Shih Tzu 101: Breed Information, Temperament, Personality Traits & More

The affectionate, outgoing Shih Tzu (pronounced Sheed-zoo) is a member of the Toy group. This same group also includes yorkies and other smaller dogs.  This playful little dog currently ranks at number 20 in the AKC’s top breeds chart. Chinese emperors once prized the Shih Tzu as a lapdog. And this pup loves to be spoiled! Consequently, the little “Lion Dog” is one of the most popular of all the toy breeds.

If you want a dog to dig, hunt, and guard your home, the Shih Tzu is not the best choice for you, as he will do none of these things! These trusting little dogs are an out-and-out companion lapdog. That said, your Shih Tzu will bark a warning if he hears someone at the door.

Did you know that the Lion Dog has another nickname? Well, he’s also known as the “Chrysanthemum dog,” thanks to the way the breed’s hair grows upward from the nose and around the face in different directions.

So, would a Shih Tzu make an ideal pet for your family? Let’s find out more about this adorable little pup!

History

It’s thought that the Shih Tzu may have been bred by Tibetan holy men who sought to create a miniature replica of a lion, a creature that’s closely associated with Buddhist mythology.

The Shih Tzu’s sole purpose was to act as a companion and watchdog for the monks in the lamaseries. Many myths surround the Shih Tzu. It’s sometimes said that these cheeky little dogs are incarnations of mischievous gods. Another tale says that the Shih Tzu carried the souls of deceased monks who had not yet transcended human desire to reach nirvana.

The dogs were presented to Chinese rulers by the lamas, and it was in the Chinese imperial court that the dogs received their name, Shih Tzu, meaning “Little lion.”

These charming little dogs were described by the Chinese, and later by breeders in the U.S., as having parts made up of an owl, a lion, a teddy bear, a court jester, the lustrous eyes of a dragon, teeth like grains of rice, and the torso of a bear!

When imperial rule ended in China, the Shih Tzu all but disappeared during the Communist Revolution. A further contributing factor to the breed’s demise was the death in 1908 of the Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi, who was responsible for a world-recognized breeding program of Pekingese, Pugs, and Shih Tzus.

Fortunately, some Shih Tzus survived, mostly thanks to General Douglas and Lady Brownrigg who took some of the dogs to the U.K. It’s thought that today’s Shih Tzus are all descended from just fourteen dogs.

The breed first appeared in the U.S. during the 1940s and 1950s when some Shih Tzus were taken to the United States by American soldiers returning from Europe.

In 1969, the breed was recognized by the American Kennel Club and has grown in popularity as a family pet ever since. Today’s Shih Tzus are often seen gracing the show ring in Toy group classes.

The breed’s other main occupation is as a cherished family pet and beloved companion. Shih Tzus are easygoing, friendly, and affectionate, making them ideal for first-time dog owners.

Although the Shih Tzu would rather spend his days sleeping in your lap, there are a few who take part in agility classes with some success, and they also do well in obedience competitions.

Also, thanks to his laid-back, friendly nature, the Shih Tzu makes a wonderful therapy dog.

Health

The Shih Tzu has a life expectancy of between ten and 18 years. However, like most tiny dogs, the breed does have a few health problems that you should be aware of, including:

  • Dental problems
  • Luxating patellas
  • Eye problems
  • Brachycephalic syndrome
  • Renal dysplasia

Dental problems

The Shih Tzu has tiny teeth that can often be overcrowded, misaligned, or missing. For that reason, the breed can be prone to periodontal disease.

You can take steps to keep your dog’s dentition healthy by feeding him kibble, rather than wet food.

Also, you should brush your Shih Tzu’s teeth daily with a special doggy toothbrush and toothpaste that you can get from your vet.

Luxating patellas

Luxating patella is a genetic condition where the dog’s kneecaps can pop out of position. Dogs with the condition are frequently seen to be lame and in discomfort.

If it’s left untreated, a luxating patella can predispose the affected knee joints to osteoarthritis. The condition can be remedied through surgery. However, you should always ask your puppy’s breeder to show you proof that a vet has screened the pup’s parents and grandparents for luxating patellas.

Proptosis

The Shih Tzu has eyes that protrude. That can leave them vulnerable to scratches and other injuries, leading to a condition called proptosis. When proptosis occurs, blood flow to the eye is cut off, potentially starving the eye of oxygen and leading to blindness.

Cataracts

Shih Tzus are prone to cataracts. Cataracts in dogs are the same as those in humans. A cataract is an imperfection in the lens of the eye. Just like a camera lens, the lens of the eye focuses light. The lens should be crystal clear, but when a cataract develops, it obscures the vision.

Cataracts vary in size from a tiny dot to covering the whole lens. In the early stages of its development, a cataract won’t cause any significant visual problems for your dog, perhaps just a little blurring or fogginess. However, once the cataract is complete, your pet’s eyesight will be much reduced, rather like looking through several sheets of thick wax paper.

