to get sunburned in the snow where the sun’s rays reflect back onto the skin causing the same effect as it would in a hot country. This makes more sense because everything about the Chow shows that it has evolved to withstand freezing conditions, from their excess skin to their thick fur. The weather in Northern China, where the dogs originate from can reach sub-zero temperatures after all. Despite many of them now living in various types of weather conditions, their blue tongues are a trait that has remained throughout the generations of the breed. It is a gene that is clearly dominant as the majority of other dog breeds that are mixed with Chow’s often retain the tongue colour.

It is not just the physical form of the Chow that makes them stand out; it is their personalities which are very different to any other dog breed on the planet with characteristics that many owners compare to domesticated cats. Their behavioural traits include aggression and they have been found to be quite territorial, which could also be linked with their guarding backgrounds. Chow’s are not recommended for first time dog owners due to their unique characteristics, they can be trained but patience is a must as they will typically only do ‘tricks’ for treats. They are not recommended for owners who have small children but like any dog if they are raised right, they will behave right and can actually be great family pets. Don’t except to play fetch with a Chow Chow, they are generally quite laid back and are not particularly active. They do require regular walks however and can become quite restless if they are not appropriately exercised.

All that is known for now is that Chow’s share a great similarity to bears and extinct animals. The exact descendants of the Chow Chow are still unknown but through further research into the bloodline of the Chow, it won’t be long before the mystery is solved.

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