Shih Tzu

Shih Tzu
John Walton
Written by John Walton

Chinese for «little lion», the Shih Tzu is nothing to be feared. This is one of the most affection dogs you’ll ever meet in the family of companion dogs. They were only bred to be companions, and can be quite outgoing and affectionate. Rather than serving as a guard dog or chasing prey, the shih tzu will happily follow his owner from one room to the next. It is only in recent history that dog owners have started taking their shih tzus out for competition, such as obedience and agility. Even with their size, they actually do quite well in these competitions.

Breed Characteristics

AdaptabilityAbove Average
TrainabilityAbove Average
Health and GroomingAbove Average
All Around FriendlinessHigh
Exercise NeedsAbove Average

Dog Breed Group:Companion dogs
Height:Nine inches to ten inches
Weight:Nine to sixteen pounds
Life Span:10 to 16 years

The shih tzu is a small regal dog that is well known for its long, luxurious hair and its very distinctive face. They were originally bred for the royal family of the Ming Dynasty to be kept as companions. He can appear snobbish at first, especially with the shape of his face, due to his underbite, and the typical fashion of tying the hair on his head into a top knot to keep it out of his eyes.

However, they’re certainly a delight to watch walking around the home, with its long flowing hair sweeping the floor. You won’t find a more devoted dog in your life, so much so that even the most begrudging of people can’t help but fall in love with this breed. This is in part due to his friendly disposition, and he won’t allow anyone to ignore him when he enters a room.

The shih tzu is also an adaptable dog, so they can be kept in both large homes and single apartments. And whether you have dogs, cats, or children in the home, the shih tzu is accommodating to all of them and won’t start a fuss. Although he is a sturdy breed, his size still puts him at a disadvantage, and interactions should be monitored in order to ensure that your shih tzu doesn’t come to any harm.

One of the legends of Buddha states that he traveled with a dog that matched the description of the shih tzu. On one such day, a number of robbers stopped the Buddha on the road with the intent of robbing and murdering him. The small dog transformed itself into a lion and scared the robbers away, thus saving the Buddha’s life. After it had transformed back into a dog, the Buddha picked it up and kissed it on the head. This is where the white spot on their heads is said to have come from.

Main Highlights
  • Although they’re quite friendly, shih tzus has been known to be difficult to house break. It’s important that you remain vigilant in your discipline and don’t allow your new dog to roam the house on his own without being completely trained. The use of a crate can definitely help to get your dog on a schedule.
  • Due to the flattened shape of a shih tzu’s face, they are prone to suffering from heat stroke. When a dog inhales, the air is cooled along the way to the lungs. However, with a shortened muzzle, the air may not cool sufficiently. During the hot summer months, keep your shih tzu inside where it’s air conditioned to prevent this from happening. The flattened nose also makes the shih tzu prone to snoring and wheezing, so he’s not the quietest of sleepers.
  • Shih tzus require a lot of grooming care to ensure that their long hair remains looking its best. Brushing with a brush and a comb should be done on a regular basis to prevent matting. Otherwise, you may choose to have your shih tzu trimmed in order to make his coat more manageable.
  • One habit that requires careful attention is their affinity for eating their own feces. They’re extremely prone to this behaviour, so poop should be cleaned up right away before it becomes a bad habit.
Breed History

The origins of the shih tzu are still wrapped in mystery, even to this day. Fossils found around China have shown that the breed was in existence as far back as 8,000 B.C.E. It’s considered to be one of the fourteen oldest dog breeds in existence in the world. Many believe they were originally bred by Tibetan monks and presented to the Chinese royalty as gifts.

Ancient paintings from the Tang Dynasty of China portray images of dogs that bear a striking resemblance to the shih tzu. Even Marco Polo reported his observations of Kubla Khan, the Mongolian emperor, keeping small lion-like dogs near his hunting lions in order to keep them calm. Many believe these dogs to be the shih tzu.

The breed of dog gained extreme popularity in the late 1800s, when one of the royal concubines became the Empress of China. She made a decree that anyone who was found to be torturing dogs around the palace would be put to death. With the aid of the palace eunuchs, she carried out extensive breeding programs of dogs that lived around the palace. On hearing this, the Dalai Lama presented her with a pair of shih tzus, which she greatly took to, and they became the sources of the future generations of the little lion dogs in the palace.

When the Empress died in 1908, the remaining royal families continued these breeding practices in order to improve the coat of the shih tzu and produce a increased number of coat colours. These practices were kept secret in order to increase their chances in competition with each other. Any dogs that were considered to be of poor quality were sold in the marketplace for money, while good-quality dogs were sometimes smuggled out of the palace and presented to foreign visitors and Chinese noblemen as gifts.

The shih tzu breed didn’t enter the Western World until 1928, when a pair were brought to England from Pekin by the wife of a quartermaster general in the North China command. Another was brought to Ireland in 1933, and the dogs were bred together to start its own line. Shih tzus were eventually imported and bred in the United States, and were officially recognized by the American Kennel Club in the toy group in 1969.


