What are Shih Tzu's like?
A Shih Tzu is a loving and lively little dog that was bred to be a companion animal, so it’s no wonder that these toy-sized dogs make fantastic pets. Their small size and low exercise needs make them adaptable to apartment living, so they are a pup-ular pet for smaller spaces. Their fur does require a lot of grooming, but they are a “hypoallergenic” breed, making them paw-fect for households that might have allergies.
Shih Tzu overview
The Shih Tzu is one of the oldest breeds of dog around and is seen as one of the “holy dogs” of Tibet and China, having been found in palaces and temples for centuries and bred to resemble sacred lions. In fact, the name “Shih Tzu” means “little lion”. But aside from the name, there’s nothing ferocious about this pooch. Shih Tzu’s are well known to be playful and affectionate pets with cheerful expressions and personalities.
Although they will probably bark if someone comes to the door, these pups weren’t bred to be watchdogs. Which is evident since these dogs are friendly towards strangers. Given their loving and sociable nature, it is no wonder that Shih Tzus are good with children and other animals.
Unlike other small breeds, the Shih Tzu is fairly sturdy, so they can deal with a little rough and tumble play with other dogs and kids, (but youngsters will still need to be taught how to safely interact with the dog.)
Not only are Shih Tzus fantastic fur-iends, their small size and low exercise needs mean they are just as happy living in a flat as they are a large house. This breed is also remarkably healthy, and many of the health problems they are prone to developing can be prevented with regular grooming and a good diet.
Speaking of grooming, that is one thing you will need to keep up with. If you keep your dog’s hair natural and long, you will need to brush it every day to keep it in good condition. However, despite the high demand for grooming, these dogs shed very little and you won’t find hair all over the house. In fact, Shih Tzus shed so little they are often touted as being “hypoallergenic” dogs.
What is an Imperial Shih Tzu?
An Imperial Shih Tzu is the name given to a dog that’s smaller than the breed standard. There is nothing inherently different about these dogs, and it’s a hot topic amongst breeders. Some insist they are directly descended to the dogs from the imperial court. However, an “Imperial Shih Tzu” is similar to the “Teacup Chihuahua”, they are simply bred to be smaller in size but they are not recognised as an alternative breed or class. In fact, they’re not recognised by any major dog show or club.
Shih Tzu stats
|Size||Small (Toy)||Small (Toy)|
|Average Height (Withers)||20.3 - 28cm||20.3 - 28cm|
|Average Weight||4 - 7.2kg||4 - 7.2kg|
|Lifespan||10 - 16 years||10 - 16 years|
|Temperament||Friendly, affectionate, lively, cheerful.||Friendly, affectionate, lively, cheerful.|
The history of the Shih Tzu
Few dogs have a history as lengthy and refined as the Shih Tzu. But for all their history, their origins are a little hazy. It’s believed that the Shih Tzu originated sometime around 1000-800 BCE in Tibet, making the breed almost 3000 years old and one of the oldest dog breeds in existence.
The similar-looking Lhaso Apso is even older. But given that many of the ancient records of Shih Tzus are images in tapestries and paintings, it can be tricky to determine whether they depict Shih Tzus or Lhaso Apsos so it makes dating the breed and understanding when they emerged tricky. For all we know, the breed could have existed for even longer!
The ancestors of the Shih Tzu are just as uncertain. Given their similar looks, ancient existence, and location it is pretty safe to assume that the Lhaso Apsos had a big influence on the Shih Tzu breed. Some theorise that Apsos bred with Pekingese, (whose name also means “lion dog”) and the resulting crossbreed became the Shih Tzu.
What is certain though, is that this dog breed is heavily linked with Chinese royalty. No one really knows when, but at some point, the Shih Tzu left Tibet and became a staple of Chinese imperial palaces. From then on, these cuddly pups were bred to be companions to emperors and empresses, but being cute wasn’t their only purpose.
These pooches were essentially a living hot water bottle. The Shih Tzu would settle by their owner’s heels to keep the royal feet warm, and were used as bed warmers. It’s believed they were even carried inside robes to warm their owners up!
Shih Tzus were so highly-regarded amongst the royals that it was prohibited for anyone else to own one. That means that once upon a time, you could even be killed if you were found owning a Shih Tzu. These were dogs for emperors and no one else. They were even especially bred in the palace by eunuchs for the emperors and empresses.
