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What Were Shih Tzus Bred For? History of the Shih Tzu

Written by: Lindsey Lawson

Last Updated on April 29, 2024 by Dogster Team

shih tzu with teddy bear cut

What Were Shih Tzus Bred For? History of the Shih Tzu

The affectionate and fun-natured Shih Tzu is beloved in households all over the world. This elegant breed has grown in popularity over the last several decades because of its friendliness and knack for making great companions and family pets.

The Shih Tzu breed first developed in Tibet, where it is believed the Tibetans bred them as companion animals meant to resemble lions, a highly revered symbol in Buddhist culture. Here we will take a step back into the history of the Shih Tzu to see how it became the breed we know and love today.

divider-pawHailing from Tibet

Lions were steeped in ancient Buddhist mythology and were revered as symbols of leadership and royalty. The Tibetans bred the Shih Tzu (meaning, “lion dog”) to resemble lions and even cut their coats to resemble the big cat. It was theorized they may have been initially bred to warn the Tibetans of visitors.

It’s believed the breed made its way into China during the Ch’ing Dynasty during the 1600s when the Tibetans gifted them to the Chinese emperors.

In China, the Shih Tzu was bred with the Pug and Pekingese, which eventually led us to our modern-day Shih Tzus. The Chinese continued breeding the Shih Tzu as lap dogs only worthy of Chinese royalty.

shih tzu with puppy cat
Image By: AlexFilim, Shutterstock

Shih Tzu in the 20th Century

The Shih Tzu breed spent a couple of centuries as lapdogs of Chinese royalty before the Communist Revolution of China began, changing the course of their history.

Imported into Europe

The breed was imported into Europe in 1930 where they were put in the classification of “Apsos.” They were shown in England alongside the Lhasa Apso in 1933 as the Lhasa Lion dog. By 1934 these two breeds were split into their distinct classes and by 1935 the very first European standard for the Shih Tzu breed was written in England by the Shih Tzu Club.

Shih Tzu standing on an ice floe
Image By: Tatiana Gasich, Shutterstock

Communist Revolution of China

In the 1940s and 1950s, after the Communist Revolution of China, the breed’s future took a turn for the worse. The Empress Dowager Cixi had breeding kennels in place for the Shih Tzu and after her death during the revolution, her breeding kennels were completely destroyed and the breed went extinct in the country.

Thankfully, members of the military managed to bring back some Shih Tzus to the United States during this time, giving the breed a glimmer of hope for recovery.

Journey to the United States of America

It was seven male dogs and seven female dogs that laid the foundation for the modern Shih Tzu, one of them being a purebred Pekingese that was added into the mix sometime during the 1950s. Breeders in the United States put focus on the breed to increase their numbers and by 1969, the Shih Tzu was recognized by the American Kennel Club.

As decades rolled by, the Shih Tzu continued to grow in both numbers and popularity. They were not just revered for their looks but their overall personality. The breed ended up being one of the most popular dog breeds in the United States and maintains that status to this day.

Shih Tzu
Image By: carlosleucipo, Pixabay

Shih Tzus in Modern Day

Once bred as a royal lapdog in China, the Shih Tzu is still bred mainly as a companion animal. They are, however, very popular competitors in dog shows all over the world with their long, silky fur and elegant gait.

Shih Tzus are considered one of the top 20 toy dog breeds in the world, and for good reason. This breed makes a wonderful family pet. They are a very loving and friendly breed that generally does well with children, which can be a difficult attribute to find in toy breeds.

Shih Tzus may be a little stubborn, but they make up for it by being quick to learn and great with other pets and people. As with most toy breeds, they can be difficult to potty train and tend to exhibit small dog syndrome. What else can you expect though? They were raised as royalty after all.

This breed is a bit more high-maintenance in terms of grooming with all that long, silky hair.  These precious pooches are fun to doll up with their easily styled hair. They are prone to some genetic health conditions so it is advised that anyone interested in a Shih Tzu check into the breeder to ensure they are reputable and that they perform proper health testing on their dogs.


The Shih Tzu was originally bred in Tibet to resemble lions, which were highly revered in Buddhist culture and throughout mythology. It was theorized the Tibetans may have bred them to warn of approaching visitors but by the time they made it into China, they were bred specifically as companion dogs. They nearly went extinct, but thankfully recovered and remain one of the most popular toy breeds in the present day.

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Featured Image Credit: chaoss, Shutterstock

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