This article featuring some PCA Member’s dogs appeared in the December 12, 2008 issue of DOG NEWS.
Reprinted courtesy of DOG NEWS.

By M.J. Nelson

In ancient China, the Pekingese handled both roles. To those whose only exposure to the breed has been to watch them potter around the show ring, the fashion accessory part of the breed’s history seems much more plausible than the guard dog. But to those who participate in performance activities with their Pekes, the "guard dog" aspect of the breed’s history is not as far-fetched as it may seem.

"Pekes have a streak of athleticism that surprises a lot of people," said Cheryl Chang who owns three conformation champions with rally titles, one of which is currently working in agility. "They’re not just the ‘ornament’ that many people think they are."

Dian Thomas added, "Many people who have Pekingese or other toy breeds for that matter assume that they cannot do anything but look cute. That is not true. I treat my Pekes like real dogs, I expect them to perform like dogs and they do."

Nancy Bowman agreed. "Many Peke people think that Pekes can do nothing but look pretty. But that’s not so. They love to please you and performance work keeps them in great physical shape."

This is a very old breed, which likely descended from early Maltese that Muslim traders brought to China. Skeletal remains of dogs found in human settlements reveal a short-muzzle dog in China as early as 200 BC. Around 800 AD, breeding toy-sized dogs became popular in China and the Chinese breeders wanted a dog that represented features in Buddhist stories and art.

In Chinese mythology, the Pekingese is believed to be a cross between a lion and a marmoset. Small sized dogs with special markings were highly valued by these early Chinese breeders. The very small dogs with the most ferocious temperaments were used as guard dogs and were hidden in the large sleeves of the clothing worn by the nobility in this era. From the 17th to the 19th centuries, there was a good deal of exchange of different breeds between the palaces and monasteries in China and Tibet. The evolving Pekingese were crossed with many different breeds including Pugs, Japanese Chin, Tibetan Spaniels, Lhasa Apsos, Shih Tzu, Tibetan Terriers and Chow Chows.

By the 1820s, Pekingese had become popular with the Chinese emperors and the members of the court. The best ones were closely guarded and the punishment for selling one of these special dogs was brutal torture. While the breed was developed as a companion dog, its original purpose was to be a fashion accessory for the emperors and courtiers in the Forbidden City of Imperial China and the ancient Chinese standard refers to the breed as having specific colors to match certain clothing. The smallest, most ferocious Pekingese also served as an early version of pepper spray to protect members of the court.

Perhaps because of their pampered history, Pekes are not amenable to any amount of force in training. "Pekingese are not going to be trained with force," said Chang. "They will just lay down and ‘play rug’ if you try to use force with them. They must be convinced that all the exercises you train them to do are their idea of a fun game they are playing with you. I was absolutely shocked when I trained my first Rough Collie who would do an exercise just because you said so with no questions asked. The Pekes are definitely more fun to train because you need to work smarter with your training. They seem to do better in rally and agility because those activities are more fun for them since there is unlimited communication between you and the dog. They seem to get bored by traditional obedience and that’s when you find yourself walking the off leash pattern by yourself as they go off to visit with the judge or the stewards."

Thomas said surprisingly this is a breed that is really easy to train in obedience, at least at the novice level. "However, you do have to be VERY enthusiastic and patient. Where some dogs are always very anxious to please and ask to work, a Pekingese must first be convinced that obedience is FUN and then they will get into the program. However, they can be very stubborn and can take a lot of convincing. I’ve found they don’t learn things as quickly as some other breeds but once they get it, they are more reliable. You do have to be very patient and be prepared to practice things many, many times before they are comfortable with the exercise. You also have to praise twice as much and be ready to go completely crazy when they do something really well."

Chang noted that there are some obstacles to training a Peke for performance activities. "They are quite intelligent and hard-headed in a cute sort of way. You have to figure out how to make training their idea. You can’t train in the heat of the day with them and really tall grass is not good. There is also a problem finding instructors who will teach you and your Pekingese, not blow you off because you don’t have a Border Collie."

