His name means little lion, but there’s nothing fierce about this dog. The Shih Tzu is a lover, not a hunter. Bred solely to be a companion, the Shih Tzu is an affectionate, happy, outgoing housedog who loves nothing more than to follow his people from room to room. In recent years, however, owners have started taking the Shih Tzu off their laps and into dog sports, training him for obedience, rally, and agility competitions.
James Mumsford, an American teacher and composer, perhaps described the Shih Tzu best: “Nobody knows how the ancient eunuchs managed to mix together … 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, a dash of teddy bear, and, for the rest, dogs of Tibetan and Chinese origin.”
The object of Mumsford’s colorful description, the Shih Tzu (pronounced SHEED Zoo, SHID Zoo, or SHEET Sue), is a small, regal dog with long, abundant locks; a distinctive face that melts many a heart; and a friendly attitude. The breed can boast a classy background: he was originally kept by royal Chinese families during the Ming Dynasty.
With his flowing hair sweeping the ground and his topknot elegantly tied, the Shih Tzu does appear snobbish, suited only for lying about a palace on silk pillows. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. Shih Tzus are beautiful, but they are also friendly, lively, devoted companions.
The Shih Tzu personality is enormously appealing, and even grudging dog observers find it hard to resist this breed. The Shih Tzu simply doesn’t allow anyone to ignore him. He was bred to be a friendly companion–he doesn’t hunt, herd, or guard–and that’s what he is. He loves nothing more than to meet and greet friends and strangers alike. Count on a Shih Tzu to make friends wherever he goes.
Not only is this member of the Toy Group good-natured and friendly, he is highly adaptable. He is as well suited to apartments in the city as to life on a country farm. He loves children and gets along with other animals. However, although the Shih Tzu is a sturdy dog, his small size puts him at a disadvantage. Adults should always supervise interactions between children and dogs, and this is especially important for the Shih Tzu, to prevent him from accidentally getting hurt during rough play.
Interestingly, the Shih Tzu is sometimes called the Chrysanthemum Dog, a nickname that describes the way the hair on his face grows out in all directions–he looks like a flower with a nose for the center.
One unique characteristic of the Shih Tzu is his undershot bite. His lower jaw is slightly wider than the upper, and the upper teeth bite inside the lower teeth, rather than outside, when his mouth is closed.
Legends regarding the Shih Tzu abound. One says that Buddha traveled with a little dog fitting the description of a Shih Tzu. As the story goes, one day, several robbers came upon the Buddha with the intent of robbing and murdering him. The little dog changed into a ferocious lion and ran off the robbers, saving Buddha’s life. The lion then turned back into a fun-loving little dog, which the Buddha picked up and kissed. The white spot on the heads of many Shih Tzus supposedly marks the place where Buddha kissed his loyal friend.
Many also believe that Fu Dogs, the guardians of Buddhist temples, are representations of the Shih Tzu.
The Shih Tzu’s origins are ancient, and steeped in mystery and controversy. A recent study revealed that the Shih Tzu is one of the 14 oldest dog breeds, and dog bones found in China have proven that dogs were present there as early as 8,000 B.C.
Some believe the breed was developed by Tibetan Monks and given as gifts to Chinese royalty. It is also speculated that the Shih Tzu was developed in China by crossing other breeds with the Lhasa Apso or Pekingnese. Regardless of where the breed was developed–Tibet or China–it’s clear that the Shih Tzu was a treasured companion from the earliest times. Paintings, art, and writings from the China’s Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) portray small dogs similar to the Shih Tzu. References to the dogs appear again from 990 to 994 A.D. in documents, a few paintings, and carvings.
In the 13th century, Marco Polo reported that the Mongolian Emperor Kubla Khan kept small “lion” dogs with trained hunting lions–not as prey, but to keep the lions calm. Some believe these dogs were the Shih Tzu.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Chinese royal families kept Shih Tzu-type dogs, and the “little lion dogs” or “chrysanthemum-faced” dogs were mentioned in several documents from that period. They were reportedly small, intelligent, docile dogs that strongly resembled lions.
There isn’t much mention of the dogs in documents from the 1700s to the early 1900s, but many pieces of art from that period depict small, shaggy, happy dogs.
In 1861, the Shih Tzu became popular in the Imperial Court after a royal concubine became the Empress of China. One of Empress T’zu Hsi’s first royal edicts was that anyone caught torturing palace dogs would be put to death. Empress T’zu Hsi had a great love for animals and carried out extensive breeding programs under the direct care of palace eunuchs.
During Empress T’zu Hsi’s reign, the Dalai Lama gave her a pair of magnificent Shih Tzus, reportedly the source of the imperial palace’s little lion dogs. It’s said that the Shih Tzus had their own palace and were trained to sit up and wave their front paws when the Empress visited.
After her death in 1908, many royal families competed to produce dogs of the finest coats and colors. Because of the competition, breeding practices were kept secret. Poor-quality dogs were sold in the marketplace, and good-quality dogs were often smuggled out of the palaces and given as gifts to foreign visitors or Chinese noblemen.
In 1928, the first Shih Tzus, a male and female pair, were brought to England from Peking by Lady Brownrigg, the wife of the quartermaster general of the north China command. In 1933, a Mrs. Hutchins brought a Shih Tzu from China to Ireland; this dog was eventually bred to Lady Brownrigg’s. These three dogs formed the foundation of Lady Brownrigg’s kennel.
Maureen Murdock and Philip Price, her nephew, were the first to import and breed Shih Tzus in the United States. There were three Shih Tzu clubs by 1960: the American Shih Tzu Association in Florida, the Texas Shih Tzu Society, and the Shih Tzu Club of America. In 1963, the Shih Tzu Club of America and the Texas Shih Tzu Society merged to form the American Shih Tzu Club. In 1969, the breed was recognized by the American Kennel Club as a member of the Toy Group.
Males and females alike stand 9 to 10 1/2 inches tall and weigh 9 to 16 pounds.
All dog breeds have a purpose. Historically, the purpose of the Shih Tzu was to be a companion–and that’s just what he wants to be. He simply desires to be with you. So don’t expect him to hunt, guard, or retrieve; that’s not his style.
Affection is his dominant characteristic, and your lap is his favorite destination. He is happiest when he is with his family, giving and receiving attention.
That said, the Shih Tzu is not a total couch potato. He’s alert and lively and may bark at newcomers to his home. Don’t worry, though; he’ll make friends with your guests the minute they walk inside.
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