April 04, 1977 12:00 PM

Their effigies were found in the tombs of Han dynasty emperors in China. In fact, the breed has been around for at least 2,000 years. But the Chinese Shar-Pei dogs might be close to extinction if it weren’t for the efforts of a retired oil company dispatcher, Ernest Albright, 62. Few Shar-Peis are left in China, and only 60 or so are known to exist in the United States and Canada.

The Shar-Pei is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s rarest dog. It surely qualifies as the oddest looking: its cascading dewlaps make wet, smacking noises when the dog shakes, its coat undulates like an accordion, and its beady eyes peer from a deeply furrowed face.

“People line up 20 deep in the airport when I bring the dogs through,” Albright reports proudly, “especially if it’s a pup.” (Young Shar-Peis have even more wrinkles than adults.) Albright and his wife, Madeline, own six of the unusual dogs. Since he imported his first Shar-Pei from Macão nearly four years ago, Albright has sold 13 pups—none for less than $500. The reason for the high price: Shar-Peis are hard to breed. In four years Albright’s dogs have had only six litters.

Albright heard of Shar-Peis from a dog lover in Hong Kong who feared the breed was disappearing in China. “The name,” Albright explains, “means rough, sandy coat.” The theory is that they were bred as hunting dogs originally. “Some people like their wrinkles,” he adds, “but I like their personalities. They make a heck of a watchdog and are very obedient.”

Albright’s goal is to have Shar-Peis accepted by the American Kennel Club, and he and 25 other owners have joined together to keep careful stud records over eight to 10 years. Already Albright has placed a bitch, Mucho, in other dog shows, and once she walked off with “best of breed.” “There was,” Albright admits, “no competition.”

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