The exact origin of the Lowchen is a subject of debate. Some suggest a Mediterranean ancestry, closely related to the Bichon-type breeds including the Maltese, the Bolognese and the Bichon Frise. Other sources trace the Lowchen back to Belgium, Holland, France and Germany, where its name translates as “little lion” (although it is not related to the “lion dogs” from Asia); this theory places the Lowchen as an ancestor of the modern day poodle. Dogs resembling the Lowchen are seen in historical artwork dating to the mid-1400s, with their close-clipped hindquarters and full, natural mane. Goya included a Lowchen in his painting of the beautiful Duchess of Alba in the late 1700s. Regardless of its precise ancestry, the Lowchen undoubtedly was an enormously popular and pampered pet of royalty and aristocrats as far back as pre-Renaissance Europe, where ladies of the court groomed it in the likeness of a lion. Two reasons are suggested for this lion-cut. The first is that the dogs were intentionally clipped to resemble lions, which were symbols of strength and power. The second is that the warm exposed skin of these little dogs was comforting to their lady owners, who essentially used them as canine “hot-water bottles” to take the chill off of cold nights. The Lowchen also was an excellent varmint-catcher and fierce little guardian of hearth and home.
The breed almost disappeared due to the World Wars. By the middle of the 20th century, it was considered to be among the world’s rarest dog breeds. In 1960, the Guinness World Records book named the Lowchen “the rarest breed in the world”; the 1973 edition of The Guinness Book of Records stated: “The rarest breed of dog is the Lowchen, of which only 65–70 were reported in March, 1973.” Fortunately, the breed was brought back from obscurity thanks largely to the efforts of Madame M. Bennert of Brussels, Belgium. Starting in 1945, she searched for and gathered all surviving Little Lion Dogs that she could find and began a careful breeding program to save them from extinction. After her death, her work was continued by Dr. Hans Rickert, a German veterinarian. The selective and well-managed breeding programs of Mrs. Bennert and Dr. Rickert started a slow but steady revival of interest in the breed. The Lowchens that ultimately arrived in Great Britain and North America came directly from Dr. Rickert’s Von Den Drei kennel.
The first Lowchen arrived in the United States (coming from England) in 1971, still carrying the breed name of Little Lion Dog. The Lowchen Club of America was founded that same year and eventually changed the breed name officially to Lowchen, which is German for “little lion dog.” The American Kennel Club registered its first Lowchen and admitted it into the Miscellaneous Class in 1996. In January 1999, the Lowchen was give full recognition by the American Kennel Club as a member of its Non-Sporting Group. Under the Federation Cynologique Internationale registration, the breed is still called the Petite Chien Lion. It is shown in the Toy Group in England and elsewhere throughout Europe.
Although still a rare breed, the Lowchen is no longer in danger of extinction and is recognized by all major kennel clubs worldwide. Its popularity in America was strengthened by the American television series, Hart to Hart, in which an unclipped Lowchen starred as “Freeway,” the family pet. The Lowchen excels in conformation, agililty and obedience competition, in part because of its intelligence, trainability and alert nature. They also are wonderful therapy dogs and family pets.
The Lowchen is an unusually healthy breed, with an average life expectancy of 12 to 14 years. Breed health concerns may include cataracts and patellar luxation.