Progressive retinal atrophy (PRA)

Progressive retinal atrophy is a condition that ultimately causes blindness. PRA is hereditary.

Corneal ulcers

Other eye problems that can afflict Shih Tzus include dry eye (keratoconjunctivitis sicca), and ingrown eyelashes, both of which can cause corneal ulcers and other painful complications.

Brachycephalic syndrome

Shih Tzus are flat-faced like the boxer, and both are brachycephalic dogs. That means that their breathing can suffer during very hot weather, and in some cases, serious respiratory problems can develop.

Renal dysplasia

Renal dysplasia is another inherited condition where the dog’s kidneys are not properly developed. The condition causes a puppy not to thrive, drink excessively, and generally do poorly.

Again, always ask the breeder for documentation that shows normal kidney function in both your puppy’s parents.

Obesity

A common problem that affects many lapdog breeds is obesity.

It’s up to you to make sure that your Shih Tzu gets plenty of exercise and the correct amount of food for his age and size so that he doesn’t become overweight.

Checking your Shih Tzu puppy’s genetic health

When buying a Shih Tzu puppy from a breeder, always ask to see written proof that both the puppy’s parents have undergone Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) patella evaluations.

Also, you want to see eye clearance certifications from the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF).

If the breeder has not had health screening carried out on the puppy’s parents, walk away.

Exercise

The Shih Tzu can be cheeky and mischievous. And he also has more energy to expend that he’ll lead you to believe!

These little dogs will enjoy a couple of walks a day, a trip to the dog park, and a game of ball in the backyard.

On the other hand, the Shih Tzu will be quite content to just kick back with you and watch T.V.!

Training

The Shih Tzu is a very intelligent and highly trainable breed.

That said, these dogs do have a stubborn streak, and you may need some patience to housetrain your Shih Tzu fully. Shih Tzus can be taught to take part in mini-agility events, and they can learn tricks and follow commands too.

You may find that your Shih Tzu puppy is a little bit cocky, stealing your shoes and chewing things. A Shih Tzu may be nippy and bossy too, guarding his food and toys. So, early socialization and training is essential for this sometimes opinionated breed.

Size & Living Conditions

The Shih Tzu is a toy breed. You can expect your puppy to grow into an adult that stands between eight and 11 inches at the shoulder, weighing from nine to 16 pounds.

Male Shih Tzus are typically bigger than females.

Can a Shih Tzu live outside?

No, absolutely not!

The Shih Tzu is too fond of his human family, too small, and too sensitive to heat to be able to live outside, even in a cozy kennel.

So, although a modern Shih Tzu doesn’t need to live in a palace, he certainly needs a loving home!

Nutrition

The quantity of food that you should feed your Shih Tzu will depend on his activity level, age, build, and individual metabolism.

As a general rule of thumb, you should give your Shih Tzu ½ to one cup of good quality dry kibble each day.

Kibble is very important, as crunching the biscuits helps to remove plaque from the dog’s teeth that could otherwise cause gingivitis and periodontal disease. Be sure to choose a kibble that’s formulated especially for toy breeds so that the biscuits are small enough for your dog to eat comfortably.

Shih Tzu puppies should receive an ounce of kibble per pound of bodyweight. That’s more than you would feed an adult Shih Tzu! Puppies typically need more nutrition than adult dogs because their growth and development need fueling, as does your puppy’s playtime.

Shih Tzus are prone to obesity, so keep a check on how much and how often you feed your dog. Ideally, a Shih Tzu should be fed four times daily for his first six months. After that, two meals each day will work best.

Coat and Colors

The Shih Tzu comes in a dazzling array of colors, including:

  • Black
  • White
  • Silver (looks white but has a deep silver sheen)
  • Red (looks dark orange)
  • Gold (tan-yellow, ranging from light tan to deep golden)
  • Brindle (a combination of one color streaked with another shade such as gold-black brindle)
  • Blue (charcoal gray)

You can also find color combinations of any of the above shades with white.

The coat is long and silky and flows right down to floor-length if it’s allowed to grow. Shih Tzus have a double coat, so they do shed moderately all year round. However, if the hair is kept long, the shed hairs tend to become caught up in the coat, rather than falling to the ground or onto your furniture.

Grooming

Although that long, flowing coat is beautiful, it does take a lot of maintenance to keep it in show condition. If the coat is not combed daily, it can quickly form mats that may lead to skin problems. To keep the coat pristine, you’ll need a wire pin brush and a good quality stainless steel comb with coarse and fine teeth.

For that reason, many owners have their Shih Tzus clipped by a pro groomer.

When a Shih Tzu puppy approaches a year of age, he changes his coat. During those three weeks, you’ll need to brush your dog several times daily. Once your puppy has changed his coat, you’ll need to comb or brush him a couple of days per week.

Your dog’s topknot and mustache will need combing daily. To prevent irritation to the dog’s eyes, you should tie the topknot up. Always use a latex topknot band for that. An ordinary rubber band will damage the hair.

As Pets

Now you’ve learned all about the regal, spirited Shih Tzu; it’s time to see if one of these attractive little dogs would be a suitable pet for you.

