The Shih Tzu

Royal dignity and loving affection


There's much talk in recent years about maintaining the original working abilities of various dog breeds. The American Kennel Club has hunting tests and trials for the sporting dogs and beagles, herding tests and trials for herding dogs and Samoyeds, go-to-ground tests for terriers, and lure coursing events for sighthounds. The Newfoundland club has water trials and draft tests and the Dalmatian club includes events on horseback that prove the breed's stamina. And owners of German Shepherds, Rottweilers, and some other working breeds participate in schutzhund trials to prove endurance, intelligence, and guardian ability of their dogs.

The toy breeds need no such elaborate events or exhaustive training that gets them ready for competition each and every one excels at the job it was bred to do without long hours of preparation. These are the ultimate companions, developed and bred as pets, and the Shih Tzu's joy for life and unsurpassed royal bearing make him one of the most popular of the group.

The Shih Tzu (pronounced Shid Zoo in singular and plural) comes by his regal attitude quite honestly, for he was developed as a favored pet of Chinese emperors of the Manchu Dynasty from the middle of the 19th Century. But his history begins centuries earlier, as one of Tibet's "lion dogs," an exclusive group of dogs bred by Buddhist monks that includes the Lhasa Apso and Tibetan Spaniel. In 1850, as was their custom, the monks sent several of their treasured temple dogs to Manchu emperors in Peking, and the Chinese called these dogs Tibetan Shih Tzu Kou, or Tibetan Lion Dog. The dogs were bred specifically to please the emperors in each palace, and type varied.

In 1908, the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, sent some small dogs of Shih Tzu type to Tzu Hsi, Dowager Empress of the Manchu Dynasty. The Empress was a renowned breeder of Pekingese and added the Shih Tzu to her interests. At this time, three types of dogs were bred as palace companions with little difference in type but with different coat length. Tzu Hsi closely supervised the initial Shih Tzu breeding to maintain breed characteristics separate from the Pekingese, but after her death that same year, breeding practices became sloppy and cross-breedings with Pekingese and Pugs probably occurred.

For the next four years, there was much competition among the various palaces to produce dogs of the finest coats and colors, so breeding practices were tightly guarded secrets and records were not kept. Dogs of poor quality were sold in the marketplace, and dogs of fine quality were often smuggled out of the palaces and given as gifts to foreign visitors or Chinese noblemen. Breed identity was often confused.

The Manchu Dynasty perished in 1912 when Tzu's successor abdicated to revolutionary forces that eventually established the Communist government in China. Many of the royal dogs were slaughtered during the stormy months that followed.

Shih Tzu found their way west to England when Lady Brownrigg discovered the breed in Peking in 1930. Originally classified as "Apsos," the Shih Tzu was ruled a separate breed by The Kennel Club by 1935. American soldiers stationed in England during World War II became enchanted with the little dogs and brought some back to the US. The breed was not recognized by the AKC until 1969, so those first imported dogs were often registered as and crossbred with Lhasa Apsos. AKC requires six generations of pure breeding after an outcross to establish a breed as unsullied, so the early Lhasa crosses in this country and a deliberate cross with Pekingese in England in 1952 delayed US recognition.

A real Shih Tzu

Such a bumpy beginning for the breed has not hurt its ultimate popularity. In 1994, the Shih Tzu was the 12th most popular dog of AKC's 139 breeds with more than 37 thousand new individual registrations. Only two toy breeds, the Pomeranian and the Yorkshire Terrier, are higher on the list at numbers 10 and 11 respectively.

This popularity and the dog's convenient size have led to two serious threats to the Shih Tzu's integrity puppy mill production and crossbreeding with Toy Poodles to produce the Shih-poo. Fuzzy Shih-Tzu puppies are often found in pet stores, and Shih-poos are favorites of mass production kennels that have several small breeds.

If you want a Shih-Tzu, check out the breed standard before buying. This word-picture of the breed will help you decide if the pups or adults you are looking at are true representatives of the breed.

The Shih-Tzu attitude is lively, alert, proud, and somewhat stubborn. The general appearance of the breed is that of a small, compact, sturdy dog with luxurious coat, upright head, jaunty step, and plumed, curved tail flowing over the back. Ideal height is nine to 10.5 inches at the withers, but ranges from eight to 11 inches. Ideal weight is nine to 16 pounds, depending on height.

The head is round, broad, and wide between the eyes, and in balance with the rest of the dog. The dark eyes are large and round; the ears are natural and heavily feathered; the muzzle is square, short and unwrinkled, and flat; lips and chin should neither protrude nor recede. The jaw is undershot -- the incisors of the lower jaw overlap the incisors of the upper jaw.

The Shih Tzu body is slightly longer than tall, its legs straight and muscular, and its feet firm and well-padded.

The lavish double coat is the breed's crowning glory. A well-groomed Shih Tzu in natural coat is a picture of perky elegance with flowing tresses framing an impish face and body hair brushing the floor. Pet Shih Tzus often have their hair trimmed so it does not drag, but at ringside, the dogs often sit on velvet or satin pillows or are carried in exhibitor's arms to keep their coats off dusty floors.

The Shih Tzu coat can be any color or mixture, although the Dowager Empress preferred honey gold with the Buddhist white splash on the forehead. Many Shih Tzu are white with colored markings.

Temperament and training

Although he is generally outgoing and friendly, the Shih Tzu definitely has an attitude that cries to be spoiled. If you need help in realizing this fact, the dog will steer you in the right direction with his self-assurance that he should be treated like a king. Indeed, his strong sense of self makes him a poor choice in a household with babies or small children. He is often jealous of babies and toddlers and may snap if bothered by rambunctious children. However, he is a fine companion for older children, particularly those who enjoy combing his hair.

Shih Tzu are active and alert, qualities that make them good watchdogs. However, poorly bred dogs of the breed can be excitable, noisy, and snappy.

Shih Tzu are intelligent, and can be trained for obedience competition and for good manners around the home. They can be stubborn, so persistence and consistency are definite plusses in training methods. Punishment makes this dog shut down, so training should also be low-key and motivational.*

Health and care

Basically healthy, the Shih Tzu is subject to a kidney disease called renal dysplasia and to slipped stifles or kneecaps. His slightly protruding eyes are prone to injury, and his short muzzle often produces slight wheezing problems.

Otherwise, his greatest problems are connected to his profuse coat, or rather to neglect of that coat. A well-groomed Shih Tzu has few if any skin problems; a poorly-groomed Shih Tzu can develop tangles, painful mats, hot spots, skin infections, even maggot infestations. If you do not have time to groom a Shih Tzu at least every other day, select another breed.

If you do have time for grooming and appreciate a small, lively pet with an abundance of self-esteem, consider the Shih Tzu. You'll be glad you did.

For more information about the breed, see:

The Joy of Owning a Shih Tzu
by Ann Seranne with Lisa M. Miller


Shih Tzus, A Complete Pet Owner's Manual
by Jaime J. Sucher
Norma Bennett Woolf

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