Dog World, January 2001 --

CH S'Dandi's On Loan From God a.k.a. "Rush"
17-month-old gold/white
owned by Sally & Dick Watkeys of Traverse City, Michigan
Photo by Faith Uridel

The Shih Tzu: A Royal Charmer From China

By Joan Hustace Walker

Whether flying through an agility tire, strutting its stuff in the show ring or curled up on the couch at home, the Shih Tzu is a loving, multifaceted breed. Although the Shih Tzu has every reason to expect royal treatment after serving for centuries as a pampered pet, its natural showmanship makes this breed a true competitor in the breed ring, while its irrepressible charm makes it a real crowd pleaser in obedience and agility events.

Origins Of The Shih Tzu

The history of the Shih Tzu dates back thousands of years to China, where dogs are believed to have been family pets as early as 15,000 years ago. As for the progenitors of the Shih Tzu, the first recorded mention of a small, stout dog in China does not occur until 1000 B.C. In "The Lost History of the Canine Race," historian Mary Elizabeth Thurston relates that these dogs were called "Happa" or "Hah-bah" dogs and were kept and admired by the Chinese Imperial Court. In 500 B.C., a witness described small dogs with short, square mouths being allowed to ride inside chariots with their regal owners while the hunting hounds were made to run alongside. Other accounts note that some-but not all-of the diminutive dogs kept by Chinese emperors and their court had long-haired coats.

By A.D. 700, breeding for increasingly beautiful dogs was a passion in the Imperial palace in Beijing, with the kennel operation supervised by a unit of eunuchs who were specially entrusted to care for the dogs. Favorite dogs were pampered in the court; however, life was not necessarily rosy in the breeding kennels. The eunuchs were known to resort to desperate means when their breeding failed to produce exacting results. Their arcane methods included biting off the tips of tails to create a more "lion-like" look and confining puppies to small cages to stunt their growth.

Exactly when the Shih Tzu became a separate and distinct breed in the Imperial court, and what breeds or types of dogs influenced its development are topics largely open to debate. A common theory is that the Shih Tzu, which means "lion" in Chinese, is descended from Tibetan "lion dogs," which were bred in Tibet and clipped to resemble lions. The lion was an important facet of Buddhism, and historians report that little "lion dogs" were considered holy and were bred by Chinese eunuchs and Tibetan monks. According to this theory, the Shih Tzu was the oldest and smallest of the holy dogs and was a favorite of Chinese emperors.

Another theory places the Shih Tzu's origins with Toy dogs already present in the Orient, such as the Pug, Pekingese and Japanese Chin. Yet a third theory combines the two previous theories, hypothesizing that the Shih Tzu's progenitors include Tibetan lion dogs crossed with various Asian breeds.

Regardless of the breed's exact origins, no one in the Western world is believed to have known what the Shih Tzu was or even looked like until the palace's well-guarded secret was exposed in 1860. Thurston relates that during the second Opium War, Empress Dowager Tzu-tsi fled with her family as English and French troops attacked her summer palace. Left behind were some of the Imperial kennel dogs, which may have been taken in by local people but also were carried away and kept by the troops-and thus the secret of the dogs was out. A year later, the empress returned to the palace and rebuilt her kennel. A few years before her death in 1908, a palace guest reported that the palace was filled with hundreds of dogs.

Once the empress died, the palace fell into disorganization, and many of the dogs apparently perished, perhaps from neglect, but others were smuggled out by servants and sold. Breeding of the Shih Tzu now began outside the palace. Foreign visitors and diplomats purchased some of these dogs and brought them home, establishing a small colony of the breed in Europe. Following China's Communist Revolution in 1949, owning a pet that did not work or was not suitable for eating was not allowed, and the Shih Tzu is believed to have become extinct in its homeland. If it weren't for seven bitches and seven dogs in England, Norway and Sweden, the Shih Tzu also may have become extinct in the Western world.