Shih tzus were bred to be very small dogs that could be taken around easily on travel. This has led them to being no more than 9 to 10 1/2 inches tall at the shoulder, and weighing around 9 to 16 pounds.

Personality and Character

Shih tzus are not the best breed of dog if you’re looking for a pet to guard your home or retrieve toys/prey. They were bred specifically to be companion animals, so affection is the most striking feature of his personality. He desires company and togetherness with anyone he meets, and prefers a warm lap over the floor any day. He is happiest when he is giving and receiving attention, so an ignored shih tzu is going to be upset. However, that doesn’t mean that the shih tzu is a couch potato.

He can be very alert and lively when there is company at the door, and may bark when new people enter the home. Once introductions have taken place, though, anyone he meets is instantly his friend.

Health and Potential Problems

Shih tzus are known for having a large number of health problems, due to their pure breed. Many of these can be taken care of with simple medication, while others are a genetic disposition of the breed, especially concerning the shape of their face.

  • Allergies: allergies in dogs are actually more common than you think, and can be the result of food, contact or inhaling some substance. Because of the shih tzu’s short muzzle, inhalant allergies can happen more often, but can be dealt with appropriately. If you do notice signs of an allergic reaction, change your dog’s food, prevent your dog from coming into contact with certain substances, and invest in an air filter in your HVAC to reduce the amount of pollen, dust or mildew in the air.
  • Canine hip dysplasia: the joint of the hip can degrade over time with use, resulting in a lot of pain and a hobbled gait. Shih tzus have this throughout their live, but it becomes more pronounced the older that they get. There is no cure for it, and the only treatment options strive to minimize the pain that your dog is experiencing.
  • Patellar luxation: this is where the joint of the knee is not fixed together properly, allowing for the bones to not fit together quite right. This can lead to a lot of pain, and if left untreated can result in arthritis compounding the problem.
  • Juvenile renal dysplasia: this is a genetic defect of the kidneys that is usually present in young dogs. Signs include frequent urination and excessive drinking, weight loss, vomiting, and lacking energy. The only test that can be done is to do an invasive biopsy of the kidneys, and there are a lot of risks from the procedure.
  • Bladder stones and infections: shih tzus are prone to these conditions, and can be the result of too much protein, magnesium or phosphorous in the diet, or too much time passing between using the bathroom. The buildup of urine in the bladder allows bacteria to fester and can lead to painful urination, as well as blood in the urine. Bladder stones can be a genetic disposition or be the result of diet, and can be difficult to pass out if they become too large. If you notice that your dog is having problems urinating and is starting to lose his appetite, then it is time to take him to the vet.
  • Eye problems: shih tzus are known for having bulging eyes, which makes them more prone to eye conditions. Such conditions include:
    • keratitis: inflammation of the cornea
    • proptosis: eyeball(s) is/are dislodged from the eye socket
    • distichiasis: abnormal growth of eyelashes that irritate the eye
    • progressive retinal atrophy: cells of the retina begin to degrade
    • dry eye: dryness of the cornea and conjunctiva
  • Ear infections: because of the drop of the ears in shih tzus, they are more prone to ear infections because they are dark and much warmer than those of breeds with perked ears. In order to avoid them from occurring, clean the ears on a regular basis with warm vinegar and cotton balls, ensuring that they are dry when you’re finished.
  • Mouth problems: shih tzus can sometimes have baby teeth that refuse to fall out, which make it difficult for the adult teeth to come in properly. Contacting your veterinarian will allow for the teeth to be extracted so that the adult teeth can grow. Missing or misaligned teeth can also occur from the length of the lower jaw giving him an underbite. Brush his teeth on a regular basis, and report the loss of any teeth to your vet immediately.
  • Umbilical hernias: when there is delayed closure of the abdominal midline, the organs may find their way through this opening and cause a lot of problems, like necropsy of the tissue. If the hernia itself is quite small, then it may close on its own as the dog matures. However, if it’s quite large, then your dog’s health may degrade over time. Surgery can be done to correct the problem, and is usually performed when the dog is being spayed or neutered.
  • Portosystemic liver shunt: the liver serves the function of filtering the blood in order to remove any impurities. However, an abnormality can be formed where the blood bypasses the liver altogether and isn’t «scrubbed» clean, allowing for toxins to be spread around the body. Surgery is required to fix the condition, but the recovery rate is quite high.
  • Snuffles: teething can be difficult for many shih tzus, due to the shape of their faces. As the new teeth start to grow, the gums become sore and start to swell. Because their mouths are right under their noses, this process doesn’t have a lot of room to work with. This swelling of the gums can lead your puppy to snuffle, snore loudly or wheeze, and there may even me drainage from the nose.
  • Reverse sneezing: this can occur when your dog becomes overly excited, he eats his food too fast, or there allergens present. When this occurs, the secretions of the nose can drop onto the soft palate which can cause it to close over the windpipe and make it difficult to breathe. This can cause alarm in your dog and he may start to wheeze. When this occurs, provide your dog with some comfort and speak to him in a soothing voice to get him to calm down.
Care Features

The Shih Tzu doesn’t really mind where he lives, as long as he’s with you. He’s a very adaptable dog who can be comfortable in a small city apartment or a large suburban or country home. He is definitely a housedog and should not be kenneled outside, though he enjoys a bit of backyard play.