One empress, in particular, Empress Tzu Hsi, was especially fond of the little dogs, having been gifted a pair from the Dalai Lama. She was strict in her standards of the dog’s temperament and size and began a rigorous breeding programme in the palace. Her dogs had to be small enough to fit in a kimono sleeve, have a companionable temperament, and fulfil their role as footwarmers. Because of her dedication and work on the breed, Empress Tzu Hsi is credited with much of the development of the modern Shih Tzu breed.
Up until Empress Tzu Hsi’s death in 1911, Shih Tzus were reserved for Chinese royalty. Not only could no one outside the palace own one, but they also weren’t traded outside of China either. That means despite the fact the breed existed for thousands of years, they didn’t make it into the Western World until the 1930s when some were supposedly gifted to other royal households and imported by wealthy dog fanciers. This, in turn, actually saved the breed from extinction. Meanwhile, it wasn’t until after the Second World War that these dogs made it to America.
Given the wrong name
Even when the Shih Tzu did make it to our shores, they were classed as “Apsos”. Within a few years, owners realised that the Shih Tzu and the Lhaso Apso were actually two distinct breeds, and by 1935 a breed standard for the Shih Tzu emerged. The breed was then recognised by the Kennel Club in 1940. Although the breed didn’t make it to the American Kennel Club registry until 1969!
Holy as well as royal
Another reason the little Shih Tzu was so highly regarded is because of its links to Buddhism. For one, it’s believed that when Buddha rode to Earth on the back of a lion, he also brought with him a little dog. The dog happened to look a lot like the lion, and became revered in its own right as the little “lion dog”, the Shih Tzu, and became a fixture of Buddhist temples.
Another legend is that while Buddha was out travelling, bandits tried to rob him. His faithful Shih Tzu transformed into a lion and scared the bandits away. After it had transformed back into a dog, Buddha picked the little pooch up and kissed its forehead in thanks. That blessing marked the little pup, and many Shih Tzus today still have a “star of Buddha”, a little spot of colour (usually white) on their foreheads where Buddha had kissed his dog centuries ago.
The star isn’t the only marking linked to Buddha either. Another belief is that the markings on the dog's back are caused by a saddle. Since this little dog could transform into a lion, Buddha used to saddle it and ride it when in lion form, and the dark saddle marks have stayed with the breed ever since.
Shih Tzu temperament
Shih Tzus are paw-some family pets and as a breed have wonderful personalities. The Shih Tzu temperament is typically loving, affectionate, and sociable. They will make friends with anyone whether they are human or hound. Shih Tzus are lively and playful, and they get on well with children.
Despite being quite switched-on, these dogs still love to lounge. They were bred to be companions and used as foot warmers after all, so don’t be surprised to find your dog lazed across your lap at every possible op-paw-tunity.
That being said, Shih Tzus are pretty independent. They can be stubborn and know how to stand on their own four paws. This can make training tricky, but it does also mean that you will probably have a confident dog that’s content to spend some time alone lazing on the floor or playing with a puzzle toy to satisfy their alert minds.
Another big bonus is that behavioural issues are uncommon amongst Shih Tzus. Obviously, all dogs are still individuals. Plus, early socialisation and training help to balance out a pooch’s personality and ensure any bad behaviour is ruled out. Early training is especially im-paw-tent for this breed as they are quite slow to learn. You’ll need to be patient and persistent to make sure your Shih Tzu learns everything they need to, and stop any stubborn streaks from emerging.
But on the whole, the Shih Tzu has a very sweet and sociable personality. They’re calm and love to cuddle their owners whenever they can, but still have enough energy to make lively playmates.
Can Shih Tzus be left alone?
Because the Shih Tzu was bred to be a companion animal, they are people-orientated little dogs. Sadly, this does mean they can be prone to developing separation anxiety. Because of this, it is recommended that you do not leave your Shih Tzu alone for extended periods of time. Some dogs can be successfully left alone while an owner is at work, but this will require training and patience to achieve.
There is no fixed rule of thumb for how long you can leave a Shih Tzu alone for. And regardless of whether you plan to only leave them occasionally or for a few hours every day, you will still need to put the time and effort into training your pooch that being alone isn’t scary and it’s never for forever.
Is a Shih Tzu high maintenance?
A Shih Tzu is a high maintenance dog in that they thrive on human company and require a lot of grooming. But, you can always lessen the necessary grooming by keeping your Shih Tzu’s fur short.