The breed came to the United States during the 1930s when military personnel spotted these charming dogs overseas and brought them home at the end of their tours. Interestingly, the breed was mistakenly classified by the American Kennel Club as Lhasa Apso. It wasn't until 1952 that the Shih Tzu was reclassified as a separate and unique breed. The Shih Tzu's popularity gradually increased until 1969 when it gained recognition by the AKC as a Toy breed. On the day it earned recognition, a Shih Tzu (Chumulari Ying-Ying) was awarded Best in Show honors at an all-breed dog show. Since that point, the breed's popularity has continued to climb. The Shih Tzu consistently has ranked near the top 10 most popular breeds for the past decade.

The Shih Tzu Today

Because the Shih Tzu historically has served as a companion and pet and never had to work for its keep, the form of the Shih Tzu is for aesthetics only. The original breed standard that was published in 1969 by the American Shih Tzu Club has undergone very little change over the last 32 years. The 1989 standard revisions reflect mostly clarifications or more extended descriptions of the original standard.

The ASTC breed standard calls for the Shih Tzu ideally to weigh between nine pounds and 16 pounds, and measure between eight inches and 11 inches tall. In the Toy Group, the Shih Tzu is downright brawny compared to all other breeds, except for the Pug. Interestingly, both Canada and England classify the Shih Tzu as a Non-Sporting breed. The controversy as to whether to place the Shih Tzu in the Toy or Non-Sporting Group is reported to have become so heated among ASTC members as to cause a delay in the recognition of the breed.

Probably the two most distinctive characteristics of the breed are its coat and headpiece. The double coat is thick and luxurious with long, sometimes wavy (but not curly) outer hair and a woolly undercoat. The Shih Tzu standard allows all coat colors, including blue, gold (which runs the gamut from a cream color to a rich red), grizzle, liver, brindle and black, as well as flashy parti-colors, such as gold and white, black and white, and tricolor varieties.

Because of the breed's thick and flowing coat, judging the Shih Tzu can be difficult, says Jo Ann White, former ASTC president and author of "The Official Book of the Shih Tzu." She explains that the long coat can hide or disguise many structural faults. Unless a judge physically examines the dog carefully, these faults could go unnoticed. Styling also can affect the dog's appearance in the ring. With today's elaborate topknots (the tying of the hair on top of the dog's head), White says a dog's head can appear to be quite attractive, when in actuality the topknot can mask some serious faults.

The head is broad and round with a square, short muzzle that is roughly one inch from the stop-where the muzzle meets the forehead-to the tip of the nose. The Lhasa Apso, with which the Shih Tzu sometimes is confused, has a longer and narrower muzzle. If a breeder does not breed carefully to maintain the proper Shih Tzu head, it quickly will lose its type, White says. "A breeder has to be constantly vigilant. The big round head is so hard to keep and will revert to a [non-standard quality] head within just two generations."

The body is solid with a broad, deep chest, a back that is slightly longer than the dog's height, and forequarters and hindquarters that possess sturdy, short, straight and muscular legs. The Shih Tzu's head is naturally carried high when it moves, and its tail gently curves over the back. Although the Shih Tzu has never been required to possess functional movement (such as that of Working and Herding breeds), it does nevertheless; when trotting, its gait is smooth, efficient and flowing.

What A Shih Tzu Does Best

Although the Shih Tzu has many admirable traits, it is perhaps the breed's temperament that is so remarkable. In fact, the AKC breed standard for the Shih Tzu specifically mentions its temperament, stating that the breed must be "outgoing, happy, affectionate, friendly and trusting toward all."

According to breed experts, the friendly, outgoing temperament shines through, even when dogs have been mistreated or neglected. This trait makes placing rescued Shih Tzu relatively easy, says Phyllis Celmer, Rescue Chairperson for the ASTC. Of the 400 rescues she personally has placed, Celmer has never had a biter, and even products of puppy mills that have had little-if any-socialization, quickly rebound.

"Once they discover humans and love, they bond very closely," Celmer says. "We're extremely lucky that this breed can overcome so many nasty situations and readjust so well."

