Shih Tzu – Little Lions

Breed facts: Utility Group

In association with the Kennel Club, Nick Mays provides you with all you need to know about Shih Tzus. Find out if one of these little bundles of joy could be your next best friend.

The Tibetans kept large, aggressive dogs that were used for guarding their often isolated communities and monasteries, then there were small, shaggy dogs used as companions and as watchdogs to alert the larger dogs – and these were the ancestors of the modern Shih Tzu. It has been said that the small dogs or ‘Lion Dogs’ were kept in monasteries throughout Tibet and that they were trained to turn the prayer wheels as part of a daily ritual. However, when British breeder Audrey Dadds told this tale to a Tibetan monk he was told that this was utter nonsense and that Shih Tzus were never kept as temple dogs. Buddhism in Tibet recognised a large number of divine beings, each symbolising an aspect of life. One of these was the Buddha Manjusri, the God of Learning, who was said to travel with a small Lion Dog that would turn into a fullsized lion and carry him vast distances on his back. Perhaps this is how the small dogs came to be associated with the lions – or at least the stylised artistic representations of them.

Shih Tzu
Shih Tzu

Passage to China
From time to time, the Tibetan rulers sent some of the little dogs as gifts to their neighbouring rulers in China. Successive Chinese emperors kept Shih Tzus and, by the 17th century, bred them as exclusively royal dogs. There is a possibility that some of these Shih Tzus were crossed with Chinese Pekingese dogs. The Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi was extremely interested in dogs and supervised her staff in the breeding of the palace dogs, paying particular attention to family lines and colour. The Shih Tzu is classified as a Chinese breed in Britain because it was originally brought through to this country from China. The name Shih Tzu translates roughly as ‘Little Lion’ in Mandarin and the name came from that country with them.

Four-legged flower dogs
Shih Tzus arrived in England in 1928 with the redoubtable Lady Brownrigg, the much-travelled wife of the Quartermaster General to the North China Command. When she and her husband returned to England they bought with them two Shih Tzus, a dog called Hibou and a bitch called Shu-ssa, both black and white and described as small. Shu-ssa was said to have a thick but smooth coat which stuck out on her head and face so that she looked like a baby owl or alternatively like a chrysanthemum, earning the breed the nickname of ‘Chrysanthemum Dogs’. It was largely from Lady Brownrigg’s dogs that most of today’s pet and show Shih Tzus are descended, although other specimens were imported from China and Europe over the course of the next few decades.

Popular pet
Initially the breed was classified by the UK Kennel Club (KC) as ‘Apsos’, being deemed to be a variant of the Lhasa Apso. However, after the first European standard for the breed was written in England in 1935 by the newly founded Shih Tzu Club, the dogs were reclassified as Shih Tzu and placed in the Utility Group. The breed spread throughout Europe, and was introduced into the United States after World War Two, when returning members of the US military brought back dogs from Europe. The Shih Tzu was recognised by the American Kennel Club in 1969, but was classified in the Toy Group. The Shih Tzu is a steadfastly popular dog in the UK and was placed 11th in the Top 20 Kennel Club Breeds in 2008, with 5,495 puppies registered.

Exercise & training
Shih Tzus are intelligent dogs, but have a fairly stubborn streak. As befits their status as royal dogs, they sometimes give the impression that certain tasks are beneath them. However, they are capable of learning, and with patient and consistent training can reach an acceptable level of obedience. If the training is interesting enough, Shih Tzus enjoy learning and are eager to please. Their exercise needs are quite modest – a short daily walk and running and playing in the garden is sufficient, although they like longer walks too. They very much tend to fit in with their owners on this: a 20 to 30-minute walk a day is sufficient and some garden time is plenty.

6 top tips Preparing for puppy owning

Choose the right breed for you Do your homework and choose a breed that is right for your lifestyle and needs. The Kennel Club’s Discover Dogs event (held every November; is a great way to find out about every type of pedigree.

Get advice Once you have a breed in mind, check out the Kennel Club breed standard or talk to the relevant breed club to make sure it is the right choice for you. In particular, ask about health, temperament, dietary and exercise needs, and coat care.

