Breed of the Week: Shih Tzu

June 8th, 2007 by Kathy Hawkins

Welcome to “Breed of the Week,” a new feature here on Dog Reflections. In these articles, I’ll be sharing some stories and fun facts about all sorts of different dog breeds, from Akitas to Weimeraners, and everything in between. I’ll start with my own personal favorite breed — the Shih Tzu. My husband and I love these dogs so much that we’ve got two of them. They can be a handful sometimes, but I wouldn’t trade them in for anything. If you, too, think a Shih Tzu might make your life more complete, here’s some background on the breed.

Shih Tzu Dog
Our beautiful boy, Gatsby.

First, let’s start with the name. I know it’s unfortunate, but it’s not meant to be pronounced quite the way you probably think. The phrase “shih tzu,” pronounced as “sheet zoo,” is the literal Chinese translation of “lion dog,” so-called because the breed somewhat resembles a very small, black-and-white version of a lion — though to me, they look more like oversized teddy bears.

White Faced Shih Tzu
Photo by Oscar Rohena.

Though most dog breeds were originally bred for a practical purpose, such as hunting or herding, the Shih Tzu’s purpose has always been the same as it is today: simply to provide companionship to humans. The breed is thousands of years old; dating back to around 1000 BC in Imperial China. As the quintessential lap dog, the early ancestors of Shih Tzus, then known as “Happa,” were permitted to ride inside of chariots with their royal masters, while all the other dogs were forced to run alongside the car.

No one’s quite sure when the Shih Tzu as we know it today became a separate breed, but it’s likely that they developed from an earlier breed known as the Tibetan lion dog sometime around 700 AD. These beautiful little dogs were kept hidden in Chinese palaces and never seen by outsiders until 1860, when an Empress was forced to flee her palace briefly, and many Shih Tzus were left at the palace and taken in by local people and soldiers. Upon the Empress’ death in the early 1900s, her servants took the dogs and began to breed them. Soon, the Shih Tzu breed spread to Europe — a good thing, since the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949 placed a ban on all pets that did not work; had the breed not existed in Europe, it would have probably gone extinct.

White Shih Tzu
Photo by Joel Sowers.

The Shih Tzu was brought to the United States during the 1930s, by soldiers who had seen the dogs while on their tours of duty — most likely, they wanted to surprise their sweethearts back home with an adorable exotic pet. In those days, the Shih Tzu was often confused with the Lhasa Apso, which is very similar in appearance; it wasn’t officially recognized as a separate breed until 1952. Since then, the Shih Tzu’s popularity has skyrocketed in the United States; it is frequently ranked in the top ten most popular dog breeds in the country.

Mask Faced Shih Tzu
Photo by Linday M. Curtis.

So what’s so great about the Shih Tzu? By breeding, their very nature is to be a great companion — and that’s exactly what they are. Nearly every Shih Tzu you’ll meet is incredibly sociable and loves to be around people — and there’s no one they love more than their owner. Though they may be playful at times, these dogs are generally pretty mellow, and would rather sleep than chew up your sofa, making them ideal for apartments or small houses, but equally at home out in the country. As you can see from these photos, they’re also incredibly cute. Shih Tzus that perform in dog shows must have a long, flowing coat to meet the breed standard, but most pet Shih Tzus have their hair cut short, which is much more manageable, and much nicer for them during hot months. Another plus about the breed is that they’re one of the best for people who have allergy problems, and hardly ever shed.

Gray Shih Tzu
Photo by mmarchin.

If I’ve convinced you that you’re ready to bring a Shih Tzu home, you can find a reputable breeder on if you’re set on a puppy. If not, take a look at the Shih Tzu and Furbaby Rescue web site, where you’ll find hundreds of Shih Tzus and other small breed dogs, just waiting for a family to love them.

Leave a Reply