The Shih Tzu may even be loving and trusting to a fault. "They don't understand that someone may not like them or that something bad might happen to them," Celmer says. The breed also is slow to recognize aggression from other dogs or animals. "They will walk up to any dog and go nose to nose, wagging their tails." This friendly temperament has the potential to translate into problems in performance events, concedes Celmer, who had a dog in an agility trial stop two jumps shy of a win-and run to the timer to get pats.

Another attractive Shih Tzu quality is that they are small, but they aren't so tiny that they require special considerations. Other small dogs tend to be very fragile (for example, requiring delicate petting), but this is not the case with the Shih Tzu. "They're outgoing, tough and sturdy," White notes.

Professional handler Tammarie Larson agrees, adding that the Shih Tzu still is small enough to fit under the seat of an airplane, yet big enough to be a great child's companion. "They are a big dog in a small package, but don't require a ton of exercise."

Shih Tzu enjoy their walks, White adds, "but they don't require a lot of activity. They are ready to play when you are, but they can amuse themselves." White adds that if you're not quite paying enough attention to them, they will entertain themselves with balls, toys and other objects.

This is not to say that the Shih Tzu can survive without any attention. The Shih Tzu lives to be with its owner. "If you don't like living with a shadow, don't get a Shih Tzu," Celmer counsels. And multiple Shih Tzu, although they enjoy being in a mini-pack, still will demand some quality time with their owners.

The Shih Tzu also is reported not to shed very much, which is surprising for a long-coated breed. An owner is likely to have more problems with the dog's coat matting than with wafting balls of hair in the home.

Training a Shih Tzu is not difficult, owners insist, it is just that the methods are a little bit different from those used with other breeds. Most Shih Tzu readily will perform in the obedience or agility rings, but Jan McClure, owner of the first Utility Dog Excellent Shih Tzu in the United States, warns: "They love to perform, but they can sometimes be stubborn." They were, after all, bred to be pampered and not to work, she says, and this trait sometimes shines through at the most inopportune times, such as when one of her dogs heard applause coming from another ring and stopped to search out the source, thinking it had to be for her!

"When they're good, their performances are excellent," notes Celmer, who enjoys competing in agility events with her dogs. "But if you're going to be serious about the sport, you've got the wrong breed. They're social butterflies. They'll please you 90 percent of the time, but 10 percent of the time is their time."

Is This The Breed For You?

Although Shih Tzu are wonderful pets to own, they are not for everyone. Some potential owners are attracted to the Shih Tzu because of its beautiful coat, but this quality can end up being the breed's downfall.

"The biggest problem with this breed is grooming," White says. Larson, along with her husband, Greg, have groomed their share of Shih Tzu, including the 1995 Best of Breed winner at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, and advise that grooming the Shih Tzu is not for the lazy or lackadaisical.

"Shih Tzu require brushing and combing three to six times a week, depending on the coat length," Larson says. "For a dog with a full coat, weekly baths and blow drying are a must. For the [clipped] pet, they still require regular brushing and baths every two weeks, as well as a trip to the groomer every four to six weeks."

Thinking about showing a Shih Tzu? Preparing the coat on the day of the show alone will take two hours, Larson heeds, and this is only if you know what you are doing and have trained under a professional groomer-or are one yourself.

Compounding the grooming issue is the fact that not all Shih Tzu coats are the same quality. The preferred coat has a harsh outer layer that is relatively easy to brush. Some Shih Tzu, however, also can have a soft, cottony coat. Although it feels wonderful, puppy buyers should avoid this soft coat if at all possible due to the amount of frustration involved in the care of it, White says. "It's horrible to take care of. It mats if you look at it cross-eyed. A [first-time] pet owner is better off choosing a dog with a harsher outer coat."

Another potential downside is that Shih Tzu can be a challenge to housetrain, Larson says, and crate training "is a must." Wandering also is a difficulty with Shih Tzu ownership, Celmer adds, noting that this trait probably stems from their desire to meet and greet as many people as possible. "If your dog gets out, there's no telling where you will find him," Celmer says. "And they won't come back. You'll have to go get them." For this reason, it is strongly recommended that Shih Tzu have a fenced yard, always be walked on a leash, and wear identification tags, as well as some form of permanent identification, such as a registered tattoo or a microchip implant.

