The shih tzu, known for its humorous-sounding name (the real pronunciation is actually “sheed-zoo,” thank you very much), has a lot to offer. Loyal service dogs and loving companions, these small dogs are an ideal fit for anyone in need of affection. Learn more about the pooch and its long history of melting hearts.
1. THEY’RE AN OLD BREED.
Nobody knows exactly how old the shih tzu is, although it existed at least as far back as 624 CE (we know this because of its presence in art from the era). As with most ancient breeds, it’s difficult to determine when and how exactly it originated, though experts have some ideas. According to one popular theory, the breed was started in Tibet by Buddhist monks and eventually made its way to China.
Back then, Tibetan monks bred a number of lion-like dogs, which they referred to as “holy dogs.” (Since the time of early Buddhism, the lion has been an important religious symbol, representing the Bodhisattvas, or "sons of the Buddha.") According to some accounts, the Dalai Lama came to China in the 17th century with a trio of lion-like pooches. These shih tzu predecessors were bred with Chinese dogs, resulting in pups with shorter snouts.
In the early 20th century, the Chinese empress Tzu-hsi was gifted a pair of Tibetan lion dogs. She was immediately enamored, and kept them from breeding with the Pekingese and pugs in her care. The result: the shih tzus we know and love today.
2. THEY’RE CLOSELY RELATED TO WOLVES.
They may not look like it, but the modest shih tzu is more closely related to wolves than many fiercer-looking breeds. In 2004, researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle tested the genetic data of 414 dogs from 85 different breeds. They concluded that Asian breeds, from the imposing akita all the way down to the diminuitive Pekingese, are some of the oldest and most closely related to Canis lupus familiaris's wolf ancestors. (Only the Nordic breeds have these dogs beat: The Siberian husky, Alaskan malamute, and Samoyed, among others, are the "best living representative[s] of the ancestral dog gene pool," the researchers wrote.)
3. ROYALTY LOVED THEM.
Despite their genetic similarities to wolves, shih tzus were bred to be loving companions. The pampered pets led luxurious lives in palaces, enjoying all the creature comforts a dog could want. Their thick coats made them effective radiators, and their owners would use the dogs to keep their beds warm. At one time, it was even fashionable to keep the small canines tucked away in large robe sleeves.
4. THEY HAVE MANY NAMES.
For such a small dog, the shih tzu has a long list of nicknames. Shih tzu roughly translates to little lion dog. Other monikers include "under-the-table dog," "Fu dog," "shock dog," "sleeve dog," "Tibetan poodle," and more. They are sometimes referred to as the chrysanthemum-faced dog thanks to their unique facial fur, which fans out like flower petals.
5. THEY ALMOST WENT EXTINCT.
As with other Chinese dog breeds, the shih tzu was nearly wiped out when the Communist party began its takeover. Luckily for shih tzu lovers, some dedicated fanciers protected the breed and seven males and seven females survived. Those 14 dogs were responsible for rebuilding the entire line.
6. THEY HAVE LONG, SILKY ‘DOS …
The hair of a shih tzu is truly something to envy. Show dogs can be seen sporting stylish long hair that drags on the floor like a dress's train. This particular hairstyle is very hard to keep up, so most shih tzu owners opt to keep their dog’s hair in a short style called the “puppy cut.” Usually this involves cutting the hair uniformly about two inches from the body (this is also referred to as the "teddy bear cut," because it makes them look like a plush toy). Other owners opt to shave the body hair closely, leaving the hair on the head and ears in a bob-like style (this is known as the "top knot cut.") If neither of these options appeal to you, you can always book an appointment with this groomer in Taiwan, who will cut your dog’s hair into a perfect circle or square.
7. … AND COME IN LOTS OF COLORS.
According to the American Kennel Club, the shih tzu comes in 14 different colors and three different markings.
8. THEIR SPOTS ARE THE STUFF OF LEGEND.
Most shih tzus rock a little white spot on their foreheads, which is affectionately known as the “Star of Buddha.” According to legend, Buddha was traveling with a little canine companion that closely resembled the shih tzu. When a group of robbers tried to attack Buddha, the little dog transformed into a fierce lion and chased the thieves off. Buddha was so grateful he kissed the dog on the forehead, giving it its little white mark. The markings on its back are said to represent the saddle Buddha used to ride the dog-turned-lion.
9. TRAINING CAN BE TRICKY.
Before you get a shih tzu, consider how much free time you have. The little dogs are notoriously difficult to train and it takes a lot of patience to housebreak them. In fact, it can take around 40 to 50 repetitions of a bathroom routine before the stubborn pup catches on. Owners are urged to start training immediately at puppyhood so irreversible bad habits don’t form.