Buy sensibly Kennel Club-accredited breeders follow recommended breeding guidelines in order to ensure you buy a healthy, well-adjusted pup. Any responsible breeder will be able to answer your questions about the breed, will have followed recommended health checks and will show the puppy with the mother, to give you an indication of how he is likely to turn out. You can search accredited breeders and find breed information online at

Care & attention Your puppy will need regular exercise and you will have to be prepared to clean up after him on walks. Every dog requires care and attention but some need human company more than others. If you go out to work, consider whether a dog is for you, as it may be unfair for him to be left alone all day.

Training As a responsible owner you will need to take the time to train your puppy so that he understands his boundaries; the Kennel Club runs the Good Citizen Dog Scheme, which enables dog owners to take classes to this end. Find out more about this at activities/good_citizen.html or tel. 0870 606 6750.

Prepare for trouble! Your immaculate home will probably not stay that way while the puppy is still being trained, and remember: puppies grow into dogs – so make sure you have the space to spare.

Case study “FANS FOR 40 YEARS”
David and Susan Crossley from Crewe are obviously big Shih Tzu fans. After all, David is the chairman of the parent breed club, the Shih Tzu Club, so it comes as no surprise to hear that they extol the virtues of these super little dogs. The couple have been breeding and showing under the Santosha name for over 40 years and most recently were awarded Top UK Shih Tzu breeder status for 2007 and 2008.

Says David: “When we first saw a Shih Tzu we liked their look and their independent character. We especially liked their round, forward-facing eyes, which we felt gave them a human trait. “In common with other oriental breeds they can have a stubborn streak and can take longer to house-train than some other breeds. They are eager to please, though, and with patience can be trained to do a variety of things. In the US you see quite a number doing agility trials.”

David is clear about the Shih Tzu’s ‘purpose’ in life’: “The Chinese didn’t breed them with a particular purpose in mind other than human companionship and they don’t really excel at anything other than being good companions. They don’t have much in the way of road sense so beware! “Obviously we love the breed, but I’d say that the Shih Tzu is a bright, lively little dog who loves human company – both child and adult. They can, at times, be a little wilful. They would rather do things their way than perhaps the way you would like but, provided they receive sufficient attention, are totally devoted to their owners.”

Temperament & family life “Shih Tzus are good with children and have comical personalities, making them well suited to typical family life,” says David Crossley, chairman of the Shih Tzu Club. “They are equally suited to town or country life. However, they don’t do well left alone for long periods and will quite often develop antisocial tendencies, such as barking and soiling in the house, if regularly left alone all day. As such they aren’t suitable for households where no-one is home all day.”

Shih Tzus will accept other dogs and pets, particularly if introduced from an early age. They are very loyal to their families, although they tend to be wary of strangers until they get to know them and accept them. Shih Tzus have very good longevity, which again makes them ideal family pets since they can grow up with the children. Says owner and Dogs Monthly reader Debby Gracey: “Although I don’t have children my three Shih Tzus adore children, even though they don’t socialise daily with them. Whenever they meet children, all my dogs’ tails don’t stop wagging and they love to be cuddled and fussed by little people.

I would recommend a Shih Tzu to most homes. I think they fit in well with all people, young and old, and they love other animals. “I always had a dog when I was growing up and I think as long as they are supervised, what a wonderful way to grow up with a Shih Tzu as your best friend.” Reader and owner Lesley Wilbourne agrees with Debby as regards Shih Tzu temperament and their suitability as a family pet. She says: “I made sure my dog Josh was well socialised at an early age, and in fact he comes to work with me every day. I work for a local children’s charity and Josh believes that everyone who comes through the organisation’s doors is a member of his family – although he is the head of that family, mind – and he loves everyone he meets. “In work, he is a real sweetie. Halfway through the day, the students stop and have a coffee and biscuit break, and they sit round a coffee table and chat. Josh likes to go and fetch his biscuit or chew over and, if there is a space, he will sit on a spare chair and eat his treat at the same time. “Although I would never ever leave any dog alone with a child, because that’s just good common sense, I can safely say that I would trust him completely. In fact my cousin’s five-year-old boy has played with Josh on occasion and even at the point when I have said that Josh has had enough and to let him rest now, Josh has still responded with a kiss on his young human pal’s cheek.” l

Case study “my best ever present”

Debby Gracey from Lancing, West Sussex, was given her first Shih Tzu by her husband as an anniversary present and she’s never looked back. Says Debby: “I chose a Shih Tzu because basically I liked the look of them – they were like gorgeous little teddy bears – and what I’d read about them. When doing my research, they seemed a friendly, easygoing and healthy breed that loved people and other animals. This was important as I had five cats and a house rabbit so it was essential that they all got along together. “I wanted a dog that would be happy to go on long walks but equally content to chase around the garden with me. “When I got my first Shih Tzu it was love at first sight.