Health Concerns

The Shih Tzu is a hardy dog that can live as long as 18 years, but any breed that has been so popular for so many years will have some health problems-especially among breeders who do not carefully screen and test their dogs.

Health problems that are of the greatest concern among Shih Tzu breeders today include juvenile renal dysplasia, eye problems, hypothyroidism and joint disorders.

Renal dysplasia is a hereditary disease in which the kidney does not develop normally, often resulting in death. In 1999, a DNA test was developed that claims to be 80 percent accurate in identifying carriers of at least one gene that is linked to JRD, giving breeders willing to spend the $90-plus test fee the opportunity to eliminate this disease from their lines.

Shih Tzu also are prone to hereditary eye disease and injuries due to the placement of the eyes. Diseases that are most commonly seen are proptosed globes, distichiasis, ectopic cilia, juvenile cataracts and progressive renal atrophy.

Proptosed globes literally are eyeballs that can come out of the socket. Because the Shih Tzu has large eyes in shallow orbits, a head injury or the simple act of brushing too hard on the topknot can cause an eye to come out of its orbit. If veterinary attention is not obtained within 20 minutes or less, the eye will become blind.

Distichiasis and ectopic cilia are conditions in which the eyelashes rub and irritate the eye, possibly causing scarring of the cornea or ulcers if not surgically corrected.

Juvenile cataracts and PRA are hereditary diseases that both can result in blindness. Dogs with the latter of these eye diseases should never be bred, and potential puppy buyers should ensure that both parents of a puppy have been tested and cleared of these diseases through the Canine Eye Registration Foundation.

Hypothyroidism is a chronic disease in which the thyroid gland does not produce enough hormones, resulting in hair loss, lethargy and weight gain. A Shih Tzu suffering from a thyroid malfunction should never be bred, and potential studs and bitches should be tested for hypothyroidism. Fortunately, this condition is not life-threatening and is treatable-but affected Shih Tzu will require daily attention for the rest of their lives.

Although the Shih Tzu is small, it still can be prone to hip dysplasia. Again, potential puppy owners should make sure the parents, and several generations, if possible, have been certified as having hips suitable for breeding by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, PennHIP® or the Institute for Genetic Disease Control.

Luxating patellas, or kneecaps that slip out of position, can either be hereditary or caused by an injury. This condition can be corrected through surgery, but a dog that has the hereditary form should never be bred.

Shih Tzu also are susceptible to heat stroke, primarily because they are a brachycephalic breed and cannot efficiently cool themselves off. Developing Shih Tzu also may have a condition called "pinched" noses. White says this problem seems to appear when the puppy is teething. Symptoms include snuffling, bubbling and snorting from the nose or a nasal discharge. "If they're eating OK, then generally they will outgrow this condition," White says, noting that veterinarians uninitiated to the ways of the Shih Tzu are sometimes too quick to want to surgically open the nostrils. "This isn't to say that there can't be a more severe problem [that would warrant surgery]," White says. Dogs that can breathe only out of their mouths should be taken to a veterinary specialist.

Searching For The Shih Tzu

As with any breed, the best source for finding a healthy Shih Tzu puppy is a reputable breeder who breeds for health, temperament and form, and not for money. His or her goal is to better the breed. The reputable breeder most likely is a member of the ASTC and/or a local club, who tests for hereditary health conditions (as mentioned above), and certifies his or her dogs as being clear of juvenile renal dysplasia, hip dysplasia, eye diseases and thyroid disorders. A reputable breeder also normally requires a spay/neuter contract for pet-quality puppies and may require co-ownership of show-quality puppies. Health guarantees are standard. Reputable breeders also agree to take back or place a puppy or adult that hasn't worked out-for any reason-at any time.

Puppies from good breeders will be sold only at 12 weeks or older. The reason for this, Larson says, is that the Shih Tzu develops more slowly than larger breeds and is weaned later. "We keep our puppies until they are 12 weeks, because as a Toy breed, they don't have deciduous [baby] teeth until about 8 weeks," Larson explains. "They stay with their mother until 10 weeks and then the litter is kept together until [the dogs] are placed."

