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History of the Shih Tzu Breed

Shih Tzu HistoryShih Tzu History

Will knowing the history of the Shih Tzu make you a better Shih Tzu Owner?  Probably not, but those interested in where their little fur baby originated, a short history lesson may prove interesting.

Ancient History of the Shih Tzu

Many believe that the Shih Tzu originated in Tibet and later developed in China a millennium ago.  Others think that Shih Tzu dogs can trace their beginnings as far back as 2000 years.  Scientists have examined the DNA of many breeds and determined that today’s Shih Tzu is truly an old breed.  They are placed in the group of ancient breeds that suggests that has a close genetic relationship with wild wolves. 

As is true in many cultures, dogs were kept in China too.  Large fierce dogs were used as guard dogs, and small dogs were used as companions and watch dogs, alerting the larger dogs if intruders were near.

No one knows where the breed originated.  As the story goes, Tibetan Monks had a breeding program where they developed the Lhasa Apso, Pug, Pekinese, and Shih Tzu. The monks, as the stories go, kept these small Lion dogs with them in monasteries and were trained to turn prayer wheels as part of the daily routine.  They were used as gifts from the monks to royalty in China. 

Newer theories, however rebuke these tales and suggest that Shih Tzu dogs were never kept as temple dogs.  Rather, the Chinese is responsible for developing the breed.  Gifts of Tibetan dogs were often sent as a tribute to Chinese emperors. These Tibetan Dogs were favorites in China especially to the Manchu emperors.  These dogs likely provided some of their DNA when interbred with the Pug and Pekingese, which gave rise to the Shih Tzu.  While no one was around to provide precise written records of breeding attempts, there is evidence seen in artwork, paintings, documents and objects from the Tang Dynasty (618-907). 

Marco Polo reported that the Emperor Kublai Kahn had small “lion” dogs with trained hunting lions.  Less you worry, these lion dogs were kept as companions to the lions keeping them calmed when they were not hunting.

During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Shih Tzu type dogs became the favorites of royal families.   During this time, the word chrysanthemum face was used to describe these Little Lion Dogs.  They were cared for and bred by Palace Eunuchs.  There was little mention of these dogs beyond the Ming Dynasty, although the artwork continued to portray little shaggy type dogs. 

Their real popularity soared when the royal concubine became the Empress of China in 1861.  Empress Tzu Hai loved the palace dogs, and her first edict was to protect these dogs so none would be tortured. She assigned her chief eunuch to be in charge of the palace’s breeding program to assure that all the eunuchs would treat the dogs well. 

Not much is known about the size, quality, color of the dogs, although it is known that they were living in the palaces.  What is known is that the Dalai Lama presented her with a pair of Shih Tzu after she became Imperial Ruler of China.  This pair of dogs became the foundation stock of Dowager Empress’ Imperial Palace Little Lion Dogs.

Twentieth Century History of The Shih Tzu

The name Shih Tzu means something like Little Lion in Mandarin.  The dogs were first introduced to Europe prior to World War II.  England received their first dogs in 1928 by Lady Brownrigg, who brought two Shih Tzu dogs named Hibou and Shu-ssa, both black and white which were bred.  Their weight was known to be within the range of 12 to 15 pounds.  At first the Shih Tzu dogs were classified with other Tibetan dogs, mostly called Apsos. Then, in 1934, the breed was separated from the others and by 1935, a new Shih Tzu Club was formed in England.

The United States got its first dogs from Military personnel coming back from the War. The AKC first accepted the breed into the Miscellaneous Class in 1955 It wasn’t until 1969 that the American Kennel Club recognized the breed.

The Shih Tzu that we know today can all be traced back to the Dowager Empress Cixi (T'zu Hsi).   Today’s Shih Tzu dogs come from a gene pool of 7 female and seven male Shih Tzu and a Pekingese that was crossed in England in 1952.  The foundation stock included three imports from China to Lady Brownrigg in England, eight more imports to England, introduced into Norway from China in 1932. One Pekingese was also included even though it caused much concern because it was introduced into the breed by a newcomer and not reported until after the fact.

And, they say, the rest is all history of the Shih Tzu

The breed gained popularity as the years went on, reaching number 9 in 2003 with AKC.  By 2013, the breed's popularity has dropped to number 15, still very popular considering there were 177 recognized AKC breeds that year.

Looking for more information on the Shih Tzu?

Here are a few of the books I own and can recommend.  They are great for the first time Shih Tzu owner to those with lots of experience. Purchasing from Amazon directly from this site helps me keep the site up and growing and as always, I appreciate you.

Shih Tzu For

The Shih Tzu
(Terra Nova Series)

Shih Tzu
(Smart Owner's Guide)

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