I named her Amber; she was totally adorable and still is 10 years later. She is spoilt rotten but is the most amazing dog you could ask for. It probably took her all of five minutes to have us exactly where she wanted us, but she was such a good girl. At bathtime she loves to be washed and then goes off to sleep on my lap, snoring as I dry and groom her. “I didn’t have a problem with house-training her. I put a piece of newspaper by the back door in case of accidents, but found as long as I kept taking her outside – especially after she had woken up, eaten or had a drink – she was very good and soon caught on. If fact she got crafty and used to run outside and pretend to do a wee so she got a big cuddle and piece of cheese – they are very intelligent dogs!” Debby continues: “It was only about five months before I bought our second Shih Tzu, named Sapphire, for my husband’s birthday; and then a year later we got Tara. They all have their own different personalities just like people. “I think Shih Tzus are slightly magical creatures and use their powers to enchant innocent owners! They have this disarming way of looking at you when they have bitten the top off a newly budded flower, or have a sock hanging out of their mouth which they have just stolen from the laundry basket. They stare at you with their big, beautiful melting eyes in a certain spellbinding way as if to say ‘it wasn’t me’, or they flip on their backs and hide their faces behind their front paws so you can’t see them and tell them off. “Getting my ‘teddy bears’ was the best thing I ever did and I wouldn’t change them for anything in the world!”

Where to get a Shih Tzu puppy It is always best to contact a breed club (see ‘Useful contacts’ on page 39) to enquire whether any members have puppies in your area. If you go to a breeder recommended by the club, you can meet the puppies with their mother – which is always recommended – and ask advice on selecting the ideal puppy from you by experts within the breed. It’s also useful to join a breed club, even if you don’t want to show your Shih Tzu, as you will maintain contact with other owners and there will always be an experienced owner or breeder on hand to ask for help if you encounter any

problems with your dog, such as feeding, training and general care. There is a Shih Tzu breed rescue service. It’s a sad fact that there are Shih Tzus in this country who are in need of help. The reasons are varied but one thing that they all have in common is that they need a loving home. If you think you could provide a loving home for a Shih Tzu who has fallen on hard times then please contact one of the rescue organisations on page 39. Ensure you buy a puppy from a reputable breeder and see the mother. Pups should be at least eight weeks old before rehoming.


  • Small size
  • Intelligent and loyal
  • Ideal family dog
  • Responds well to consistent training
  • Tougher than he looks!
  • Mixes well with other dogs and pets
  • Town or country living
  • Excellent watchdog
  • Good-tempered
  • Affectionate
  • Low exercise requirement
  • High-maintenance coat

5 Shih Tzu facts

Height & weight Ideal height (at withers): not more than 27cm (10½ins). Weight: 4.5-8kgs (10-18lbs), with the ideal weight for show purposes being 4.5- 7.5kgs (10-16lbs).

Feeding As far as feeding is concerned, Shih Tzus have broad tastes, enjoying goodquality prepared pet foods, as well as fresh meat and fish. Obviously, being a small dog, his food portions should be balanced accordingly, with any proprietary foods aimed at a dog of his size. Cost-wise, you could expect your Shih Tzu’s feeding bill to average £4 or £5 a week.

