Foo Dogs (Fu Dogs, Foo Lions, Guardian Lions, or Komainu) are the guardians of Buddhist Asian temples. These ancient sacred dogs are usually placed to the left and to the right of a temple entrance.
Many Chinese restaurants have placed Foo Dogs outside their restaurant doors and they are meant to protect the owner and their family. The meaning of the foo dog is to guard and to protect. They are believed to have powerful mythic protective powers. The meaning of a foo dog tattoo is therefore very similar, to protect it’s bearer and guard against evil forces.
The Foo Dog of Asia has also been called the “Lion of Buddha” and that name is actually much more accurate, since it is a lion and not a dog at all. Known also as Fu Dogs, Fo Dogs, and karashishi (in Japan), they are used extensively in Asian art, sculpture, and, of course, tattoos. But the Lion of Buddha may not be Buddhist in origin.
The local Shinto religion of Japan, which predates Buddhism, also has a lion protector, with a red head, who drives away evil spirits and brings health and wealth. No matter the origin though, be it Chinese or Japanese, Buddhist or Shinto, the definitive Foo Dog is fundamentally protective, strong, and courageous. It is even said that when they are cubs, their mothers will throw them from cliffs, so that only the strongest survive. Many times, Foo Dogs occur in pairs, placed at gated entrances, for example, seated and yet always ready. The Foo Dog to the right is typically thought of as male, with the mouth open a bit, one front paw resting on a sphere, which is often carved as open latticework and represents both heaven and the totality of Buddhist law. On the left is the female, mouth closed, paw resting on a small cub, typically shown upside down on its back, which represents the earth. Often in tattoo imagery, the Foo Dog crawls menacingly, up or down an arm or leg.
With their pointed ears and their curly but subdued manes of hair, there is certainly a resemblance to dogs. More than likely, it is that resemblance which has caused the widespread confusion about these animals, also known as Chinese Lions and even Lion Dogs. But the resemblance is accidental and due to the fact that virtually all knowledge of actual lions was second hand to the Asian artists who initially created them. Their knowledge was second hand because, although dogs abound the world over, lions have never been native to the orient.