Get to Know the Shih Tzu: Little Lion Dog of Tibet

This dog of royalty doesn't mind mingling with commoners -- and even playing court jester!


First, the name is pronounced “Shee-zoo,” so quit pronouncing it wrong and snickering. It comes from the Chinese word for “little lion dog,” because they were bred to resemble lions depicted in ancient Buddhist art. True method actors, Shih Tzu act like little lions, with a king-of-the-world attitude. Although raised as royalty for centuries, like any good royal member, they’re willing to mingle with commoners and make your home their castle.

Here are some interesting facts about the Shih Tzu:

  • DNA analysis indicates the breed is one of the most ancient pure breeds in existence.
  • Nobody knows if the breed’s true country of origin is technically China or Tibet, so both countries can claim credit.
  • Small “Tibetan Lion Dogs” probably arrived in China during the Ch’ing Dynasty (1644-1662). In the late 1800s these dogs were interbred with Pekingese, Pugs and other Chinese dogs to create the Shih Tzu. The dogs were owned by royalty and pampered by servants. With the Communist revolution in China, the royal dogs were killed or taken as loot.

  • The wife of a Danish diplomat in China rescued a Shih Tzu named Leidza from sacrifice in a religious ceremony and brought her, along with several others, back to Norway, where she established the breed in Europe. Queen Maud of Norway acquired several and presented one named Choo-Choo as a gift to England’s Duchess of York, Elizabeth (the Queen Mother), bringing the breed to attention in England (although they were not the first Shih Tzu in England).
  • Several were imported into Europe in 1930 and were classified by the Kennel Club as Apsos. The breed was also called the chrysanthemum dog in England in the 1930s.
  • Seven males and seven females make up the foundation stock of all modern Shih Tzu. One of these dogs was actually a Pekingese brought into the gene pool in the 1950s.

  • The first Shih Tzu came to America following World War II when soldiers returning from war brought them home. AKC recognized the breed in 1969. It soon grew to become one of most popular of all breeds in America.
  • Some people confuse the Shih Tzu with the Lhasa Apso, but the Shih Tzu is smaller and has a flatter face.
  • The Shih Tzu is actually a dwarf breed, sharing the same genetic mutation (called fgf4) found in Dachshunds and other short-legged breeds. A separate gene is responsible for the breed’s overall small size.
  • The Shih Tzu is also a brachycephalic breed, which means it has a short muzzle. This can cause breathing problems when exercising in hot weather.

  • A Shih Tzu has won the Toy group at the Westminster dog show three times, but has yet to win Best in Show there.
  • Owners include the Dowager Empress T’zu Hsi, the Dalai Lama, Queen Elizabeth, Bill Gates, Vidal Sassoon, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Phyllis Diller, Mariah Carey, Hanson, Jane Seymour and Nicole Richie. Former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell has the image of her Shih Tzu, Harry, beside her in Madame Tussauds wax museum in London.
  • The Shih Tzu is the 10th most popular AKC breed, about the same ranking it held a decade ago.

Do you own a Shih Tzu? Have you spent time with one? Let’s hear what you think about this fascinating breed in the comments! And if you have a favorite breed you’d like us to write about, let us know that, too!

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About the author: Caroline Coile is the author of 34 dog books, including the top-selling Barron’s Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds. She has written for various publications and is currently a columnist for AKC Family Dog. She shares her home with three naughty Salukis and one Jack Russell Terrier.

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