History of Shih Tzu

  Dogs of various sizes, shapes and colors have been bred in China for centuries. Records substantiate the existence of short, square, “under the table” dogs from at least 1000 B.C. By piecing together historical facts and documented records, it is possible to some extent to follow the development in China of the breeding of dogs likely to be the ancestors of the present-day Shih Tzu.

   The ancestry of the Shih Tzu is rather obscure, but it is probable that  the breed is primarily of Tibetan origin. The history of the Tibetan “Lion Dogs” is interwoven with the tenets of Buddhism, which originated in India. The lion was closely associated with Buddhism, but the lion was not indigenous to China, so the Chinese and the Tibetan lamas bred their toy dogs to resemble lions. the Shih Tzu (whose name means “lion”) is reputed to have been the oldest and smallest variety of the Tibetan “holy dogs” and bears some similarity to other Tibetan breeds. For much of the long and illustrious history of china, the breeding of the small “Lion Dog” was a favorite pastime of succeeding imperial rulers. 

    Prior to A.D. 624, documents show that small dogs were exported from Malta, Turkey, Greece, and Persia as gifts to the ruling Chinese emperors. It is likely that the first small Tibetan Lion Dogs from which the Shih Tzu is probably descended came to China during the Qing (Ch’ing) Dynasty (1644-62) as tributes from the Grand Lamas to the Chinese Imperial Court, and that the Chinese interbred these Tibetan dogs with the early western imports and with the Pug and the Pekingese.

The Shih Tzu was bred to sit around the palace of the Emperor of China and bark when people or animals approached: this was allegedly to alert people to the presence of unwanted visitors. But the Shih Tzu soon became a favorite of the Imperial Chinese court as companion dogs rather than working dogs. 

The breed was so revered that for many years after the Chinese began trading with the West, they refused to sell, or even give away, any of the little dogs. The existence of the Shih Tzu as we know it today is owed to the Dowager Empress Cixi (T’zu Hsi), whose kennel of Pugs, Pekingese, and Shih Tzu was world renowned.

Although she carefully supervised the kennel during her lifetime and attempted to  keep the three imperial breeds separate, the actual breeding was carried out by palace eunuchs who secretly crossed the breeds to reduce size and produce unusual and desirable markings. After her death in 1908, the kennels were dispersed and palace breeding became haphazard. Some breeding was still practiced by private individuals and specimens were exhibited, but the dogs were almost impossible to acquire. It was not until 1930 that the first pair was exported to  England. So far as is known, the breed became extinct in China after the Communist revolution.

Seven dogs and seven bitches comprise the gene pool of all existing Shih Tzu. These fourteen include the Pekingese dog used in an admitted cross in England in 1952, three Shih Tzu were imported from China, and eight additional imports to England between 1933 and 1959. Three other Shih Tzu were imported from China in 1932, including a bitch that was the only Shih Tzu bred in the Imperial Palace to reach the Western world.

Returning military personnel brought some of the first Shih Tzu into the United States during the late 1940s and 1950s and began breeding programs. The unique beauty and outstanding temperament of this “new” breed quickly found favor with the fancy.  The Shih Tzu was recognized in Britain in 1946 and by the AKC in the United States in 1969. From the first day of formal AKC recognition (Sept 1, 1969), the Shih Tzu catapulted from a relatively unknown breed to one of the most glamorous and popular of all canine companions.



Article originally published in the Shih Tzu breed column in the American Kennel Club Gazette. Written by Shih Tzu breeder-judge Victor Joris, author of “The Complete Shih Tzu” (Howell Book House)  http://americanshihtzuclub.org/breed_astc_history.  Pictures added from various sites.