Unfortunately, many backyard breeders and pet stores will sell their Shih Tzu puppies as early as 8 weeks, says Celmer-who sees many of these breeders' products come through rescue. Celmer also has seen pet store Shih Tzu come through rescue that weren't even Shih Tzu. "We've had several purebred Lhasa Apsos with Shih Tzu [AKC] papers." She adds with a laugh, "One was even a pretty nice-looking Lhasa Apso."

Finding a reputable breeder is not difficult if a person knows where to begin his or her search, and a great starting place is with the breeder referral of the ASTC (see "Resources"). This person can refer you to breeders in your area.

Potential puppy buyers can expect to pay anywhere from $500 in the Midwest to $1,000 on either coast for a healthy, well-bred puppy, breeders say. Show-quality puppies can begin at $800 and go on up. Whether buying a show- or pet-quality dog, the purchase of a Shih Tzu is not the time to be bargain shopping, White cautions. Selecting a puppy from an inexperienced breeder initially could cost less, but eventually may cost more when health problems begin to surface. Larson notes that dogs bred under less than desirable conditions generally have a minimum of social contact and a minimum of health care.

Breed experts also caution against paying exorbitant prices for the so-called "Imperial" Shih Tzu. These dogs, which sometimes command prices of $1,500 or more, are miniaturized Shih Tzu that can weigh as little as 3 pounds-the weight of a normal Shih Tzu puppy at 3 weeks of age. This "type" of Shih Tzu is not recognized by the ASTC, cannot be shown, is more prone to serious health problems, and cannot be bred or deliver puppies naturally.

Of course, an adult dog may be the best way to guarantee that a buyer gets the type of dog he or she wants. Rescued Shih Tzu make tremendous pets, Celmer notes, and much of the guesswork on how the dog will turn out (i.e., temperament, health and conformation) already is answered. Every Shih Tzu that goes through ASTC's breed rescue is evaluated for temperament, given a complete veterinary exam, spayed or neutered, and placed with a carefully screened, loving family.

Whether you pick a puppy or an adult, the Shih Tzu is a great choice for many people and a dog that will fit into many different lifestyles. If hair and grooming needs are met, the Shih Tzu will readily take up its time-honored position as a treasured companion and will be happy to be at your service in the breed or performance rings, too, as long as, of course, you never lose sight of the Shih Tzu's fondness for affection and birthright to live with a doting owner.

Joan Hustace Walker is an award-winning free-lance writer and member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the Authors Guild and the Dog Writers Association of America. Joan is the author of numerous books, including the recently released "The Boxer Handbook" and more books to be released in 2001. She lives in Virginia with her family, two retired Greyhounds and an adopted Labrador Retriever mix.

National Breed Club:

American Shih Tzu Club (ASTC)
Corresponding Secretary
5252 Shafter Ave.
Oakland, Calif. 94618
(510) 653-8883

Breeder Referral:

Janet Danner
5104 Stratford Chase Drive
Virginia Beach, Va. 23464

Breed Rescue:

Phyllis Celmer
245 Hickory Hill Drive
Encinitas, Calif. 92024

ASTC World Wide Web site


Jo Ann White, "The Official Book of the Shih Tzu," T.F.H. Publications, Neptune City, N.J., 1999. If this book is purchased through the ASTC, proceeds are donated toward ongoing health research for the Shih Tzu.

Jamie J. Sucher, "Shih Tzu: Everything About Purchase, Care, Nutrition, Breeding and Health Care," Barron's Education Series, Hauppauge, N.Y., 2000.

Victor Joris, "The Complete Shih Tzu," Howell Book House, New York, 1994.

Clarence E. Mann and Jayne D. Mann, "Bring on the Clowns: An Assessment of the Origin of the Shih Tzu," Vantage Press, New York, 1996.


