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Breeding is not only science, but it is also an art

An interview with Matgo Law

Exclusive interview for EFSPC, conducted during the Epeiros Cup weekend in Senec, Slovakia by Bregje van Koesveld.

In a recent interview, I had the distinct honor of conversing with Matgo Law, a living legend in the world of Shar Pei breeding. As someone who has long admired his work, I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to share his incredible story, knowledge, and wisdom.

Matgo Law, an icon in Shar Pei breeding, became my personal idol through his tireless efforts to preserve this unique breed. His dedication, expertise, and unwavering commitment have left an indelible mark on the world of dog breeding.

This discussion took us back to his pivotal role in saving the Shar Pei breed from the brink of extinction during the 1970s. He graciously recounted his journey, shedding light on the pivotal moments that secured the Sharpei’s future. We talked about his extensive knowledge of Shar Pei breeding and his distinctive approach to judging the breed. Providing a fascinating glimpse into the multifaceted contributions he’s made to the enduring legacy of this remarkable breed.

Q: As we all know, you saved the Shar Pei from extinction and introduced them to the Western world in the 1970s. Could you please share what your initial thoughts and expectations were when you first encountered this breed on the brink of extinction?

A: Well, I didn’t really have expectations; saving them was more like an idea, a notion in my mind. I wanted this breed to survive. Let me give you some background. Back then, the Shar Pei was primarily used for dog fighting, which involved gambling and money. People didn’t really see it as a breed; it was more like a machine meant to fight and win money. To create an invincible fighter, they crossed Shar Pei with other breeds like Bulldogs, Bull Terriers, and Staffordshire Terriers, all with fighting backgrounds. When I came across Shar Peis in the mid-1960s, it was already quite late to save them, because I saw already various types and shapes due to this crossbreeding.

I realized that Shar Peis had unique qualities and outstanding characters. These traits reflected the old Chinese way of life. In my mind, I had this idea, a spark of inspiration to save the breed from extinction, not an expectation.

Q: Could you elaborate on your journey of learning about the breed and your efforts to establish a purebred line of Shar Peis?

A: Certainly, I was driven to learn more about the Shar Pei breed and sought to find quality specimens beyond the fighting pit, from open markets and villages. My goal was to establish a purebred line. This led me to create the first breed standard, not only for myself but for others to follow. Additionally, I aimed to refine the gene pool and breed them into purebred dogs. That’s how it all began.

Q: Was this journey challenging?

A: Absolutely, it was incredibly challenging. Finding the right dogs and bitches to start with was a daunting task. The people in China weren’t particularly interested in preserving the breed as a purebred; many were more focused on their fighting abilities.

Q: How did you deal with the challenge of not knowing the background of the dogs you acquired?

A: It was indeed a significant challenge. I had to resort to experimental breeding and closely examine the resulting puppies to determine if they exhibited the characteristics of a true Shar Pei. Unfortunately, some breedings produced puppies that were far from the ideal Shar Pei appearance. These were the early challenges I faced as I embarked on this journey.

Q: You had a kennel for breeding Shar Pei, considering you had a full-time job, it must have required substantial help from others?

A: Yes, running a Shar Pei kennel presented numerous challenges.

To begin with, locating quality dogs to start the breeding process was quite challenging.
Secondly, establishing a robust gene pool within a short timeframe required specialized breeding skills. However, my parents and my wife played a vital role in supporting me throughout my career. I worked in an office and never ceased to do so, and it was during my daily absence that they helped manage the dogs and the kennel. Looking back, I do regret not spending more time with my parents, my wife, and my son. In hindsight, one lifetime feels insufficient for all the things we wish to accomplish. It’s as though we need more than one lifetime to complete everything we aspire to do.

Q: What about their diet? You mentioned that you used to prepare your dogs’ meals yourself. What did you feed your dogs?

A: In the early days, dog food wasn’t readily available in Hong Kong, so we prepared their meals, which consisted mainly of rice, fish, and chicken. This type of feeding regimen required careful monitoring to ensure the dogs received the right balance and quantity of nutrients. It was a time-consuming process, but we wanted to provide the best for our dogs and ensure their well-being.

Q: Did you have prior experience with breeding before working with Shar Pei?

A: Yes, I did have prior experience, but still, my early Shar Pei breeding came with its fair share of disappointments and surprises. Over time, my breeding improved, and I learned that breeding is not just a science; it’s also an art. It’s about using both your intellect and instincts to achieve success. Back then, genetic tests were not available, so success heavily depended on one’s understanding and keen eye for animals, which is quite different from today’s methods.

Q: Do you still have dogs?

A: No, I no longer have any dogs. I made the decision to stop breeding and concluded my breeding line around the mid-’90s. Following that, I continued to care for my older dogs until they passed away naturally. Since then, I have not engaged in breeding, even though many excellent breeders have offered me puppies. I graciously declined their offers because, physically, I couldn’t manage the responsibilities anymore. Instead, I realized the importance of spending more time with my family.

