Foo Dog Fun

Karen Parr-Moody


Who doesn’t love a foo dog? Bold decorators certainly do, as have the Chinese for two thousand years. And any Hollywood Regency decorator worth his or her salt simply must include such a character in the décor.


Then there are dog lovers, owners of Shih Tzus, pugs, Pekingese, and chow chows; the foo dog reminds them of their pets.


Many people are familiar with Staffordshire dogs, of course. With the simplistic lines, the folksy style of painting, theirs is an unmistakable look. Like Staffordshire dogs, foo dogs are used to pepper a room with a certain dash of whimsy. However, while Staffordshire dogs impart a restrained, preppy feel, the foo dog is, let’s face it, kind of wild. Its dreamy silhouette, with bugged eyes, fangs, and roaring mouth, speaks of stone temples slathered in vines, and emperors passing by in a formal train.


The electric turquoise foo dog, right, is from Linda Dorland’s booth ($58, Booth B-225). Linda has a nice collection of Asian finds in her booth, including vintage ningyo dolls. This foo dog brings such a stunning color to the spirited design of the animal. There’s nothing ancient or staid about him. He belongs in a décor that is clean and bright, and would be the perfect companion piece for a Hollywood Regency design. In fact, he would be right at home guarding any of the white bamboo furniture that Caroline West sells in her GasLamp booth, “A Flair for Vintage.”


The reality is that foo dogs aren’t dogs at all … and the Chinese would never refer to them as such. They are actually protectoral lions that date back to the Han Dynasty of China (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.), and are known to the Chinese by the names "Imperial Guardian Lion," "Stone Lion," or "Lion of Buddha." The Chinese word for them is “Shishi.” Used extensively in Asian art and sculpture, these lions have traditionally stood as guards in front of Chinese Imperial palaces, temples, emperors' tombs, and government offices and homes.


How these lions came to be known in Western parlance as "Fu Dogs" or "Foo Dogs" is a matter of debate. The words “fó” and “fú” translate from Chinese to English as “Buddha” or “prosperity,” respectively. And when these lion figures came to Japan, by way of Korea, they were originally called “Korean dogs.” It might also be that since these lions resemble certain Chinese dog breeds, such as the Chow Chow (called "puffy-lion dog") or the Shih Tzu ("lion dog"), they were misidentified long ago by other cultures.


The Buddha is sometimes depicted riding on the back of a lion, which is another theory about the origin of the foo dog.


In modern décor, these wonderful creatures can take on many guises, from figurines to bookends to garden statues. Elizabeth Burton, a GasLamp dealer who is a big fan of all things Asian, includes the foo dog, left, made of lead, in her showcase ($30, Showcase S-104). Made during the 1930s, this little fellow is diminutive, but speaks volumes with mouth widened for a silent roar. Can’t you just see him guarding a vase of Sandra Bernhardt peonies in blush pink?


Foo dogs have long been considered by decorators as a glamorous accent to an interior.  They are fabulously detailed, but in a solid color laquer – bright white, orange, red, blue, or green – they don’t seem busy. They are a staple of the Hollywood Regency style of decorating begun by Billy Haines and Dorothy Draper in ‘20s and ‘30s America.  


These porcelain foo dogs, right, are bright enough to add a crisp, modern touch to any interior ($25; Showcase S-534). However, their design and finish is so refined that it could also anchor them in a more traditional environment. These dogs are perfect for someone who is neither at home in the splashy, mid-century modern camp, nor in the classic parlor, but who loves transitional décor.


Stan Williams, the creative voice behind the coffee table book The Find: The Housing Works Book of Decorating with Thrift Shop Treasures, spoke with GasLamp about these charismatic creatures.


“Foo dogs’ designs are so dramatic that they can take over a décor,” he said. “I like to see them mixed into an environment, or as an unexpected pop in a table display or in an entry to a garden.”


While most decorators use foo dogs as accents, the daring might fill an entire wall with different shapes, colors and styles. Envision an otherwise modern loft with such a splash of panache.  





Carol Williams, proprietor of Aunt Enid’s Attic, features these tiny soapstone foos ($48; Booth B-110). They are awfully sweet, and could get lost in a décor that emphasizes a large scale. However, for someone who has carefully “collected” their home items, they could take their place among the small scale pieces of nostalgic meaning. What a conversation piece they would make.


Foo dogs are such a constant part of design history that, really, it seems almost every home that aspires to a certain élan should have at least one. Worldly, spiritual, and downright cute, foo dogs impart a charm that is utterly unique.

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