The American Kennel Club's Shih Tzu breed video, #WT513, is available from the AKC Video Fulfillment Department, 5580 Centerview Drive, #200, Raleigh, N.C. 27606; (919) 233-9767; e-mail:

"Grooming the Shih Tzu" video, Ista Productions, c/o Tammarie Larson, 25170 Yellowstone Trail
Shorewood, Minn. 55331; $34 check or money order ($38 foreign).


Dog World, March 2002 -- my letter via e-mail appears in the "Letters to the Editor" on p. 6, featuring that front cover with the Tzu with the caption, 'Shih Tzu Lends a Helping Paw'. I wrote (that Dog World edited & published in exact form):

"Thanks to Joan Hustace Walker for writing about the impressionable Shih Tzu in the January 2001 issue (The Shih Tzu: A Royal Charmer from China). I would like to add that furbabies (as we Tzu fanciers like to call them) make excellent pet therapy dogs. Their disposition and tolerance level enable them to handle the 'stress' of lots of petting and dealng with various patients and gentle children. In fact, a Tzu considers this a fun job rather than work. My Tzu, Beau, CGC, TDI, made several visits to nursing homes and a day-care school under both the Therapy Dogs International and Companion Animals Association titles. He worked part-time from 1994 until he retired in 1997."

Karen Catalioto
4730 N. 19th Ave., #214
Phoenix, Ariz. 85015

Dog Fancy, January 2003 --

Kiro's Gotta Boogie ("Dancer")
owned by Kimberlee Kaus-Wirth and Roger Wirth
Temperance, Michigan
photo: Faith A. Uridel

Shih Tzu chic

Disciplined grooming keeps these cute coat factories under control.

By Eve Adamson

No doubt about it, the Shih Tzu's long, silky double coat is more than gorgeous, but beauty like that doesn't come easily. There is nothing cuter than a Shih Tzu puppy. "It's a little bundle of gorgeous fluff, but the problem is that the fluff turns into a coat, and that coats needs serious care,"¯ says Sally Watkeys of Traverse City, Mich., a Shih Tzu breeder under the S'Dandi kennel name. "These guys are coat factories, and it grows back." Shih Tzu owners have three choices:

1. Weekly professional grooming, with additional daily grooming chores.

2. Grooming your Shih Tzu yourself, under the guidance and instruction of a professional groomer or breeder-groomer.

3. Keeping the coat in a short cut, with monthly rather than weekly professional grooming.

Even with professional help, a Shih Tzu owner still has plenty of important grooming work to do. Learning how to groom a Shih Tzu yourself can be fun. Don't be afraid to try it. Follow these grooming basics for a well-maintained Shih Tzu:


Comb out the coat to the skin, checking for mats and any signs of skin irritation. Use a mat comb for tangles and/or a wire slicker, but take care not to rip out hair. Finish by going through the coat once with a fine-toothed metal comb.

Comb out any food particles from the Shih Tzu's flowing beard and moustache.

Administer eyedrops to keep the notoriously dry Shih Tzu eyes moist and comfortable, and wipe eyes clean of discharge. Wipe down or brush teeth and gums.


Thoroughly brush and comb coat.

Scissor hair from between foot pads and around feet.

Clip nails. Apply eye stain remover if desired.

Bathe using a shampoo specifically formulated for long-haired coats and, if desired, for white coats. Put cotton balls in your Shih Tzu's ears before bathing.

Apply conditioner and comb through. Fluff coat gently with hands. Blow-dry on cool setting, combing the coat smooth. Re-tie topknot with a fresh bow: Make two parts, one over each ear, and bring the hair in the middle together, combing smooth and securing with a latex band at the baseā€¦not too tightly! Attach a ribbon, bow, or barrette, if desired.

Stand back and admire perfection!

Eve Adamson is a Dog Fancy contributing editor and the author of 20 books, including, most recently, The Simple Guide to a Healthy Dog and Your Outta Control Adopted Dog, both forthcoming from TFH in 2002/2003. She writes for many dog publications and is a member of the Dog Writer's Association of America. She shares her Iowa City home with her two sons and her perfectly groomed dog, Sally.