The History of Shih Tzus
Little is known about the origins of the Shih Tzu, but genetic testing tells us that he is one of the more ancient breeds in existence. It’s thought that he originated in Tibet, bred by Tibetan lamas to be a tiny replica of a lion, which is associated with Buddhist mythology. The smallest of the Tibetan breeds, he is noted for his heavy coat and tail that curves over the back. The Shih Tzu served as companions and watchdogs to the monks in the lamaseries. The happy and entertaining little dogs were surrounded by myths. One belief held that they were incarnations of mischievous household gods; another that they carried the souls of lamas who had not yet achieved nirvana, the transcendence of human desire.
The lamas presented the dogs as tribute to Chinese rulers, and it was at the Chinese imperial court that they received the name Shih Tzu, meaning “little lion” or “lion dog.” The Chinese also gave the Shih Tzu another name — chrysanthemum dog — because the hair on the face grows in all directions like the petals of the flower.
In China, the Shih Tzu was bred to have a stylized appearance. A fanciful “recipe” for the breed’s creation reads “a dash of lion, several teaspoons of rabbit, a couple of ounces of domestic cat, one part court jester, a dash of ballerina, a pinch of old man (Chinese), a bit of beggar, a tablespoon of monkey, one part baby seal, a dash of teddy bear, and the rest dogs of Tibetan and Chinese origin.”
The Peking (now Beijing) Kennel Club, when it wrote a breed standard for the Shih Tzu, also waxed poetic, describing the breed as having “the head of a lion, the round face of an owl, the lustrous eyes of a dragon, the oval tongue of a peony petal, the mouth of a frog, teeth like grains of rice, ears like palm leaves, the torso of a bear, the broad back of a tiger, the tail of a Phoenix, the legs of an elephant, toes like a mountain range, a yellow coat like a camel, and the movement of a fish.”
After the end of imperial rule in China, the little dogs might have disappeared, spurned as a reminder of bygone days, but fortunately some of them had been presented to foreigners, in particular General Douglas and Lady Brownrigg. They and others took some of the dogs to England. All modern Shih Tzu descend from only fourteen dogs.
World War II interrupted the breed’s development in England, but it survived and then thrived in the 1950s and 1960s. The American Kennel Club recognized the breed in 1969. Today the Shih Tzu is popular for his loyal, gentle, cheerful attitude. He ranks 10th among the breeds registered by the AKC, a position that has held steady for a decade.