Shih Tzu

Ana Oliveira
Dr Ana Oliveira (DVM, University of Lisbon)
Photo of adult Shih Tzu

The Shih Tzu is a small, lap dog that resembles a small version of a lion, which is exactly what the word means in Chinese. Shih Tzus originated in the region of Tibet/China and they are one of the ancient dog breeds, created for the only purpose of being a companion pet – a role which they play exceptionally well.

Shih Tzus are affectionate, loving dogs that love comfort and attention. Their long, silky coat and underbite are characteristic of this toy dog breed, as much as their friendly nature towards humans and animals alike. Despite their snobbish appearance and tendency for stubbornness, Shih Tzus are truly good-natured dogs that just want to love and be loved.

About & History

In modern Chinese language, the Shih Tzu is known as Xi Shi Dog. There are many different versions revolving around the history and origin of the Shih Tzu, along with stories and legends that add to the mystical meaning of this breed. It is believed that the Shih Tzu originated in Tibet or China – around 800BC – which makes it quite an ancient breed. In fact, DNA ancestry analyses show that there is a very close genetic relationship between Shih Tzus and wolves. The Shih Tzu is also called Chinese Lion Dog, Tibetan Lion Dog, or Chrysanthemum Dog.

Some think that the breed resulted from a cross between the Pekingese and the Lhasa Apso and that it was a highly valued dog owned by the royalty of the Ming Dynasty, with members of the royalty refusing to sell it or trade it. Whether it has been gifted to the royal emperor of China by the Dalai Lama remains unclear. What is known is that this dog breed was seen as prized in the Chinese Empire era and there are many paintings portraying Shih Tzus that attest to their importance.

Other stories refer to the Shih Tzu having been bred by Tibetan lamas to be replicas of a lion, which is linked with Buddhist mythology. Others say that they were bred to resemble lions, as depicted in traditional oriental art. Also, Fu Dogs, the guardians of Buddhist temples, are thought to be a representation of Shih Tzus. It is said that Shih Tzus are the incarnation of mischievous dogs, or that they carried the soul of lamas who had not yet reached nirvana. A lovely legend says that the Buddha himself had a Shih Tzu that travelled with him and one day it saved him from a robbery and murder attempt by turning into a lion and fiercely defending him against the bandits. The Buddha then kissed the dog in gratitude and the white mark seen in the head of some Shih Tzus represents the spot of that kiss.

It is believed that modern Shih Tzus descend from only 14 dogs, as after the end of the imperial rule in China, the breed almost disappeared. However, some dogs were taken to England and Norway in the 1930s. Though they were classified as Apsos, they were later reclassified, with the creation of the Shih Tzu Club in England, in 1935. In England, they were nicknamed Chrysanthemum dogs, due to the way their hair grows out on its face in all directions, resembling a chrysanthemum flower with the nose in the middle. After World War II, these dogs were taken to America, where they were recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1969.

Though Shih Tzus were bred to be companion animals only, more recently they started participating in some dog sports, such as obedience, rally, and agility dog competitions, with some outstanding results. They also make great therapy dogs.


Shih Tzu Large Photo

Shih Tzus are small, sturdy dogs with a short muzzle, large dark eyes and a characteristic underbite (jaw prognathism), which is a breed standard. The most common colour is white with blazes of grey, but any colour is accepted. Other colours include:

  • Black
  • Black & White
  • Black Mask Gold
  • Liver
  • Liver & White
  • Brindle
  • White
  • Red & White

The hallmark of the breed is the long, silky double coat that reaches to the floor if not clipped. They have a curly tail that has a lot of fur and drop ears also covered with fur. They weigh between 4.5 and 8.6 kg (10-19 lb) and males are about 23 to 28 cm tall (9-11 inches). Female Shih Tzus are smaller, measuring 20 to 25 cm (8-9.8 inches).

Character & Temperament

The Shih Tzu is a trusting and loving dog that likes to be close to people, following them around everywhere they go. The owner of a Shih Tzu should be careful not to step on it, as its fondness of people and tendency to always be around may lead to such accidents. They are very friendly, even with strangers. Though they may bark at strangers at first, it is not uncommon to see them curl up on their lap soon after. They also get along well with children and other pets. Friendliness towards cats depends on the individual dog, as some may like them and others may not.

This dog breed is a very loyal one and, compared to other toy breeds, they are less demanding and effusive. Shih Tzus have very outgoing personalities, they are alert and active, but do not require much exercise. They prefer the comfort of a cushion and absolutely love to be nurtured and spoiled. They are happy, playful dogs, and despite their regal appearance and somewhat arrogant looks, they are gentle and sweet. They are also courageous and what some people might describe as mischievous behaviour, is no more than their playfulness in display. They may hide your shoes, hoping you will go and find them, which is a good example of their interactive and lively character. They do not hunt, herd, guard, or retrieve, as they simply were not bred for any of those purposes. Due to its personality traits, the Shih Tzu may be the ideal pet for a senior person.