Grooming Shih Tzus have a long, silky coat. Ideally they need brushing every day to prevent tangles forming, although many owners opt to have their dogs’ coats clipped down regularly for ease of grooming. Regular visits to the groomer’s to achieve the neatness of coat are essential. “If kept in a clipped condition the grooming requirement is a bit less onerous but they still need regular brushing,” says breeder David Crossley. “A bristle brush or pin brush without bobbles on the end and a metal comb are essential items for Shih Tzu owners.” A helpful, detailed article on grooming Shih Tzus can be found on the website of the Shih Tzu Club at As Shih Tzus have short noses, they often get food stains around their mouths, so you should be prepared to wipe your Shih Tzu’s face with a damp flannel to keep it clean. This is another good reason for the coat being trimmed and thelonger hair on the head held up in a top knot.

Health Health-wise, the Shih Tzu is one of the most robust and healthy breeds of dog around. In fact, there are currently no mandated health checks for Shih Tzus under the KC’s accredited breeder scheme. They are occasionally prone to eye problems as their eyes protrude and can easily be injured or bothered by long eyelashes. Tear ducts can sometimes be blocked or produce too much fluid, but generally such conditions are easily treated. Be aware that they can sometimes suffer in hot and cramped conditions due to their short muzzles causing restricted respiration.

Lifespan Shih Tzus are long-lived little fellows with an average age of 10-12, but they can go on happily into their late teens.

The Shih Tzu is an ancient breed of dog that traces its roots back much further than many modern breeds – over 1,000 years in fact – to Tibet and China. This small, shaggy dog with its characteristic moustache was said to resemble a lion, with the courage to match.

KENNEL CLUB BREED STANDARD Thinking of getting a Shih Tzu? Here’s what to look out for:

A breed standard is the guideline which describes the ideal characteristics, temperament and appearance of a breed and ensures that the breed is fit for function. Absolute soundness is essential. Breeders and judges should at all times be careful to avoid obvious conditions or exaggerations which would be detrimental in any way to the health, welfare or soundness of this breed.
From time to time certain conditions or exaggerations may be considered to have the potential to affect dogs in some breeds adversely, and judges and breeders are requested to refer to the Kennel Club website for details of any such current issues. If a feature or quality is desirable it should only be present in the right measure. The current Shih Tzu KC breed standard at the time of going to press, as given below, is pending review.

Appearance Sturdy, abundantly but not excessively coated dog with distinctly arrogant carriage and ‘chrysanthemum-like’ face.
Characteristics Intelligent, active and alert.
Temperament Friendly and independent.
Head & skull Head broad, round, wide between eyes. Shock-headed with hair falling well over eyes, not affecting the dog’s ability to see. Good beard and whiskers, hair growing upwards on the muzzle giving a distinctly ‘chrysanthemum-like’ effect. Muzzle of ample width, square, short, not wrinkled; flat and hairy. Nose black but dark liver in liver or liver-marked dogs and about one inch from tip to definite stop. Nose level or slightly tip-tilted. Top of nose leather should be on a line with or slightly below lower eye rim. Wide-open nostrils. Down-pointed nose highly undesirable, as are pinched nostrils. Pigmentation of muzzle as unbroken as possible.
Eyes Large, dark, round, placed well apart but not prominent. Warm expression. In liver or livermarked dogs, lighter eye colour permissible. No white of eye showing.
Ears Large, with long leathers, carried drooping. Set slightly below crown of skull, so heavily coated they appear to blend into hair of neck.
Mouth Wide, slightly undershot or level. Lips level.
Neck Well proportioned, nicely arched. Sufficient length to carry head proudly.
Forequarters Shoulders well laid back. Legs short and muscular with ample bone, as straight as possible, consistent with broad chest being well let down.
Body Longer between withers and root of tail than height of withers, well coupled and sturdy, chest broad and deep, shoulders firm, back level. Male animals should have two apparently normal testicles fully descended into the scrotum.
Hindquarters Legs short and muscular with ample bone. Straight when viewed from the rear. Thighs well rounded and muscular.
Feet Rounded, firm and well covered with hair.
Tail Heavily plumed, carried gaily well over back. Set on high. Height approximately level with that of skull to give a balanced outline.
Gait & movement Arrogant, smooth-flowing, front legs reaching well forward, strong rear action and showing full pad.
Coat Long, dense, not curly, with good undercoat. Slight wave permitted. Strongly recommended that hair on head tied up. Hair not affecting the dog’s ability to see.
Colour All colours permissible (including black, grey, silver, gold beige, red and brindle), white blaze on forehead and white tip to tail highly desirable in parti-colours.
Faults Any departure from the foregoing points should be considered a fault and the seriousness with which the fault should be regarded should be in exact proportion to its degree and its effect upon the health and welfare of the dog.