Thomas added that the breed’s main quirk is stubbornness. "They are stubborn and every Peke is a bit different when it comes to their take on obedience. You have to balance the praise and the training routine differently with each Peke. You have to really understand the Peke you are working with so you know just how to approach each exercise and you have to be prepared to try many different approaches to teaching each exercise. There are some that just don’t want to do the more advanced work. One of the hardest things I have ever taught Pekingese is the retrieve. You must teach a ‘forced retrieve’ in the sense that it is not a game and the Peke must learn to get the dumbbell on your command as well as hold it until you give the release. I do not use strong force or such things as the ear pinch to teach my Pekes to retrieve because they don’t respond well to force. Jumping is also an obstacle. My Pekes have always mastered the eight-inch high jump but the 16-inch broad jump has been another matter entirely. They don’t see much point in jumping something that is so much easier to climb across but you can teach them to jump it. They all have seemed to be physically able to jump but they need to be convinced that it is a fun thing to do."

Bowman concurred with Thomas’ evaluation of the breed’s stubborn streak. "‘Soft’ is a word that doesn’t apply to Pekingese. They are very stubborn and take a lot of time, patience and effort in training. I’ve found when it comes to training for the dumbbell, metal and leather articles and the gloves, they become very stubborn. This is one exercise where you have to teach a ‘force retrieve’ but you have to be extremely careful how you teach this exercise. Mine refused to fetch the articles. It took a lot of work and training to work through the retrieving problems in both open and utility. Retrieving articles was probably the most difficult exercise to teach my dogs. In addition, you have to make sure that you measure just right for the size of articles that a Pekingese must pick up and carry. Another problem was the jumps. Pekes would rather go around instead of over the jumps. On the other hand, sits and downs are easy. When you have once trained those commands, you can rest assured that your Pekingese will sit, down and stay."

Rally and obedience appear to be the best fits for Pekingese although some have also been successful agility dogs. "Since rally was approved that has been the best for me and my Pekes," said Chang. "They are healthier and happier when they have a job. We’ve started agility classes in May and are just now starting to enter trials but I live on the Island of Oahu in Hawaii and we have limited opportunities in this area with only eleven all-breed obedience/rally trials and a dozen agility trials per year so it may be awhile before we get any agility titles."

"I think it is very important for those who really care about the breeds they own to exhibit their dogs in performance events," said Thomas. "People need to see what a correct and well-bred specimen of a breed can do. It is also important for good breeders to produce sound dogs that can handle performance activities. There are a lot of benefits to training dogs for performance events but the main one is that you get to spend a lot of quality time with your dog. I never know my dogs until I start training them. They you really get to know what makes your dog tick and the relationship you build with the dog is tremendous.

What dog doesn’t love a lot of individual attention?" Unlike many toy breeds, the Pekingese has been spared many of the trials and tribulations that go with being a popular breed. However, this does not mean that Peke lovers do not face some challenges with the breed. "We face a real problem with ‘groups’ meddling in the setting of breed standards. While their motive of trying to create healthier dogs is laudable, changing the breed characteristics to the point they have completely altered breed type does nothing to actually help health. That can only be done by making sure health checks and tests are done before breeding," said Chang.

Thomas added that breeders today need to be concerned about breeding sound dogs. "The greatest challenge we face today with Pekingese is getting breeders to be concerned about breeding Pekes that are sound and capable of walking and playing without sounding like they can’t breathe and looking like they can’t walk any more than a few feet at a time. A good Pekingese can be a very active dog.

I take my male, who is in training for open obedience, on a mile and a half walk regularly with my Corgi and my Irish Setter. Aside from the fact that he picks up every leaf along the way, he has a great time and does very well. Pekes should be able to do this and not have their activity limited because they are physically unable to get out and about."

Bowman also cited breathing problems as critical for the breed. "Any dog should be able to breathe freely. Pekes should be able to play, run and walk without any harsh sounds coming from their breathing. I have a Peke that can run, play, walk and has good breathing and enjoys all her exercises. All Pekes should be able to enjoy all aspects of life and that includes running and playing in the snow and the fields. This is what love and performance is all about."