They may be stubborn and difficult to housetrain. Training and socialization should start early and consistency and a lot of patience is required at all times. As with any other dog breed, Shih Tzus are the product of their breeding and background, so it is the job of the owner to set boundaries and incite respect. When this does not happen, Shih Tzus may develop small dog syndrome, which is a behaviour taking place when dogs believe they are the boss of humans, and may lead to separation anxiety, guarding, growling, barking, snapping, and sometimes even biting. Moreover, they may become picky eaters and it is the owner’s responsibility to prevent that from happening by making sure their dog eats what they are supposed to eat.

Shih Tzus seem to be more prone to coprophagia (eating faeces) than other dog breeds, so owners should be aware of that and pick up the dog’s faeces right away to prevent such behaviour. Because Shih Tzus have a short muzzle, the air going into the lungs is not sufficiently cooled during the breathing process, which is why they are susceptible to heat stroke. Air conditioning and not exposing them to extreme heat is paramount. They are also known for wheezing and snoring due to the shape of their nose.

The best way to describe a Shih Tzu, according to the American teacher and composer James Mumsford, is: “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 man, a bit of beggar, a tablespoon of monkey, one part baby seal, (and) a dash of teddy bear”.


Photo of Shih Tzu puppy

Shih Tzus may be hard to housetrain, so it is important to be persistent. Praise and reward should be applied and will always work better with Shih Tzus. Some owners use litter boxes and train their dog to use them, which is a good option that may work well with some dogs, as the Shih Tzu is not the type of dog that will mind not going out for its daily walk, especially if it is a cold, rainy day.


Shih Tzus have a lifespan of 10 to 16 years and the most seen health issues are:

Breathing Problems

Because Shih Tzus are brachycephalic (have a short nose), obstruction of the upper airways may occur. This obstruction may occur due to a collapsed trachea, elongated palate, and/or stenotic nares. Breathing problems are easily identified, as the dog will cough, have a noisy breathing, and its gums and lips may turn blue due to the lack of oxygen. Using a collar instead of a leash may help, but in severe cases surgery is recommended.

Eye Problems

The Shih Tzu’s bulging eyes may develop keratitis (inflammation of the cornea), excess discharge or dry eye, cataracts, distichiasis (abnormal growth of the eyelashes), and progressive retinal atrophy (a degenerative disease of the eye).

Dental Problems

Shih Tzus may have retained baby teeth and gum inflammation, as well as bad breath and loose teeth. Brushing the teeth regularly helps preventing dental problems.

Back Problems

Shih Tzus may be prone to intervertebral disk disease, which is characterized by bulging or rupture of the spine disks, causing nerve problems manifested by acute pain, permanent weakness or paralysis, and loss of sensations.

Patellar Luxation

A dislocation of the kneecap that makes it move out of place, causing pain and lameness.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Shih Tzus are active and lively, but they are not among the sportiest dog breeds and they require minimal exercise. Short walks every day will suffice, though the Shih Tzu will sure appreciate playing and running in the backyard every once in a while. It is important to bear in mind that they are extremely sensitive to heat, so long walks or intensive play sessions, especially in very hot days, are discouraged.


With its long hair, the Shih Tzu requires a lot of grooming. In order to keep its coat looking nice and free of tangles, daily brushing and combing are recommended. Frequent bathing, usually once a week, is also a good idea. When this grooming routine gets too demanding, some owners opt to clip their hair every 6 to 8 weeks, making it easier to maintain and to keep looking nice and clean, especially the face. Their coat changes from the puppy to the adult silky coat when they are about 10 months to 1 year old, and this transition period that lasts about 3 months may be challenging. After that, combing and brushing becomes easier though.

Other than the hair, Shih Tzus require nail trimming every month, having their ears checked regularly (once a week) for signs of redness or infection, cleaning their sensitive eyes, and teeth care. Teeth are particularly important in Shih Tzus as they may be prone to dental problems due to the bone conformation of their head. Regular brushing is advised to keep both their teeth and gums healthy.

Famous Shih Tzus

Shih Tzus are popular pets among celebrities. Some famous people who own a Tzu are:

  • Queen Elizabeth, who owns a Shih Tzu named Choo Choo
  • Bill Gates, who also has a Tzu called Ballmer
  • Beyoncé, who owns a Tzu called Munchie
  • Colin Farrell, who owns a Tzu, and has starred with another Shih Tzu called Bonnie (both real and stage name) in the film Seven Psychopaths (2012)


The list of Shih Tzu cross-breeds is quite a long one and includes the following mixes:

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