Otherwise, the Shih Tzu is not necessarily a high maintenance dog. They do not require hours of exercise every day, they are usually quiet and calm, and they are not highly-strung or prone to behavioural issues. They do take a longer time to train than the average pooch, but as long as you start training them young, they’ll learn soon enough. Since they’re little people-pleasers, they might even learn a few more tricks once they realise how happy it makes you.
Shih Tzus are also a fairly healthy breed. There are a handful of hereditary conditions to watch out for, otherwise, they only really face fairly common dog illnesses like eye problems and ear infections.
Do Shih Tzus bark?
Usually, the Shih Tzu is a quiet and laid back breed of dog but isn’t uncommon to find individuals who have a tendency to bark. Plus, pups with separation anxiety are very likely to bark and howl if left alone.
They aren’t bred to be watchdogs, so they’re not likely to bark at other dogs and strangers when you’re out and about. Compared to other small breeds, the Shih Tzu is pretty quiet, so barking isn’t usually a problem. But at the same time, it isn’t uncommon either. This breed has very few behavioural issues, and barking seems to be the most common reason they would visit a trainer or obedience classes.
Shih Tzu appearance
The Shih Tzu appearance is usually defined by their long, silky fur that flows around them like an elaborate skirt. These luscious locks take a lot of looking after though, needing daily grooming and weekly bathing to prevent matting and tangles. Because of this, many owners tend to keep their Shih Tzus fur clipped if they’re not destined for the show ring. They’re known as “lion dogs” due to their appearance but have also been called “Chrysanthemum dogs” due to how their hair grows on their faces.
Having shorter fur lets you appreciate the other features of this funny little pup. They have short legs and quite a long body. Shih Tzus are “off-square” meaning they are longer than they are tall. They’re also quite sturdy looking for such a small dog.
Their snouts are short and give them a bit of a snub-nosed appearance, which is emphasised by their round, dark eyes which are set wide apart. Shih Tzus have broad heads and floppy ears, which often look longer and blend into their neck because of their feathers. Their tail is curled and held above them over their back, creating a curtain if they do have long hair.
According to breed standards, the Shih Tzus should appear “arrogant”. This is because of how they hold themselves, with their heads held high and noses turned up in the air. While your pooch might walk tall and proud like this, they’re usually very cheeky looking when relaxing at home.
It’s not uncommon for a Shih Tzu to have an underbite or “undershot bite”, which can make your dog look a little silly. It means their lower jaw is longer than their upper jaw, and their bottom teeth might stick out. It’s quite common for brachycephalic dogs to have an underbite, including breeds like the Shih Tzu and French Bulldog.
How long can Shih Tzus live for?
Your pooch can live for a surprisingly long time, and the average Shih Tzu lifespan is between 10 to 16 years. The Kennel Club estimates that the median age is 13 years and 2 months, so you can expect your pup will make it to their teens and you can enjoy well over a decade with your fur-iend. The best way to maximise your Shih Tzu’s lifespan is to ensure they eat a good-quality, healthy diet and are exercised regularly.
The most common cause of death for Shih Tzus is simply old age, which includes a number of health conditions associated with advanced age. One of these is heart disease, which can be prevented with regular exercise and a healthy diet. Your Shih Tzu has a long life ahead, and they’re a remarkably hardy breed, so giving them a balanced diet will help to maximise their good health and ensure they stay fit and happy into their twilight years.
Can Shih Tzus live for 20 years?
Although a Shih Tzu lives for 10-16 years on average, there are a few exceptions. One dog named “Smokey” became the oldest Shih Tzu on record and managed to make it to the grand old age of 23 before crossing the rainbow bridge. So there is the possibility your pooch will make it to their second decade with lots of love and care!
Shih Tzu facts
More wolf than most dogs
As we said, the Shih Tzu is a pretty ancient breed of dog. In fact, the breed is so old and established that their DNA is very, very close to the DNA of a wolf. Despite their looks, they are actually one of the closest relatives to the wolf out of all dog breeds!
Because of the way their fur grows upwards from their nose, the Shih Tzu was nicknamed the “Chrysanthemum Dog” in England when they first arrived in the 1930s. All because they thought the dog’s face looked like a Chrysanthemum flower.
