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Shih tzu by a fireplace

Once exclusively owned by Chinese emperors, the Shih Tzu now graces the laps of common folk worldwide. Their calm, friendly nature suits them well for their role as a lapdog. This toy breed covets human companionship and wants to be wherever you are. Although not considered high energy, the Shih Tzu will happily accompany you on a walk to spend more time with you. Here are nine things you may not know about this ancient breed that you can read during your next snuggle session.

1. “Shih Tzu” translates to “little lion” in its original Mandarin Chinese.

Both the appearance and cultural connotations of the Shih Tzu play into their name. Its long silky coat flows around their face, giving the impression of a mane. The breed originated in Tibetan Buddhist temples, where monks developed them. According to legend, Buddha is said to have ridden to earth on the back of a lion, which may be some of the reason behind their name. The Pekingese, known as the lion dog, is believed to be one of the Shih Tzu’s ancestors.

2. Their full name in Mandarin Chinese is “Shih-tzu Kou.” 

Although they’re popularly known as Shih Tzus, technically, “Shih-tzu kou” is the correct translation in Mandarin. The small dog’s name was likely simplified once the English began owning the breed.

Shih tzu walking in a field

3. Punishable by death, it was once forbidden to own a Shih Tzu unless you were the emperor or nobility.  

Monks and palace eunuchs carried the tradition of breeding dogs for the emperor for thousands of years. Anyone caught outside the palace or temple gates with a Shih Tzu could be executed.

4. The Shih Tzu was an ancient secret. 

Artistic renderings of the little lion dog predate the common era, but ownership was severely restricted to Chinese royalty until the first half of the 20th century. The Shih Tzu remained a secret to the western world until the 1930s when they were gifted to English and Dutch nobility.

Shih tzu in bed

5. Queen Elizabeth owned a Shih Tzu but had beef with the breed. 

Known for her deep devotion to Pembroke Welsh Corgis, the late queen wasn’t as big of a fan of this toy dog breed. The reason? She wasn’t fond of the “unsavoury habit of eating their own faeces.”

6. The Shih Tzu is nicknamed the “chrysanthemum dog.”  

The thick layers of chrysanthemum petals around the flower’s core resemble the Shih Tzu’s fluffy facial hair. However, be careful if you plant these autumn glories around your pets. The actual flower is toxic to dogs and cats.

Shih Tzu laying on its back inside

7. The breed almost went extinct during the early 20th century. 

Since Shih Tzus were bred to entertain the emperor, the breeding program fell apart with the onset of the Communist Revolution. Sadly, many were even slaughtered because of their association with the aristocracy. Every Shih Tzu alive today can trace their bloodlines to one of 14 dogs pulled from the aftermath of the uprising and bred in Europe.

8. After World War II, American soldiers stationed in Europe imported Shih Tzus to their home country. 

The Shih Tzu was rescued and imported to Europe within a decade of the culmination of World War II. American military members noticed the cute companion dog and brought it home to their families when they returned from their duty overseas.

Shih Tzu with their hair up in a bow and with a cute collar

8. The Shih Tzu performs well in dog shows, but has never won Best in Show. 

Although they’ve frequently won Best in Toy Group at Westminster, this breed has surprisingly never won Best in Show. They’ve been competing since they were accepted into the American Kennel Club in 1969.

9. Today, the Shih Tzu is ranked the 20th most popular dog in the United States. 

According to the American Kennel Club, the Shih Tzu was the 20th most popularly owned dog in 2022. Their moderate energy, small size, friendly attitude, and hypoallergenic status likely contribute to their favor. Like other brachycephalic breeds, the shih tzu is known to have some breathing problems due to their short nose.

Frequently asked questions

Is the Shih Tzu a good family dog?

Yes! They were once exclusively available to nobility, but today, they’re everyone’s best friend. The Shih Tzu usually gets along incredibly well with other dogs and family members, including children. Sometimes used as guard dogs in the past, Shih Tzus can feel protective over their people and may act aggressive towards strangers unless they’ve been socialized. This small dog typically adapts well to almost any environment, and can be an ideal pet for small apartments.

Is the Shih Tzu hypoallergenic?

Those flowy lion mane locks don’t shed like most dogs, which means the double coat is considered hypoallergenic. Even so, it’s important to realize that no dog is 100% hypoallergenic since humans are allergic to the dander and saliva—not the fur or hair — which is just a mode of transport for the allergen. Their good amount of undercoat requires daily brushing in order to collect loose hair, which can tangle, and frequent trimming to keep to a manageable length. The Shih Tzu’s coat features different colors and patterns according to the AKC breed standard, including the popular black mask pattern on their face.

Where did the Shih Tzu come from?

It’s believed that the Lhasa Apso, the Pekingese, and the pug played a role in developing the Shih Tzu. Tibetan monks bred the little lion dog as the ideal companion animal and guard dog for the emperor and his royal courts. Artistic renderings date the Shih Tzu back at least 2,000 years.