The Shih Tzu is content with short walks each day. He is not an extremely active dog; he’s content to sit in your lap, wander around the house, play with his toys, or run to the door to greet visitors. Like other breeds with short faces, the Shih Tzu is sensitive to heat. He should remain indoors in an air-conditioned room (or one with fans) on hot days so he doesn’t suffer from heat exhaustion.

No, the breed cannot fly; but owners commonly report that their Shih Tzu thinks he can. It’s not unusual for a Shih Tzu to fearlessly jump from a bed or a chair. While they may not seem high to you, these heights are towering to the small Shih Tzu. And, unfortunately, these jumps often end in injury. The breed is front heavy and crashes forward, causing injury or even a concussion to the head. Be very careful when carrying your Shih Tzu. Hold him securely and don’t let him jump out of your arms or off furniture.

Even though he’s naturally docile and friendly, the Shih Tzu needs early socialization and training. Like any dog, he can become timid if he is not properly socialized when young. Early socialization helps ensure that your Shih Tzu puppy grows up to be a well-rounded dog.

Shih Tzus are often considered difficult to housebreak. Most important is to avoid giving your puppy opportunities to have accidents inside — you don’t want him to become accustomed to using the carpet. (Some Shih Tzu owners teach their dogs to use a doggie litter box so they don’t need to walk them in bad weather or rush home to take them out.)

A Shih Tzu puppy should be carefully supervised inside the house until he has not eliminated indoors for at least four to eight weeks. Crate training is helpful for housetraining and provides your dog with a quiet place to relax. A crate is also useful when you board your Shih Tzu or travel.

Feeding Schedule

The recommended amount of food to feed your shih tzu should be around 1/2 to 1 cup of dry food a day. However, keep in mind that your dog’s needs can vary depending on his age, size, level of activity, and metabolism. The quality of the food being provided also makes a difference, as a lower quality food will not provide him with the sufficient nourishment he needs throughout the day.

Coat, Color and Grooming

The shih tzu is known for its marvelous coat, and it should be cared for on a regular basis. Their hair comes in a variety of colors, such as black, black and white, grey and white, or red and white. Any dogs that have a white blaze on the tops of their heads and tips of their tails are extremely prized. The hair is incredibly silky and soft, and daily brushing is necessary to prevent matting. Weekly baths will keep the hair clean and soft to the touch, and removes any dander or built up oils on the skin. However, many dog owners decide to have their shih tzus clipped in order to make it easier to maintain their coats.

If you are engaging in the grooming process yourself, it’s much easier to have your dog lie on his side and brush the hair in sections. Be sure to brush all the way down to the skin to ensure that you’re not missing any knots or mats that may have worked themselves in.

Take a gentle approach the first time you are brushing your dog so that the experience is as pleasant as possible for the both of you. Starting this process from when your shih tzu is a puppy makes it a lot easier for him to get used to it. Around the age of 10 to 12 months, you’ll start to notice that your dog’s coat transforms from fluff into long silky hair. This is when mats become more frequent and should be taken care of in order to prevent hot spots.

Your dog’s ears should also be checked once a week (and more often if he frequently goes outside) to be clear of any dirt or debris. The ears should be cleaned with a cotton ball and ear cleaner to prevent any bacteria from growing.

The same attention should be paid to his face, which can become quite dirty after eating. With the shape of his muzzle, debris can become trapped quite easily and can lead to skin irritation. Be sure to clean the face with a soft wash cloth and warm water, especially around the eyes.

Children And Other Pets Compatibility

Adding a shih tzu to your family can make a wonderful addition, as they are quite friendly to children and other animals. They are quite docile, so they won’t turn into bullies, but supervision should be provided to show children how to play with a shih tzu without hurting them. Ensure that they don’t pick up the dog, as he could be dropped and injured. Their large eyes should also be left alone from children’s prying fingers.

When it comes to toy breeds, the shih tzu is one of the friendliest dogs you can introduce into your home. He has a very regal appearance that will add an element of style to your home, if his coat is allowed to grow long and it is maintained properly.

But despite his snobbish looks, he will clamber into anyone’s lap, given the opportunity. Thankfully, the shih tzu is an extremely light shedder, so you won’t be stuck picking hair out of all your clothing. However, as a companion dog and the amount of time he spends following you around, a little bit of hair is definitely a worthy price to pay.

About the author
John Walton
John Walton

John Walton lives in Somerville, MA, with his two dogs, two sons, and very understanding mate. He is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer, a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, a mentor trainer for the Animal Behavior College, an AKC Certified CGC Evaluator, and the Training Director for the New England Dog Training Club.