The Shih Tzu is an Asian breed whose ancestry lies both in Tibet and in China. As a result, some of today’s enthusiasts consider it a Tibetan breed while others more closely associate this adorable little dog with China.
Because the Shih Tzu descended from the Tibetan Lhasa Apso, Tibet is considered the earliest ancestral home of the Shih Tzu. Dogs were given as tribute gifts for safe passage from Tibet to China, the long journey by caravan taking eight to ten months. The Tibetan Lhasa Apsos were not considered sacred animals, but they were treated as prized possessions nonetheless. They were only given as gifts, never sold. The dogs were undoubtedly held in high esteem, for it was believed that they carried the souls of monks who had erred in their previous lives.
Buddhistm spread from India into Tibet in the seventh century but was not adopted in China until 1253. The lion, in various mythological forms, plays an important part in Buddhism. Indeed the Buddha Manjusri, who is the god of learning, is believed to travel around as a simple priest with a small dog. This dog, called a Ha-pa, can instantly be transformed into a lion so that the Buddha can ride on its back. The snow lion, though, is considered the king of animals and it is with this mythological beast that the Shih Tzu and Lhasa Apso are most closely connected.
Tibetans have always drawn distinction between the “true” lion and the “dog” lion, but have never been too clear about the naming of their breeds. Without doubt, some crossing took place between the various Tibetan breeds. Even today it is possible to breed together two fully-coated Lhasa Apsos or Shih Tzu and produce one or more puppies that look like pure-bred Tibetan Spaniels. This may come as something of a shock, but is clearly a throwback to earlier days. Interestingly, the Tibetans refer to all long-coated dogs as “Apsok”, which further complicates the issue when trying to research the history of Tibetan breeds.
We know that the Shih Tzu can be traced back to dogs of Tibetan origin. We must also look at the dogs that were in China at that time, as these are the dogs with which the early Shih Tzu ancestors were crossed.
In China there were various small breeds of dog, including Pug, but by 1820 the cult of the lap dog reigned supreme. Very tiny dogs, known as “sleeve dogs”, were the height of fashion. As their name implies, they were kept in voluminous Chinese sleeves. It is still believed that their growth was stunted by artificial means; food supply was restricted and puppies were kept in wire cages until they reached maturity. Thankfully the Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi, a great lover of dogs, objected to artificial dwarfing and soon these tiny dogs fell out of fashion, finding themselves referred to instead as “lump-headed dogs”.
In 1908 the Dalai Lama presented the Dowager Empress with several dogs. These were described as similar to the breed of lion dog then seen in Peking. She called these her “Shih Tzu Kou”, and kept them apart from more then a hundred Pekingese that she owned at that time. However, these “Shih Tzu Kou” did not arrive long before the death of the Empress. Although the palace eunuchs continued to breed them, it is highly likely that experimental crosses took place, thus creating a divergence in type. It is generally believed that the eunuchs bred three types of short-nosed dogs: the Pug, the Pekingese and another long-haired dog known as Shih Tzu.
Charactersitics of the Shih Tzu
Apart from his incredible good looks, the Shih Tzu also has a most appealing character and is of manageable size. To keep a Shih Tzu in gloriously long coat does take a lot of work, so that is an important consideration, but a pet Shih Tzu can, of course, be kept in short coat if an owner prefers.
The Shih Tzu has become a highly popular breed, in recent years having been ranked in the top ten breeds in the US. With around 20,000 new AKC registrations each year, the Shih Tzu is numerically the strongest breed in the Toy Group.
The Shih Tzu is a fairly small breed, though not as small as some of his fellow Toy breeds. Nonetheless, he is strong and sturdy for his size. The ideal height is no more than 10.5 inches and the ideal weight ranges between 10 to 16 lbs, although some Shih Tzu are a little heavier. Because of their sturdiness, Shih Tzu are perfectly capable of going for long walks, yet short walk suit them just fine as well; they are highly adaptable to either situation.
The Shih Tzu can be found in a wide variety of colors, which range through various shades of gold to red and grays through to black. Of course, there is also parti-colors, which are predominantly white with another color. In parti-colors, the white marking on the forehead and tail tip are highly prized. In Shih Tzu, you can even find dogs that are liver in color.
Because there is no color preference in Shih Tzu, in truth an owner should not be swayed by color. Having said that, it is only natural that some people have a purely personal preference, just as they might for the color of their car or furniture. What really matters is the quality of the dog’s construction, temperament and coat.
The Shih Tzu is described as being intelligent, active, alert, friendly and independent. This is indeed an intelligent breed, though not the one that demands to be constantly given new things to do as with many larger breeds. The Shih Tzu will use its own intelligence and ingenuity to find things to do, and to watch a Shih Tzu carefully planning out what little activity to play next can be highly amusing for the onlooker – provided that the new game selected is one that will not cause any damage!
This is neither a snappy nor an excessively noisy breed, though a Shih Tzu, like other dogs, will usually enjoy a good bark when the fancy takes him. Shih Tzu love to be with people. They are never happier than when with their owners, so they prefer to live as part of a family than in a kennel situation. Although some Shih Tzu do take part in obedience and agility competitions, they are not renowned for being a particularly obedient breed because of their somewhat independent nature.