The Shih Tzu is a snugly built little animal with a solid, sound structure. It stands from about 8 to 11 inches tall at the withers, and should weigh from 9 to 16 pounds. Its body length is slightly greater than its height, and it should be physically proportional all over, neither too short or too small, but a true miniature breed dog. In movement, it moves with effortless, smooth strides, showing good drive and reach, with the head and tail held high, giving away its ancient royal bloodlines.
Its hair is double layered, full, dense, and lush, and grows long and straight, past the feet. The Shih Tzu sheds very little, making it a good choice for people who have light allergies to fur, or for people who just prefer not to clean up a lot of hair. Regular grooming is a requirement with this breed because of this characteristic; the hair will get tangled and matted quickly as it gets longer. The ears and tail are full and long, with the tail hair fluffing it out in a feathery plume that curves over the back.
This breed is categorized as brachycephalic, meaning that the muzzle and nose of the Shih Tzu is flat, though not as flat as its cousin, the Pekingese. The eyes are round and wide, but in contrast to some other flat muzzled dogs, the eyes should not bulge or be too prominent. The Shih Tzu should have an innocent, wide-eyed, warm expression giving it an impression of friendliness and trustworthiness, rather than the more ferocious appearance of the Pekingese.
The Shih Tzu is bred primarily as a domestic and family companion, so its personality should be guided by friendliness, buoyancy, tolerance, and trust. This breed showers affection on its family when it has been treated in kind, and is good and gentle with children. It should be noted that Shih Tzu can get skittish when they are mistreated, and a dog that is introduced to small children at an older age may not be as tolerant with high energy play as it would if it had been raised from the start with young children. Its resilience is impressive, but this trait can translate to stubbornness at times.
Still, the ever plucky and sweet Shih Tzu is not only a lively and playful companion, but a mild lapdog as well. It loves to romp and play, delighting everyone with its cheerful attitude, and at the end of the day it is happy to relax with the family, serene and at peace in its little world.
This breed needs exercise, but not much more than a daily walk around the neighborhood, or a run though the park. It can even be suitably energized with fetching games inside when the weather does not permit outdoor activities. This is a walking dog rather than a jogging dog, but owing to its size, it can also make an enjoyable biking companion, given a comfortable bike basket from which to settle in to catch the wind in its face. Because of its short muzzle, the Shih Tzu cannot tolerate high temperatures.
Another consideration regarding its nose is the tendency for water to get into the nostrils. Some owners use water bottles (the sort used for small cage animals) for their Shih Tzu to avoid this problem. This dog gets along better as an indoor dog rather than an outdoor dog. This arrangement is highly recommended, in fact. This is not only to protect your dog from temperatures, but because the hair tends to get dirty and matted as it grows.
The plush coat requires combing or brushing on alternate days, everyday if it is kept at show length. It is essential to teach puppies to accept grooming while young so that they look forward to this activity with you. Make no mistake, if you choose to grow the hair long on your Shih Tzu, you will need to commit yourself to an intense grooming schedule; the hair can get out of hand quickly. Some owners who do not plan to show their Shih Tzu, but have the breed for companionship only, will choose to keep their pet in a teddy bear cut, or an abbreviated long style that is easier to manage.
Another option is to keep the tail, ears and “beard” long, with the feet fluffy, and the rest of the hair on the body trimmed to an inch or shorter, or to keep the hair on the undercarriage long so that it blends with the legs, giving the hair the appearance of a skirt. Whatever cut is chosen, the hair around the eyes should be kept trimmed to avoid mishaps or gunk build-up, but just long enough to keep dust from blowing into the eyes.
Another reason to keep your Shih Tzu inside is that it has a tendency to bark, sometimes for long stretches of time. Even if it is kept indoors, this breed will bark frequently, at anyone, or anything, going by. It gets bored when it is alone, and this explains its behavior to some degree, but keep in mind that the Shih Tzu was bred as a palace watchdog, and it will continue to carry that instinct if it is from a pure line. This quality makes it a particularly good choice for an alarm system, but maybe not a good option for someone who lives in an apartment and is at work all day -- although there are solutions for this type of situation. When the dog is with people it can be distracted from barking as much, but this trait must be expected and appreciated, rather than taken as an annoyance that must be trained out of the Shih Tzu. Rather than punishing the barking behavior, find response words that will work quickly to quiet your dog, or distractions that can be depended on to draw its attention away from what is going on outside the window or door.
The Shih Tzu has a lifespan of 11 to 16 years. Some of the minor diseases that can affect this breed are renal dysplasia (abnormal growth of tissue), trichiasis (eyelash malformation), entropion, progressive retinal atrophy (PRA), otitis externa, patellar luxation, and inguinal (groin) hernia, as well as a major concern like canine hip dysplasia (CHD). This breed is also prone to cataract and dental problems. Eye, hip, and DNA tests can be good for preventive health care, or for management of non-preventive conditions.
The name Shih Tzu Kou, or Shih Tzu, translates to “mini lion,” the moniker given to it in deference to its lion-like appearance. The name is likely based on the word for lion, “shishi.” The lion was highly esteemed in China for its connection with Buddhism, since it had a long tradition as guardian of the temples and palaces. The lion's strength and courage was revered, and it made its way into many of Buddha's teachings. This little dog was bred to reflect that appearance of strength, regality, and beauty, and it took the position as a practical stand in for the lion, acting as companion and guardian of the palace and temple.
It is probable that this dog was actually developed in Tibet in the 1600s, where it was considered a holy animal. It is accepted as one of the oldest dog breeds on record. The modern Shih Tzu developed in China in the late 19th Century, when the Dowager Empress Cixi ruled the kingdom.
Though the Pekingese and Shih Tzu breeds have similar backgrounds, and have often been linked over the years, the two had been long distinguished in Chinese art, where the latter is shown with a pien-ji or topknot, denoted by bumps on the head. It is worth remarking that the topknot is still the style that is used for the Shih Tzu, especially in the show ring.
When the Dowager Empress Cixi ruled during the latter part of the Qing dynasty, the Shih Tzu were held in great regard, and were kept as special house pets. She personally oversaw their breeding, and the eunuchs in charge of the palace breeding took great pride in producing the most beautiful and distinct dogs, interbreeding, without the Empress' knowledge, within the groups of Pekingese and Pugs that were also a part of the palace kennel in order to achieve those ideal. Because the dogs were also regarded as protectors of the palace, the instinct for barking at strangers was undoubtedly honed during this time. In fact, the Shih Tzu is still a highly recommended watch dog because of its quick and vocal reaction to strangers. The Empress was very jealous over her dogs and was not wont to share them with foreign dignitaries or friends. Many of the Empress' dogs were lost after her death, causing a big blow to the breed. Later, Shih Tzus were displayed in China as Tibetan Poodles or Lhassa Terriers.
In 1935, the breed was shown as the Lhassa Lion Dog, and it was then that it began to gain popularity on a wider scale. In England there was confusion between the Shih Tzu and the Lhasa Apso, but in 1934, after the Apso was displayed, the two breeds were split into their own distinct classes. It was then that the smaller dogs with the shorter-noses and wider-skulls from Peking were given the Shih Tzu name. Just one Pekingese outcrossing was allowed, in 1952, but this cross was not permitted again. The standards for the purity of the bloodline have been strictly upheld since. In the 1960s, the U.S. saw immense growth in the breed’s popularity, paving the way for recognition by the American Kennel Club in 1969. It is among the most lovable of the toy breeds, and its popularity as a domestic companion and show dog continues to rise.