This particular breed of dog is not only named after a lion (the Chinese word for lion being ‘Shih’) but its full official title is the Tibetan Shih Tzu Kou. Whilst ‘kou’ means dog, ‘tzu’, very loosely translated, means either ‘son’ or ‘child’. Legend has it that Buddha rode to earth on the back of a lion – in fact, Vaishravana and the Eight Horsemen are renowned as being a worldly Buddhist protector. Perhaps little wonder, then, that the Shih Tzu takes great pride in both its appearance and heritage!
Whilst the Shih Tzu’s exact origins remain shrouded in mystery, historians have discovered prominent Chinese paintings dating back to around the year 500 C.E which depict dogs they believe to be Shih Tzus. What’s more, uncovered documentation also suggests that the Shih Tzu was gifted from China to the Byzantine Empire; although much later they then became the official breed of the Ming dynasty who primarily kept them as pets for the Royal family. This makes the Shih Tzu one of the oldest lines of domesticated dogs in the entire world!
During the mid to late 19th century the Shih Tzu was certainly favoured by the last Imperial Chinese ruler, the Empress T’zu hui and her particular favourite was a pure brown dog, with whom she was once photographed. Whilst the palace staff are reputed to have cared for the Empress’s other pets (of which there were several), it seems the Empress preferred this specific character, which was even trained to sit perfectly in her arms.
The Shih Tzu was quite literally a dying breed following the Communist in China when there were as few as 14 of them left in the entire world! With most being smuggled out of China during the 1930’s, a concerted effort was duly made to re-establish the breed back in the West. Fortunately, this resulted in the breed being saved and in 1952, Hsi-Li-Ya made history as being the last Shih Tzu bitch to leave China. The same year she relocated to the UK and became part of the country’s breeding programme.
The well renowned composter, James Mumsford, once described the breed as: “… a dash of lion, several teaspoons of rabbit, a couple of ounces of domestic cat, one part court jester, a ballerina, a pinch of old man, a bit of beggar, a tablespoon of monkey, one part baby seal, (and) a dash of teddy bear”! From what we know about the Shih Tzu, this seems to be a fairly accurate summary!
For those allergic to the dogs, then the Shih Tzu makes for the perfect pet since it’s deemed to be hypoallergenic. Whilst the breed might well lose a few stray hairs when brushed, it certainly doesn’t shed fur like some other breeds. However, as you might expect from the breed, brushing has to be a regular activity to keep their double coat completely tangle free and healthy! In 1934 the Shih Tzu Club of England was founded prior to the breed becoming officially recognised by the Kennel Club in 1940. However, despite being eligible for challenge certificates in May of that year; none were actually awarded until 1949.
The Shih Tzu is recognised as being part of the toy group in most countries. Its average height is between 8 and 11 inches, with an ideal weight of between 4 and 7kg. They generally reach adult size by around 10 months (although this can also take up to 12 in some cases).
Not being a breed to steer clear of the limelight, the Shih Tzu has often been seen on the arms of celebrities including Nicole Richie, Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Colin Farrell, Bill Gates and even Queen Elizabeth II!
Talk about a wolf in sheep’s clothing, you might be surprised to learn that the Shih Tzu is closely related to the wolf family! In fact, in 2004, top researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre tested genetic data from 414 dogs across 85 very different breeds. This research concluded that some Asian breeds, including the Akita and Pekingese, were closely related to Canis lupusfamiliaris’s wolf ancestors.
For such a small dog, the Shih Tzu has a very long list of common nicknames! Whilst we already know that ‘Shih Tzu’ roughly translate to ‘little lion dog’ in Chinese, they’re also known as ‘under-the-table dogs’, ‘fu dog’, ‘shock dog’, ‘sleeve dog’, Tibetan poodle’ and even (wait for it!) ‘chrysanthemum-faced dogs’ – the latter, of course, being due to their unique facial fur which tends to fan out, almost like flower petals.
Many Shih Tzu’s sport a tiny white spot on their foreheads and these are often referred to as the “star of Buddha”. Whilst there are a few variations of the main story, legend has it that a group of robbers tried to attack Buddha whilst he was travelling with his little Shih Tzu and that the dog quickly transformed into a fierce lion to protect him. Naturally grateful for saving him from harm, Buddha kissed his little dog and thus gave it a little white mark – the star of Buddha. And that’s not all. The markings on the Shih Tzu’s back are also said to resemble the saddle Buddha used to ride his infamous dog-turned-lion. An impressive legend indeed!
As cute as they might look, the Shih Tzu can be extremely difficult to train. In fact, new owners can easily expect anything between 40 and 50 repetitions of a bathroom routine before the dog will even begin to understand. If there’s one thing you need as a Shih Tzu owner – its patience – and lots of it!
Last (but by no means least), the Shih Tzu is also renowned for its holiness! Not only were they proffered by Tibetanian monks as gifts to the Emperor of China but they were also considered as Holy pets and used as watch dogs for Buddhist monasteries; especially those around the sacred city of Lhasa.