Despite the fact the Shih Tzu is one of the oldest breeds of dog and beloved by royalty, they were almost wiped out. When the Communist party took over in China, these dogs were without an imperial home and out of favour. Only 14 dogs that had been traded overseas were all that remained, and this small pack pf pooches became the foundation of the modern breed.
Shih Tzu puppies
Training your Shih Tzu
It is advised that you start training your Shih Tzu puppy as soon as you bring them home. This is because Shih Tzus are quite difficult to train, taking more repetitions of a command before they cotton on. Not only do they take longer to catch on compared to other breeds, but they are also known to have a stubborn streak too. Many pups will turn on the charm to win their owners over and get what they want, which can hamper consistent training. So you will need to persevere and keep up regular, short training sessions to ensure your dog is obedient and fully housetrained.
What health problems do Shih Tzus have?
In general, the Shih Tzu is a pretty healthy breed. There are a few hereditary conditions they may inherit, but these are uncommon. Otherwise, these pups are prone to a few problems like eye issues and breathing troubles due to their breed and physique.
Shih Tzu health problems can include:
- Eye issues
- Breathing problems
- Intervertebral disc disease
- Skin conditions
- Bladder and kidney stones
Common eye problems
Many eye problems such as “dry eye” are pretty common in dogs of all breeds. However, given the prominent, large eyes and shallow eye sockets of the Shih Tzu they seem a little more predisposed to some eye issues. Some Shih Tzus can also inherit eye problems such as Retinal Dysplasia.
These sorts of issues range in severity, from mild and treatable problems such as excessive tears or dry eye to serious conditions like retinal detachment which can cause blindness.
Making sure you keep their facial fur trimmed and out of their eyes is a good start to making sure your Shih Tzus eyes stay healthy. Feeding them a healthy diet to help strengthen their immune system will also help. If you ever notice anything out of sorts with your dog’s eyes, or they begin bumping into things, take them to a vet to be checked out.
Shih Tzus are classed as brachycephalic dogs due to their short snouts, snub noses, and flat faces. Like most brachycephalic breeds this does make them predisposed to breathing problems. This can include Brachycephalic Syndrome which is a disease that causes respiratory distress. Shih Tzus are also vulnerable to Tracheal Collapse, where their windpipe collapses. This is often treatable but in severe cases, it can be life-threatening. Because their windpipes are quite fragile, it’s best to use a harness when walking your Shih Tzu.
Being brachycephalic, be aware that your Shih Tzu is vulnerable to overheating. They don’t do well in hot weather, so take special care to keep your fur-iend cool in summer to prevent heatstroke and other illnesses.
Although uncommon, some Shih Tzus may develop hypothyroidism. This is a condition where their thyroid doesn’t create enough hormones, specifically thyroxine, which helps to maintain a healthy metabolism. Not creating enough hormones and the change in metabolism means your pooch can be prone to weight gain, lose their appetite, and will often lose the lustre in their fur and develop itchy skin. Hypothyroidism is not life-threatening and it is treatable, however, your pup will need to have some supplements and a healthy diet for the rest of their life.
Like many dogs with a long body and short legs, Shih Tzus can suffer from intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) or more commonly known as slipped discs. If your Shih Tzu is showing signs of discomfort such as whimpering, a hunched back, or refusing to hold their head high in the characteristic “arrogant” look, they may have suffered a slipped disc or other spinal injury. Take them to see a vet as soon as you can.
One of the most common complaints amongst Shih Tzus is dermatological issues like itchy or sensitive skin. Most skin conditions are a result of a dietary allergy or intolerance, so make sure you know exactly what your pup is eating and try picking up a hypoallergenic recipe that doesn’t have any grains or artificial additives. (They’re common irritants!) Pure Pet Food is always grain-free and only made from natural, whole foods to help put an end to irritation and itchy skin.
Shih Tzus are one of the breeds most often diagnosed with bladder stones. These are often treated either with a special diet to help dissolve the stones and prevent their formation or by removing the stones surgically. In terms of preventing bladder stones (and urine crystals), you should consider switching to a dog food like Pure which has carefully selected ingredients to help maintain your dog’s Ph balance, and the water content in their food can help to flush away stones and crystals before they grow.
How much exercise do Shih Tzus need?
Shih Tzus are active little dogs, but they are still only small. These are not a breed that can keep up with you on long hikes. Your Shih Tzu will only need an hour a day of exercise at most, and many as paw-fectly happy and healthy with a brisk half-hour trot around the block. The main thing is that Shih Tzus need regular activity to satisfy their alert minds and to keep them in good shape.
