All tiny dogs are cute, sure. But the Shih Tzu is one of the most charming toy breeds around. With their big eyes and little faces, these adorable dogs won over the royal family in ancient China, where they lived in the emperor’s palace and served as pampered lap pups. Fast-forward a thousand years, and you’ll still find them warming laps and hearts thanks to that playful, outgoing Shih Tzu temperament.
Shih Tzu Facts
In Chinese, Shih Tzu means “lion dog.” Lions are considered sacred in the Buddhist religion, and since there were none in China, Shih Tzus served as their beloved stand-ins (despite that petite Shih Tzu size!).
- Breed Group: Toy
- Height: 9-10.5 inches
- Weight: 9-16 pounds
- Life Span: 10-18 years
- Coat: Long, double coat
- Color: Variations include black, blue, brindle, gold, liver, red, and silver, and white bi-colored
Shih Tzu Characteristics
Shih Tzu History: The Royal Lap Dog
The Shih Tzu origin story goes back at least a thousand years to Tibet. Legend has it that Shih Tzu puppies, a mix between the Lhasa Apso and the Pekingese, were sent as gifts to the Chinese royal family. These dogs became popular with the emperor and his family and were prized for their beauty and sweet, affectionate personalities. They were pampered, too, and never left the palace. In fact, these pups weren’t widely known to the outside world until the 1930s.
In the early 20th century, the breed was nearly wiped out as a Chinese breeding program fell apart because the empress overseeing it died. But breed clubs cropped up in England and in Peking, now known as Beijing, China, and most Shih Tzus now can trace their ancestry to 14 dogs in Europe who were used to rebuild the breed.
American soldiers brought this tiny charmer to the U.S. in the 1940s and 1950s. Since then, Shih Tzus have captured the heart of Americans and rank No. 20 in the American Kennel Club’s list of most popular breeds. They’re also tops with famous pet parents like Beyoncé, Miley Cyrus, Bill Gates and Queen Elizabeth II. Just be warned: Shih Tzu prices (for pedigreed pups) range from about $1,000-$2,000. Alternatively, you can also adopt from a Shih Tzu rescue or look for the breed at your local animal shelter.
What Does a Shih Tzu Look Like?
Among the first things you’ll notice about Shih Tzus are their long, flowing coats and the topknot that often crowns a Shih Tzu’s head. That’s a must for show dogs, though the bows are optional! These little dogs have hair that grows in all sorts of direction, one reason why they’re known as “chrysanthemum-faced dogs” (after the flower). But all that hair can get into these pups’ eyes, preventing them from seeing well, which is why pet parents must trim the locks away from their dogs’ face.
That coat can come in a range of colors—there are black Shih Tzus, white Shih Tzus, as well as blue, silver, brindle, red and gold variations. Shih Tzu colors can also include black, white or tan markings.
Adding to this dog’s regal bearing is the tail, which curves over the dog’s back like a plume. They have a perpetually proud look too, thanks to their round heads, which they hold high, and their turned-up muzzles. Shih Tzus are longer than they are tall, which just adds to their adorableness, as does their wide-eyed, trusting and sweet expression.
Shih Tzu Temperament: Cordial Companions
Shih Tzus are small in size but big on personality, and they make wonderful companions. The Shih Tzu temperament is outgoing and friendly. Shih Tzus will shower you with affection and make visitors feel welcome, too. Although Shih Tzu barking isn’t usually excessive in well-bred, well-trained pups, some Shih Tzus can bark enough to be a problem—and the barking sometimes means they’re bored. These active and curious dogs may want more out of life than just sitting on your lap, so consider teaching your Shih Tzu tricks or even competing with them in agility!
Shih Tzus usually are great with children, but because of their small and cute size, children may treat them like stuffed toys and accidentally injure them. That means it’s very important to monitor interactions to ensure everyone stays safe. The same applies any time your Shih Tzu is playing with a larger dog. And, like other short-snouted (brachycephalic) breeds, Shih Tzus don’t tolerate excessive heat very well.
A well-bred Shih Tzu can be a wonderful addition to your home, but poorly bred Shih Tzus can have major health and temperament issues. If you’re buying a Shih Tzu puppy, be sure to choose your Shih Tzu breeder carefully.
Keeping Shih Tzu Dogs Healthy: 5 Issues to Watch Out For
With the proper care, the average Shih Tzu life span can reach 10 to 18 years. However, pet parents must be on the lookout for problems that occur at a higher-than-average rate in the breed. These Shih Tzu health issues can include the following.
Intervertebral Disk Disease
Shih Tzus have a condition known as chondrodystrophy, a cartilage development issue which leads to shorter limbs and an increased risk of back problems caused by bulging or ruptured intervertebral disks. Routine activity can result in injuries, especially as dogs age, gain weight and/or lose muscle mass. A disk that presses on the spinal cord can result in loss of limb function, trouble with urinating and defecating, and pain that may or may not resolve with treatment.
All dogs with flat faces, including Shih Tzus, have a degree of brachycephalic airway syndrome (BOAS), which can lead to noisy breathing, increased effort to breathe, difficulty exercising, a tendency to overheat and gagging. In severe cases, dogs may collapse due to low blood oxygen levels, but most Shih Tzus have a relatively mild form of BOAS. Like many small dog breeds, Shih Tzus are at risk for developing a collapsing trachea, which leads to a characteristic “goose honk” cough.
