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12 Interesting Facts About the Shih Tzu (Vet-Reviewed)

Written by: Brooke Billingsley

Last Updated on July 3, 2024 by Dogster Team

Cute Shih Tzu puppy in the park

12 Interesting Facts About the Shih Tzu (Vet-Reviewed)


Dr. Luqman Javed Photo


Dr. Luqman Javed

Veterinarian, DVM

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Shih Tzus are adorable little dogs that have proven to be a favorite breed, often landing in the top 20 most popular dog breeds year after year; perhaps not surprisingly, they were ranked at #20 among the AKC breed popularity ranking in 2023. These cute dogs are often thought of as prissy and high-maintenance, but they are far more interesting than many people give them credit for. This ancient breed has been in development for more than a millennium, and their history is packed with interesting facts. Let’s talk about the cute but complex Shih Tzu!

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The 12 Facts About the Shih Tzu

1. The Breed Is Ancient

The Shih Tzu breed dates back to well over 1,000 years, making it one of the oldest documented dog breeds in the world. As early as 1000 BCE, small dogs known as “under the table” dogs existed in China, and they were considered the predecessors to the Shih Tzu.

Despite their origin dating back to an impressive timeline, they’ve only been recognized as a breed by the AKC since 1969 – which, though also quite impressive in terms of history, is nowhere near as impressive as the timeline of their actual origin. The UKC has recognized them as a breed since 1966.

Shih Tzu Close up
Image Credit: Angel LeBlanc, Shutterstock

2. They Were Bred for Companionship

Although many breeds were developed to perform a specific task, the task expected of the Shih Tzu was simple: provide companionship to their people. In some cases, their companionship duties extended to providing warmth to Chinese royalty through multiple means, including sleeping on their master’s feet, napping in beds to preheat them for people, and even being carried around in women’s robes to help keep them warm.

More than anything, the Shih Tzu was loved and maintained for their affectionate personality and loyalty.

3. They’re Originally from Tibet

While Shih Tzus are often associated with China, they originated in Tibet. The earliest Shih Tzus were developed by monks in Tibet, as a possible cross between the Pekingese and the Lhasa Apso. The Tibetan monks eventually began offering the dogs as gifts to Chinese royalty, which led to the Shih Tzu becoming the official royal dog of the Ming Dynasty, which controlled China from 1368 to 1644 CE.

4. The Breed Name Is Chinese

Although they originated in Tibet, the Shih Tzu name originates from Chinese. The Shih Tzu’s name is translated as “lion,” because they were bred to resemble a lion in traditional oriental art.

In contemporary Mandarin, Shih Tzus are known as “Xi Shi dogs”. This is in reference to Xi Shi, a woman who was regarded as one of the most beautiful women of ancient China.

A very cute Shih Tzu puppy posing on a warm summer day
Image Credit: Duncan Woodhouse, Shutterstock

5. They Have a Breed Nickname

Although their name is well known, many people don’t realize that the Shih Tzu also has a nickname: the “chrysanthemum-faced dog.” This is because of how the Shih Tzu’s face is shaped, and the pattern of hair growth on the face looks similar to the flower of a chrysanthemum plant. They obtained this nickname in England in the 1930s.

6. Shih Tzus Almost Went Extinct

During the Communist Revolution in China, the Shih Tzu was almost eliminated due to their association with wealth and royalty. In 1908, Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi also passed away after long serving as the supervisor of a breeding program of multiple breeds, including the Shih Tzu, Pug, and Pekingese.

While the breed was nearly wiped out, a handful of dogs were able to be saved and re-entered into a new breeding program in the early 20th century. All purebred Shih Tzus alive today are believed to have their lineage traced to just 14 dogs used to redevelop the breed.

7. Some Shih Tzus Can Be Quite Athletic

Many people associate breeds like the Shih Tzu with being lazy and untrainable. This couldn’t be further from the truth! The Shih Tzu is an intelligent and trainable dog who can be quite an impressive athlete.

Although many pet owners don’t seek out a Shih Tzu when looking for an athletic dog, with the proper training, they excel at canine sports. In 2014, a Shih Tzu won the championship and agility titles, making them the first of their breed to do so.

Happy Shih tzu dog sitting on green grass
Image Credit: Orawan Pattarawimonchai, Shutterstock

8. World War II Helped Bring Shih Tzus to America

Before World War II, the existence of Shih Tzus in the United States was essentially unheard of. The average person would never have seen or heard of the breed. In the 1940s and 1950s, American soldiers who had been stationed in European and Asian countries began returning home to the US. In some cases, they came home with Shih Tzus in their arms, creating the beginning of the booming popularity of the Shih Tzu.

9. Shih Tzu Ownership Used to Be Highly Guarded

As the royal dog of the Ming Dynasty, ownership of the Shih Tzu was highly regarded and exclusive. When commoners and other people who weren’t associated with royalty were found in possession of a Shih Tzu, they faced death as punishment.

Although anyone can own a Shih Tzu today, they’ve proven to be a popular breed among celebrities. Many famous people have chosen Shih Tzus, including Mariah Carey, Queen Elizabeth II, Beyonce Knowles, Nicole Richie, Bill Gates, and Colin Farrell.

10. They’re Not Very Easy to Train

Though many owners consider them an ideal first-time dog, Shih Tzus have a reputation (like other toy breeds) to be somewhat independent and not the easiest to train. They’re also not as outgoing and playful as some other first-time recommended breeds, such as the Labrador or the Golden Retriever.

white and brown Shih tzu standing on the grass
Image Credit: Radosław Zmudziński, Pixabay

11. Their Coat Requires Routine Care

The Shih Tzu’s long coat consists of a silky, long outer coat and a downy interior coat that helps the dog thermoregulate better. The silky coat can be high maintenance on its own, but with the presence of a double coat, grooming a Shih Tzu is best left to professionals.

Because of the necessary maintenance of the coat—brushing multiple times per week to prevent mats and tangles—many people opt for a “puppy cut” or “lion cut,” which typically means that the dog’s body has been cut relatively short for easier maintenance.

12. They Can Live Long Lives

Like many small breed dogs, the Shih Tzu has a long lifespan. Their general lifespan is estimated at around 10–16 years. However, a Florida Shih Tzu named Smokey lived to the ripe old age of 23. Smokey was born in 1986 and passed away in 2009. Other Shih Tzus that have had notably long lives past the age of 19 include Tutsy, Teddy, and the internet-famous Shih Tzu, Marnie. This suggests that advancements in pet care, dogs are able to live longer today than they did before.

Close up White shih tzu dog laying on the floor
Image Credit: Sanyalux Srisurin, Shutterstock

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Shih Tzus are lovely dogs with a fascinating history. They make great pets for families and single owners, but their high-maintenance coat care should always be taken into consideration before bringing one of these lion dogs home.

If you’re  considering adopting a Shih Tzu, it’s important to choose a responsible breeder who has performed all health testing recommended by the Shih Tzu breed club before breeding their dogs. Due to inbreeding and irresponsible breeding practices, many Shih Tzus have serious health problems that can significantly shorten their lifespan.

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Featured Image Credit: sanjagrujic, Shutterstock

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