Q: Your background includes parents who migrated from the Guangdong province, and you were born in Hong Kong. Has this influenced your affinity for the Shar Pei breed?

A: Absolutely, my upbringing in Hong Kong and my ancestral roots in Guangdong have had a profound influence on my connection with the Shar Pei breed. My parents originated from a city very close to what we believe is the breed’s origin. I firmly believe that the Shar Pei belongs to our people, the people of Guangdong. This deep connection with the breed stems from our shared heritage and history.

Q: Can you explain why you decided to introduce them to the Western world?

A: Initially, I sought good Shar Pei specimens and experimented with breeding. However, after a couple of generations, I became disappointed with local breeders. Their goals were contrary to mine. I didn’t want the Shar Pei to be vicious or focused on fighting abilities. My vision was for this breed to be a friendly, family-oriented house dog, amiable not only with the family but also with others. I realized I was quite alone in this pursuit. So, I decided to introduce them to the outside world, specifically the overseas dog community.

Q: How did the breed gain recognition?

A: When I introduced Shar Peis to the United States, it created quite a sensation. Many Americans showed interest and reached out to me for talks and interviews, which contributed to the breed’s recognition.

Q: Was this recognition ultimately beneficial for the breed?

A: Unfortunately, no, it had some downsides. Different people in China saw this as an opportunity for profit due to high demand and low supply. They began sending not only quality specimens but any dog resembling a Shar Pei. When questioned about the dog’s type, head shape, and other characteristics, they often made excuses and misused old Chinese terms to explain faults in these dogs. This had some negative effects on the breed’s integrity.

Q: Could you share the moments in your journey of preserving the Shar Pei breed that brought you the most satisfaction?

A: Yes. The immediate satisfaction came when I successfully bred a litter of puppies with unique features, all conforming to the same breed type. That was a moment of great joy for me.

Secondly, I had a dream deep within me but hesitated to voice it initially, knowing it would be a long and challenging journey. My dream was for the Shar Pei to be able to compete in show rings purely based on their beauty, not fighting prowess. Thankfully, in the 1980s, in the United States, the Shar Pei was recognized as a purebred and placed in the miscellaneous group by the American AKC system. This was a significant step, allowing the Shar Pei to be part of the show ring.

Q: Are you satisfied with the type of Shar Peis we see today?

A: Generally, yes, I am satisfied with the quality of the Shar Pei breed today. They look much better than what I initially bred in my early days.

Q: Could you elaborate on this improvement?

A: Certainly, there is a dedicated community of people worldwide who are breeding Shar Peis for the right reasons and heading in the same direction. This collective effort has significantly improved the breed. While I don’t remember the exact country, I recall seeing some exceptional Shar Pei in Europe that, in my opinion, represent the best of the breed.

Q: What is your approach when judging an all-breed show compared to a specialty show?

A: I am a Shar Pei person, and I have a deep appreciation for Shar Pei, having started with them, but over time, I’ve also become involved with other breeds of dogs. Some of these breeds have been quite popular in my region, which gave me the opportunity to learn more about them. Others were less known in Hong Kong, and my knowledge of those breeds primarily came from their breed standards. When I judge an all-breed show, I assess each breed according to its standard, comparing it with dogs of similar types. For example, when evaluating a Spitz-type breed, I consider how well a dog represents that specific type.

I’ve noticed that in some countries, like the United States and Russia, diluted colors such as chocolates and blues have gained popularity. These colors have specific pigmentation in the nose and mouth. A chocolate dog must have a chocolate nose. A blue colored one, has a blue nose. When judging, diluted colors are accepted and conform to the standard. However, let me give you an example to illustrate my approach to judging diluted colors. Suppose there’s a Shar Pei class in a show with two dogs that are virtually identical in every aspect, except one is fawn, and the other is chocolate. In such a scenario, I would place the fawn dog first. The reason being that the fawn dog typically has stronger black pigmentation in the nose, mouth, gums, and even the tongue, which is considered a plus in Shar Peis. However, if the fawn dog has weaknesses while the chocolate one excels in balance, movement, and overall appearance, I would place the chocolate dog first. In judging, it’s about assessing the overall balance of strengths and weaknesses.

In the past, judges were categorized into those who looked for virtues and those who looked for faults. My approach leans more towards finding virtues first and then considering faults in the context of overall balance. I focus on how well a dog embodies the positive points specified in its breed standard when evaluating it.

Q: Could you highlight any differences you’ve noticed between judging Shar Pei in the United States and those in Europe?

A: One notable distinction follows the standards employed to judge Shar Pei. European countries adhere to the FCI standard, whereas the United States follows the AKC standard. These standards share similarities, and both describe the type and features of Shar Pei. They also incorporate variations in terminology and phrasing. To illustrate this, I often point to the terms “brushcoat” and “horsecoat.” While one standard uses these terms, which derive from old chinese terms, their interpretation can vary widely among individuals from different cultural backgrounds.