Although they should be sturdy looking, Shih Tzus should not become obese as it puts pressure on their lungs and can exacerbate breathing problems, and the extra weight will put a strain on their joints and increase their risk of problems like dislocating knees.
Shih Tzu grooming
Because of your pooch’s long, luscious locks they do require a lot of careful grooming.
If you keep your Shih Tzu's fur long you will need to brush it every day to prevent tangles and mats and to make sure that nothing is stuck in their fur. Additionally, they will need to be bathed often and conditioned (sometimes as much as once a week!) to keep their fur healthy. A Shih Tzus fur should be straight and silky, which helps to reduce matting. However, some pooches have softer fur, which is more prone to knots and mats.
If you want to minimise grooming time (and maximise your pup’s cute features) you can consider giving your Shih Tzu a haircut. Keeping their fur short prevents the need to groom daily and means you can reduce the need for bathing.
What is the best haircut for a Shih Tzu?
Shih Tzu haircuts are a source of contention and there are several choice trims you can pick “fur” your pooch. The most common Shih Tzu haircuts are the puppy cut, the teddy bear cut, the top knot, and the show cut.
Out of all of these Shih Tzu haircuts, the puppy cut and the teddy bear cut are the easiest to maintain. These cuts keep the fur clipped short all over their body, and the ears are trimmed to give them the distinct puppyish look. These cuts also help to keep your dog cool in hot weather. The styles are both similar, keeping the fur short and the hair on the head and ears a little longer. The difference between the two is that the puppy cut is shorter.
Some paw-rents take these cuts and take it a step further, getting a “lion cut” to emphasise their dog’s namesake. Here, the pup has their coat clipped short but the fur on their head is kept long to create a mane of hair. This might reduce brushing time, but it doesn’t last too long. Expect to have to clip your pooch every month or two if you want to keep their fur short.
The top knot is paw-haps the most recognisable Shih Tzu haircut. It is where their hair is kept long on the top of their head and secured in a top-knot with a clip. The rest of their hair is trimmed but must be at least an inch long, so your pooch will still have long, silky locks that waft around them as they move.
The show cut is the most extravagant haircut and the one that requires the most upkeep. Shih Tzus with show haircuts have very long hair that trails on the ground. It might look elegant, but it requires a lot of brushing and maintenance, and it’s not often seen on a Shih Tzu unless they’re going to a dog show.
How often should you bathe a Shih Tzu?
How often you bathe your Shih Tzu will depend on the haircut they have. If your pooch has a long coat, you will need to bathe them more often. Some dogs will need washing as often as every week or fortnight. This helps to keep their fur clean, remove any objects tangled in their hair, and removes any excess oils.
Like human hair, there is a balance between washing too much and not enough. If you wash them too often you will strip their fur and skin of the natural oils that keep their skin and hair supple and healthy. Dry skin will become inflamed and irritated. On the other hand, if you don’t wash them enough, they might have dirt and other gunk trapped in their hair, and their fur will be more likely to matt.
The best rule of thumb is to wash your Shih Tzu every month. If they have short fur and don’t get very dirty, you can relax to washing them less often. If their fur is longer and in need of more maintenance, try to bathe them every two weeks.
Do Shih Tzus shed?
All dog breeds will shed even just a little. Shih Tzus are one breed that comes very close to not shedding at all. Despite their long fur, they lose very little hair, and you will usually only notice stray strands coming off when you wash or brush your pup. Because a Shih Tzu requires regular washing and brushing, this helps to keep shedding to a minimum. Any loose hairs they do have also tend to tangle with their fur, stopping it from reaching your floor and furniture.
However, you should be aware that Shih Tzu puppies will moult a lot at around a year old as they transition into their adult coat.
Are Shih Tzus hypoallergenic?
Yes and no. Because they shed very little, they are as hypoallergenic as a dog can be. People with allergies to fur might be fine with a Shih Tzu.
However, there is no such thing as a 100% hypoallergenic dog as they will still shed a little hair, and they will still have dander and drool. Dander, or dead skin, is another common trigger to allergies and all breeds, even “hypoallergenic” ones will drop some, albeit less than other breeds.
As always if you have any allergies, the best thing to do is to try and spend some time with Shih Tzus to see if they set off your sensitivities.