A Shih Tzu’s prominent eyes can lead to problems such as excessive drainage of tears (epiphora) and wounds to the eye surface. Loss of vision associated with a degenerative condition called progressive retinal atrophy can be seen in young and middle-aged Shih Tzus.
Periodontal disease is quite common in Shih Tzus due to tooth crowding. Routine dental cleanings performed by a veterinarian and home dental care, including daily tooth brushing, are very important to prevent oral pain, tooth loss and infections that can spread to other parts of the body.
Older Shih Tzus are at relatively high risk for hip dysplasia, a degenerative condition affecting one or both hips and that leads to arthritis. Patellar luxation (a kneecap that slips out of its normal groove) also is quite common in this breed.
Of course, this is not a complete list of health problems that can affect the Shih Tzu life span. For example, renal dysplasia is common in the breed, but milder cases are difficult to detect early in life, which makes it hard to prevent this genetic condition from being passed to the next generation. If you’re considering adding a Shih Tzu to your family, be sure you choose a reputable breeder who offers health guarantees and makes breeding decisions based on the welfare of their dogs. And if you’re working with a Shih Tzu rescue, try to get as much medical history as possible from the organization.
Caring for Your Shih Tzu Dog
Because of their distinctive characteristics, Shih Tzu care can present some unique challenges.
While Shih Tzu grooming requires time and dedication, Shih Tzu shedding should not be a big concern for pet parents. Like humans, Shih Tzus shed small amounts of hair, and, while this does not make the Shih Tzu hypoallergenic, it does make this breed a good choice for pet parents who suffer from dog allergies, as there will be less environmental contamination in the home when compared to heavily shedding breeds.
Most Shih Tzus do require regular trips to the groomer, though, to keep their hair trimmed in a short and more manageable style. While this can get pricey, it does mean that you’ll only have to brush your dog a few times a week at home with a tool like the ConairPRO Pet-It Dog Soft Slicker Brush and perhaps wipe away excess tears using Miracle Care Sterile Eye Wash Pads for Dogs & Cats, or something similar.
Learning how to groom a Shih Tzu yourself is possible but requires training and proper equipment. You’ll need a clipper, like an Oster A5 Turbo 2-speed Pet Clipper; shears, like ConairPRO Dog Rounded-Tip Shears; and nail clippers, such as Millers Forge Nail Clipper With Safety Stop. If you elect to keep your pet’s hair long, be prepared to comb it out daily using something like the JW Pet Gripsoft Medium Comb.
When Shi Tzu dogs are overweight, the likelihood of them developing back problems and difficulty breathing increases. An appropriate diet is important for weight maintenance as well as to provide all the nutrition needed to keep them healthy and happy. If your dog struggles to stay slim, look for nutritionally complete and balanced foods that are less calorie dense, like Blue Buffalo Life Protection Formula Small Breed Healthy Weight Adult Chicken & Brown Rice Recipe Dry Dog Food.
Breed-specific dog foods are also available for the Shih Tzu. Royal Canin Shih Tzu Puppy Dry Dog Food is formulated for pups under 10 months of age. Dogs older than that can be switched to Royal Canin Shih Tzu Adult Loaf in Sauce Canned Dog Food or Royal Canin Shih Tzu Adult Dry Dog Food. It’s important to note that every dog is an individual, so your veterinarian can help you determine the best dog food for your Shih Tzu, as well as foods to avoid.
The amount of food that a Shih Tzu should eat is determined by their caloric needs, which your veterinarian can help you establish based on your pet’s age, size, activity level and other factors. Then, you’ll need to feed an appropriate amount of your food of choice to meet those caloric needs, making sure to factor in treats.
Because of their potential back and breathing issues, carefully monitor exercise for Shih Tzus. They need enough exercise to maintain their weight and keep their muscles strong, but avoid activities that cause strain on the spine, like leaps, jumps and twists. Overheating is a potential problem if your Shih Tzu can’t pant normally or has long hair. Leash walks of moderate length and speed generally provide sufficient exercise for most Shih Tzu dogs.
Training Your Shih Tzu
Shih Tzu training is pretty straightforward: Use positive reinforcement and you can get them to do just about anything! Shih Tzus can learn to sit, lie down, stay, come when called, perform tricks, do obstacle courses and more. They can learn all the same skills as larger dogs, in fact!
One training task that can be a challenge with Shih Tzus is potty training. Possibly due to their small size, some Shih Tzus seem to have a hard time “holding it.” To help your Shih Tzu learn where to potty, take them out regularly and reinforce them with praise and treats for doing their business outdoors.
It also can help to create an “indoor potty” for use during the housetraining process, and you may choose to keep this option available for your dog’s entire life, if you work long hours. To create an “indoor potty,” start with a Richell Paw Trax Mesh Training Tray or Dogit Clean Training Pad Holder with a pee pad in it, and place it in the area where you confine your Shih Tzu while you are out. As with all breeds, consult a certified professional dog trainer if you need help training your Shih Tzu.
Shih Tzu dogs were bred to give and receive love and to please their people, and are always up for a play date with their human and favorite toys. With the proper care and training, the Shih Tzu can make for a nearly perfect companion for many potential pet parents.