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Shih Tzu waiting for a dog treat

The essentials

  • The name shih tzu is the Chinese word for “little lion.” It’s a lofty name for small dogs, and the “lion dogs” label isn’t just about the luxurious hair that looks like a mane. According to legend, the Tibetan Buddhist God of Learning traveled with a little lion dog that could turn into a full-sized lion.
  • The shih tzu breed is one of the world’s oldest. The tale of the shih tzu likely begins around 1,000 B.C. Their  history spans multiple Chinese dynasties, surviving the communist takeover and an eventual boom in popularity among British royalty.
  • The ancient breed is a beloved modern family member. From the Imperial Palace to celebrity laps, shih tzus have maintained their status as companion dogs. Today,  the little pups are one of the most popular toy breeds in the United States and the United Kingdom.

At 10 inches tall and 9 to 16 pounds, shih tzus are little dogs, even at adult size. But the small dogs have a long history that includes warming the laps of everyone from ancient Chinese royalty to pop stars like Miley Cyrus. Today’s shih tzu dogs make fantastic companions for pet owners of all ages, from young children to seniors. But how did this old breed with an affectionate personality evolve into the loving lap dogs and companions of the 21st century? Let’s take a (long) stroll back in time to learn more about shih tzu history, including the likely gene pool.

1000 B.C.: Under the table dogs from Tibet

A dash of Lion, several teaspoons of Rabbit, a couple of ounces of Domestic Cat, one part Court Jester, a dash of Ballerina, a pinch of Old Chinese Man, a bit of Beggar, a tablespoon of Money, one part Baby Seal, and a dash of Teddy Baby.

James E. Mumford

American Shih Tzu Magazine

The shih tzu is one of the oldest dog breeds. Definitive knowledge of the history of these compact dogs with lion-like facial hair has yet to be discovered. However, records from at least 1,000 B.C. note the existence of square dogs of a small size.

People often consider shih tzus as Chinese dogs. Technically, the shih tzu is not a Chinese breed. Instead, historians believe they originated in Tibet. Tibet’s sovereignty is another matter of historical debate. However, an agreement was reached in 1951 that recognized Tibet as part of China—this was well after the evolution of the modern shih tzu into loving family pets.

Historians believe shih tzus are the oldest and smallest “holy dogs.” The lion is a central figure in Buddhism, which traces its roots to India. It’s believed that the Tibetan Buddhist God of Learning traveled with a little lion dog that could turn into a full-sized lion. Another legend is that the lion wasn’t native to China, so Chinese and Tibetan lamas (Buddhist teachers) bred their toy dog breeds to look like lions. The shih tzu likely counts multiple breeds among their ancestors: Sino-Tibetan breeds, Lhasa apso, and the Pekingese.

Regardless, Imperial courts held the breed in high regard because of its lion-like facial features. The dogs were considered esteemed gifts to show respect — and to avoid trouble — with Chinese emperors and lamas. Their short size earned them another nickname: Under-the-table dogs.

During the Tang Dynasty (618-705 AD), the King of Viqur (K’iu T’ai) gifted the Chinese courts two dogs from the Fu Lin, probably the Byzantine Empire.

17th century: Chinese emperors

Part of the reason the shih tzu’s history is so murky is that these dogs hid largely behind palace doors until the 20th century. In fact, (yet another) nickname for the dog was “sleeve dogs” because they were small enough to hide inside the robe sleeves of noblemen and women. Their thick, double coats warmed Chinese royalty’s laps, beds, feet, and arms.

In the 17th century, numerous Chinese dynasties coveted the little lion dogs. The Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), Ming (1368 to 1644), and Qing (1636–1911) were all known to own shih tzu dogs. During the Yuan and Ming dynasties, the shih tzus were raised by palace eunuchs (servants). Anyone other than royal court members seen with one could receive a death sentence. As time passed in the Ming dynasty and into Qing rule, the small dogs became a status symbol.

In the late 1800s, pugs were overtaking the shih tzu in popularity. Empress Dowager Cixi had a kennel full of pugs and Pekingese, and received dogs resembling the shih tzu from the Dalai Lama. Today’s shih tzu is a result of random breeding between the two.

19th and 20th centuries: The move to Europe

The Tibetan breed had another massive obstacle: The Communist Revolution. Shih tzus in China were killed off because they were considered a symbol of wealth.

Lady Brownrigg, a British woman living in China, stepped in. She discovered a few shih tzus, as did a member of the English Officer serving in China during the Communist takeover. They imported the salvaged dogs to England and elsewhere in Europe, including Scandinavian countries. The breed also traveled to Australia. The Shih Tzu Club of England was founded in 1934.

Military personnel from the United States discovered these chrysanthemum dogs. Some American soldiers brought some back across the pond with them. Americans fell in love with these affectionate dogs and became eager to be their pet parents. The American Kennel Club officially recognized the breed, one of the oldest, in 1969.

The modern shih tzu

The shih tzu’s role as a royal family member didn’t end in Imperial China. King George VI, the father of the late Queen Elizabeth II, kept the breed, too. Interesting fact: His daughter wasn’t a fan, but other notable names are. Miley Cyrus, Bill Gates, and Nicole Richie are among the diverse group of famous shih tzu owners. But these dogs, as cuddly as a teddy bear, are also loved by English and American “commoners” and remain one of the most popular breeds in the toy group in both countries.

Frequently asked questions

What did the shih tzu evolve from?

The modern shih tzu’s gene pool likely includes Sino-Tibetan breeds, Lhasa apso, the Pekingese, and the pug.

What is special about a shih tzu?

The shih tzu is an ancient Tibetan breed with a long, inconclusive history that includes sitting in the laps of many emperors and empresses. These days, these lovable, low-energy dogs are good in homes with younger and older children. They’re playful, but do well in various living situations, including apartments and homes with large yards. Shih tzus usually get along with other pets, including dogs, cats, and rabbits.

Are shih tzus the oldest dog breed?

They are one of them. Historians have found records of small dogs resembling the shih tzu dating back to 1,000 B.C. They likely developed from other ancient breeds like the Lhasa apso, so they are not the oldest dog breed on record.

Why does everyone have a shih tzu dog?

To say everyone has a shih tzu is a bit hyperbolic, but the breed certainly is popular for its affectionate personality and ability to adapt to many types of homes. They typically take well to positive reinforcement training. If you’re interested in one, consider looking for shih tzu puppies or adult dogs at a local animal shelter or through a reputable breeder.

What health problems are the shih tzu dog breed known to have?

The good news is that shih tzus have long life expectancies ranging from 10 to 18 years. But, they are prone to some health problems. As a brachycephalic breed, shih tzus have a short muzzle that can cause breathing difficulties like a collapsed trachea, so be sure to keep them indoors as much as possible during periods of hot, humid weather.