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Shih Tzu sitting on a photographer's set

The essentials

  • Their simple lineage is easy to trace — All modern shih tzus are said to be descended from 13 dogs that were imported into European countries between 1928 and 1952.
  • The breed has royal roots — Shih tzus have been a noble breed since their creation, serving as lap dogs to royals throughout the centuries.
  • These dogs are true companions — Shih tzus were bred to be beautiful companion dogs, admired for their long locks and unique faces.

Shih tzus have become incredibly popular over the years due to their small size and adorable looks. But, what were they originally bred for? These little dogs have a fascinating history that dates back over a thousand years.

Tibetan origins

The adorable and beloved shih tzu breed has a fascinating origin story that traces back to Tibet. Prior to the Communist Revolution, the country was a sovereign nation with a rich cultural heritage. Historians believe Tibetans sent the shih tzu as gifts to Chinese royalty, hence why the breed is often referred to as the “Lion Dog” or “Chrysanthemum Dog” in China.

In Tibetan society, dogs held a special place, as they were believed to be guardians and protective of their owners. The shih tzu was no exception and was highly prized for its loyal and protective nature. The breed’s long, flowing coat was initially bred to keep them warm in the cold mountainous regions of Tibet; it was later bred into their appearance and considered highly fashionable among the Tibetan aristocracy.

A little lion bred for royalty

Many believe that the shih tzu, also known as the “Lion Dog,” were bred as gifts for Chinese royalty and highly prized for their beauty and amusing personalities. The name shih tzu actually translates to “little lion” in Chinese, which is fitting, given their gorgeous locks. Many believed they had healing powers, and in ancient times, they were used as therapy dogs. It did not take long for the breed to become a favorite among Chinese emperors.

The Tang Dynasty

During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), the shih tzu was bred specifically for the imperial court, where it was kept as a cherished companion and lapdog. The breed’s delicate features and flowing coat made it a favorite among the Tang rulers, who often commissioned artists to paint portraits of their beloved shih tzus.

The Ming Dynasty

It was during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) that the shih tzu really gained popularity among the Chinese people and earned its official name, which is Mandarin means “Little Lion,” a symbol of power and strength in Chinese culture. The shih tzu became so beloved that it was often portrayed in Chinese art and literature, and many Ming emperors had their own shih tzus.

The Qing Dynasty

By the time of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912 AD), the shih tzu had become an integral part of imperial life. The Manchus, who ruled China during the Qing Dynasty, appreciated the breed’s regal appearance and kept the shih tzu as a symbol of their royalty. During this time, the breed was further refined with breeders focusing on achieving the perfect size, shape, and coat. Even after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the shih tzu remained a beloved breed in China.

However, with the rise of Communism in the country, many shih tzus were lost or abandoned, and the breed nearly became extinct. Another factor in the near-elimination of the breed was the death of the Dowager Empress Cixi (also called Tzu Hsi) in 1908. Prior to her death, she spearheaded a prominent breeding program for pugs, Pekingese, and shih tzus. However, the program crumbled shortly after her passing.

Fortunately, some dedicated breeders were able to preserve the shih tzu bloodline, and the breed eventually became popular in the West.

European royals

Shih tzus also have a rich and fascinating history in various royal houses throughout Europe and the United Kingdom.

But how did they get there? An Englishwoman named Lady Brownrigg was able to import a few shih tzus from her time in China. From there, she and other English breeders joined together to create a program to repopulate the breed. This eventually led to dogs being sent to European countries. By 1938, a standard was set for the breed.

These beloved pups were highly valued and considered a luxury item, often given as gifts to royalty and nobility. Queen Victoria of England was especially fond of the breed, and was said to keep several at a time. Another famous European monarch who owned shih tzus was Marie Antoinette of France.

The shih tzu today

In the United States, shih tzus were first introduced in the early 20th century. They were recognized as a breed by the American Kennel Club in 1969, and have since become a beloved pet for many households.

The shih tzu is an extremely popular toy breed in the United States and England, rated the 20th most popular dog breed (out of 284) by the AKC in 2022 . Celebrities like Beyoncé, Pink, Bill Gates, Miley Cyrus, and even Queen Elizabeth II have been spotted with shih tzus.

Today, shih tzus are bred for companionship and their lovable personalities. Also, they are often used as therapy dogs due to their calm temperament and affectionate nature. The little lion has come a long way from its roots in Tibet, bringing joy to households across the world.