Lesley Wilbourne from south Wales has been a Shih Tzu fan for 30 years. She fell for them when researching different breeds with the intention of finding a dog for her mother as the family’s old Labrador had died. “At that time, I was an infant teacher. One of my young pupils had been given a puppy for Christmas and when I asked him about it he told me it was black and white and furry. When I pressed him for its breed name, he said it was a ‘she-something’. I told him it was a sheepdog – after all I live in south Wales where nearly every other dog you see is a Border Collie. “Then one day he brought in a magazine cutting of a famous star with a dog like his. When I looked at the photo I couldn’t believe my eyes because there were two rather lovely Shih Tzus in the photo! I said: ‘Martin, they aren’t sheepdogs, they are Shih Tzus’, to which he replied: ‘I said they were shesomethings, Miss!’ “After that I asked his mother to bring the pup to school to show the children and I was just totally besotted by this dog. I loved his character, the way he walked, his coat… and that was that, my love affair with the breed had begun! “Josh is my current dog and he, like all those before him, has an excellent temperament.

I truly believe that Shih Tzus are an excellent ambassador for the canine species. Several of my dogs have shown themselves to be so friendly and such wonderful characters that they have encouraged children and people who are not dog lovers or who have been afraid of dogs to actually want to own one.” Lesley’s experience of Shih Tzus is that they can sometimes be a little wilful and stubborn. She explains: “This isn’t because they are not intelligent; more that they are extremely bright and learn very quickly, and then soon decide they don’t need to do that any more because they know how to do it! “With Josh, I started clicker training him when he was about 10 weeks old, which was successful. I then enrolled him on a KC Good Citizen dog class and he had achieved the silver certificate by the age of 18 months. By that time he could do a whole string of tricks – rolling over, waving and dropping down dead if you pretended to shoot him. He was so eager to learn that when he was old enough I enrolled him in agility classes, which he absolutely loves.” Lesley is adamant that Shih Tzus are one of the best breeds anyone could wish to own: “I would wholeheartedly recommend this breed. The Shih Tzu will fit in with any lifestyle and with any age group. They are great with children – they think they are children! They love being with their humans and equally enjoy long walks in the country, or lazy evenings in watching TV by your feet. “They treasure their family and are quite protective too – I can tell you that their bark sounds a lot bigger than they are! All in all they are the most wonderful breed I have ever encountered and I cannot imagine my life without one.” l Lesley runs Shih Tzu Whispers, an online forum dedicated to the health and well-being of Shih Tzus, which offers help and advice to Shih Tzu pet owners at

Did you know? Celebrity Shih Tzu fans include Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, actress Jane Seymour, singer/actress Miley Cyrus (aka Hannah Montana) and socialite Nicole Richie.

Useful contacts
The Shih Tzu Club Mrs. Pat Gregory (secretary), tel. 01666 822380;
Northern Counties Shih Tzu Club Ms D Williams (secretary), tel. 01757 228623;
Shih Tzu Club Of Scotland Mr Martin (secretary), tel. 01698 300181;
Shih Tzu Club of South Wales & Western Counties Mrs Christine Hughes (secretary), tel. 01639 638902;
The Manchu Shih Tzu Society Mrs Valerie Goodwin (secretary), tel. 01795 830247;

Rescue contacts
Home Counties Mrs P Read (Hertfordshire), tel. 01923 675069.
Home Counties Mrs C Mead (Kent), tel. 01795 422159.
North East Mrs A Craggs (County Durham), tel. 01207 560046.
Southern Mrs B Parker (Kent), tel. 01732 841138.
Southern Mr & Mrs Scott (London), tel. 020 7474 1954.
Southern Mrs J Ellis (Kent), tel. 01795 474416.

Thanks! Special thanks to the Shih Tzu Club for information provided.

About the author Nick Mays is a journalist specialising in animal media. He lives in Yorkshire with his family and four dogs. Nick is also the author of several books on animal care.