Q: How does cultural background affect the understanding of coat types like “horsecoat” and “brushcoat”?

A: Cultural background plays a significant role in shaping how individuals perceive terms like “horsecoat” and “brushcoat.” For instance, the image associated with a “horsecoat” in the mind of a Chinese person may not align with the mental picture of an American or someone from another cultural background. These differences in interpretation can lead to confusion, particularly when people mistakenly believe that these terms denote distinct coat varieties within the Shar Pei breed.

Q: Could you provide a more comprehensive overview of the key requirements you consider for Shar Pei coats?

A: There are four fundamental requirements that I believe are crucial for evaluating Shar Pei coats. First and foremost, the texture of the coat is of paramount importance. It should possess a rough and slightly uncomfortable feel when touched. Secondly, the coat should stand upright rather than lying flat against the skin. Thirdly, the coat should be as short as possible, adhering to the breed’s distinctive characteristics.

Fourthly, a critical trait is that the Shar Pei should lack an undercoat. These characteristics gives the Shar Pei its unique appearance and sets them apart from dog breeds.
If I were to add a fifth requirement, it would be that the coat should have a healthy appearance without being shiny. These criteria align with both the FCI and AKC standards. However, the old Chinese terms can sometimes lead to varied interpretations and understandings, as I explained earlier. Therefore, I often advise using more concise language in the standard to ensure clarity and prevent confusion.

Q: Why is the coat of the Shar Pei so crucial?

A: The coat of the Shar Pei is undeniably one of the most defining features of the breed. It sets them apart and makes them truly unique. Their distinctive coat is an integral part of what defines a Shar Pei.

Q: You’ve judged Shar Pei in various countries, including specialty and all-breed shows. Aside from the coat, what other unique characteristics do you focus on as a judge?

A: While the coat is undeniably significant, it’s just one piece of the puzzle. The head type, ears, and tail are equally essential aspects that I scrutinize as a judge. These features are unique to the Shar Pei and contribute to their distinct appearance. There are other factors to consider, such as the dog’s squareness, but the head type, ear type, coat, and tail are the standout features that truly set the Shar Pei apart from other breeds.

Q: What are your thoughts on wrinkles in Shar Pei?

A: Wrinkles are a somewhat controversial topic. Striking the right balance is key; excessive wrinkles are not desirable, but having too few wrinkles is also not ideal. I prefer the right amount of wrinkles. It’s worth noting that puppies naturally have more wrinkles, with rolls of skin and folds. However, when an adult Shar Pei retains the same level of wrinkling as a puppy, it’s not considered correct. While some people may appreciate an abundance of wrinkles, I believe it’s not good. 

Q: There have been issues with Shar Pei health and their relatively short lifespan. How do you feel about this?

A: It was indeed a sorrowful concern at one point, but I believe the situation has improved over time. I recently inquired about the average lifespan of Shar Pei in this country and elsewhere, and the responses I received were more promising than they were 10 or 12 years ago. Generally, it seems that Shar Pei are living longer nowadays, which brings me a sense of happiness.

During my early days of breeding with my own lines of dogs, their average lifespan was between 12 to 16 years. Remarkably, some of my dogs lived beyond 20 years, which is a testament to their vitality. However, when the Shar Pei breed was introduced to other countries, their lifespan began to shorten, primarily because some breeders focused on producing as many puppies as possible for profit. This approach, which emphasized exaggerated traits like bigger heads, more wrinkles, larger bones, and shorter bodies, led to health problems. To me, these were incorrect breeding practices that contributed to the breed’s health issues.

Thankfully, there has been a return to the right breeding track, and nowadays, there are various tests available for health and gene pool management. With these tools and better breeding practices, I believe we can achieve healthier breeding outcomes. It’s important to understand that the Shar Pei is not inherently a short-lived breed. 

In essence, the health issues in Shar Pei are related to breeding practices, and by returning to sound breeding principles, we can address these concerns more effectively.

Q: What advice would you offer to someone who is just starting out in breeding and showing Shar Pei or any other breed?

A: My advice applies not only to Shar Pei but to all breeds of dogs. If you’re truly committed to breeding or showing for competition, invest in the best breeding stock or puppy you can afford. The best typically comes at a higher price, but in doing so, you’re essentially buying the valuable experience of others. In my time, I started from the ground up and gradually built my way to success. Nowadays, with the right resources, you can begin closer to the middle and work your way up. Because when you find a good breeder and it comes to their best puppies, they’ll likely want to keep them for their own breeding program. So you will end up with someone else’s second-best puppies to start with, but it’s essential to understand this reality and embrace the journey. This practice is common in breeding, whether it’s horses, dogs, cats, or any other animal.

It may be expensive, and success isn’t guaranteed. But today, standards and quality are readily available in the breed and the market.

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