Here are the most important points about the Shih Tzu that will point you toward the right decision:

  • Shih Tzus are tiny dogs, making them ideal if you live in an apartment or small house with limited outdoor space.
  • The Shih Tzu has a gorgeous long mane of silky hair that requires daily combing if you are to prevent mats from forming. However, if you don’t plan on showing your dog, you could opt to have his coat clipped by a professional dog groomer. That will make the coat more manageable and helps to prevent mats from forming.
  • Although the Shih Tzu does shed, the shed hair tends to be trapped in his coat. For that reason, the Shih Tzu is an excellent choice for a home with pet hair allergy sufferers.
  • Well-socialized Shih Tzus generally get along very well with kids and other family pets.
  • The Shih Tzu loves to be the center of attention in his human family! For that reason and because of his heat sensitivity issues, the Shih Tzu should not be kept outside in a kennel.
  • Although the Shih Tzu is tiny, he still needs plenty of exercise and fun and games to prevent him from becoming bored and gaining too much weight.
  • Shih Tzus are prone to a wide array of inherited health problems. So, do be sure to check that your puppy’s parents have been health-screened before parting with your cash.
  • Shih Tzus are very affectionate little dogs and will happily settle in your lap for hours at a time. That makes the breed a very good choice for seniors and people who are housebound.

So, a Shih Tzu would most likely be an ideal companion for a senior household or a family with kids, provided their lifestyle is relatively sedentary. To be a Shih Tzu owner, you need to be into grooming your dog or be happy to opt for taking him to a groomer to have his coat clipped short.

Getting a Puppy

You can find information about Shih Tzu breeders from local breed clubs in your area. Your vet may be able to recommend a good breeder too.

Another great resource for Shih Tzu breeders is the American Shih Tzu Club. Make sure the breeder you choose has pledged to abide by the club’s code of ethics, which forbids the sale of puppies through auctions, brokers, and commercial enterprises such as pet stores. You might also want to take a look at the “Puppies” section on the AKC Shih Tzu breed profile page.

When you buy a puppy from a good breeder, you should be given a written contract, promising that the breeder will take the dog back at any point during the pup’s lifetime if you’re unable to keep your pet for any reason. You also want to see documents and certificates that confirm that both the puppy’s parents have been examined for genetic health problems.

Don’t be tempted to buy so-called teacup or Imperial Shih Tzus. These are simply undersized dogs. Super-tiny pups are very often plagued with health problems and usually have abnormally short lives.

Shih Tzu prices depend on where you live, the sex of the puppy, and whether the pup’s parents hold titles in the show ring. For a good quality Shih Tzu puppy whose parents hold all the desirable health certifications, you should expect to pay anything from $1,800 to $3,600.

Puppy Mills

Be very wary of buying a Shih Tzu puppy that’s offered for a very cheap price. The chances are that pups like this come from puppy mills.

Puppy mills are commercial businesses whose sole aim is to produce lots of puppies as quickly and cheaply as possible. Most puppy mills use breeding stock that has not been health certified. The dogs are kept in poor conditions, never seeing the light of day. And the puppies are often sold with genetic health issues or diseases that can sometimes prove fatal.

You should know that many pet stores source their stock from puppy mills.

Rescues

If you like the idea of offering a forever home to a dog from a shelter, you might want to check out this link to the U.S. Shih Tzu Rescue website. Petfinder is also a very handy resource where you might find a suitable Shih Tzu that needs a home.

Although the Shih Tzu generally has a good temperament, you must remember that dogs from shelters and rescue centers often come from unknown backgrounds, and their character cannot, therefore, be guaranteed.

With that in mind, it’s worth asking the rescue if they will consider allowing you to take the dog on a trial basis for a month or so. That way, if the dog isn’t a good fit for your family for temperamental reasons, the shelter will take him back.

Final Thoughts

If you live in a small place without a garden and you enjoy a quiet lifestyle, you might find your perfect canine companion in the laid-back, lapdog Shih Tzu.

The Shih Tzu loves to play ball, go for short walks, and follow you around while you’re working at home. Then he’ll happily cuddle up in your lap while you relax in front of the T.V. Seniors and kids will both get along great with a Shih Tzu.

Your feisty little pet will guard your home and repay your hospitality with so much love and affection; you’ll never regret welcoming him into your home.

Some Famous Shih Tzus

  • Wicket, dog of Isaac, Taylor, and Zac Hanson
  • Bing and Bong, owned by Mariah Carey
  • Talulah and Gracie, Joy Behar’s (The View) dogs
  • Lady and Jolie, owned by Jerry Lewis (comic actor)
  • Munch-Munch, dog of singer, Beyonce Knowles
  • Rusty, owned by David Hasselhoff (America’s Got Talent)
  • Sebastian, owned by Vanessa Williams (singer/actress)
  • Choo Choo, the dog of Queen Elizabeth of England
  • Diva, owned by Fantasia Barrino (American Idol)