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Barbara O'Brien, Animal Photography
Tetsu Yamazaki, Animal Photography
Sally Anne Thompson, Animal Photography
The compact Shih Tzu is the ideal canine companion. Originally bred for royalty in China, this little guy still considers himself a prince among dogs. A true sweetheart, his purpose in life is to love and be loved. Playful and mischievous, he will steal your shoes.
One of the more ancient breeds in existence, Shih Tzus are believed to have been bred by Tibetan lamas to be a tiny replica of a lion, which is associated with Buddhist mythology.
Once the prized lap dog of Chinese emperors, the Shih Tzu doesn’t see any reason to accept the slightest reduction in status. But his assumption that the world revolves around him rarely comes with arrogance or aggressiveness. The Shih Tzu is, somewhat inexplicably given his willingness to be spoiled, one of the sweeter of toy breeds and one of the more popular, too.
Shih Tzus do not guard, hunt, or tunnel into the earth, although they may retrieve balls for you to throw again. They are bred to do one thing, and they do it well: They are companion dogs who give love to the world and soak it back in. They’re an in-your-lap kind of dog. They’ll bark to alert you that someone is at the door; once whoever it is comes inside, there's a good chance your dog will like the person as long as you do, because they are trusting creatures.
Intelligent dogs, Shih Tzu like learning. They are good in obedience classes and can do great at agility and obedience competitions. They may take a little more time during training, and housebreaking can be a problem that requires perception and consistency on your end.
A Shih Tzu should get a short walk daily, but if you can’t, most will be content with using the furniture as a track course.
Colors in the breed are gold and white, red and white, black mask gold, solid red, black and white, solid black, solid liver, liver and white, blue and white, brindle and white, and silver and white.
A terrific apartment dog who does equally well in mansions and farms, he will adapt to whatever living arrangement you provide. What he can’t do is live outside. The Shih Tzu is too small, too human oriented, and too heat sensitive to live outdoors. He may not need a palace, but he definitely needs a home.
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.
Whatever you do, a Shih Tzu is willing to be there with you. He’s up for anything and isn’t demanding. He’s not high strung, either, and can make a great companion for a senior. If you’re doing something mundane like cleaning the refrigerator, he will sit by and watch in solidarity. If you’re watching TV, he’ll watch too. If you’re up for play, the Shih Tzu is too. If you’re tired, he’ll take a snooze along with you. He doesn’t care what you do as long as he’s doing it with you. Left with toys to play with, he can entertain himself and doesn’t mind if you work all day as long as you come home to him and give him some love.
Shih Tzus tend to like dogs and children. They enjoy play dates and can make great therapy dogs. Some like cats and some don’t; it seems to be entirely an individual preference rather than a breed trait.
He is playful and, on occasion, mischievous. He will steal your shoes. He may want you to chase him after he steals them. On the other hand, if he really wants them, he just might bury them. He’s not above taking toys from other dogs.
Toy breeds can easily become picky eaters, but that problem is often unintentionally created by people. Don’t let your Shih Tzu get away with it. GIve him time to adapt to what he is supposed to eat, as opposed to lunging for your cheesecake.
A Shih Tzu can be stubborn, but it’s hardly the hallmark of the breed. He may not give training the same priority that you do, and it may require some patience and extra time on your part to fully housebreak him. He can be terrific at agility, so he can certainly learn to follow commands. This vivacious little clown is confident and may have a bit too much self-importance, but that’s only to be expected given his imperial background.
Some Shih Tzus can chew too much stuff, nip a bit too often, jump on people, and lick enough to lose fur. The Shih Tzu feels that he is large and in charge, and he can growl to protect his food and toys if he isn’t taught to play nicely and share.
Any dog, no matter how sweet or small, can develop obnoxious levels of barking, chewing, and other undesirable behaviors if he is bored, untrained, or unsupervised. Start training your puppy the day you bring him home. He is capable of soaking up everything you can teach him. Never wait until he is 6 months old to begin training, or you will have a more headstrong dog to deal with. If possible, get him into puppy kindergarten class by the time he is 10 to 12 weeks old, and socialize, socialize, socialize. However, be aware that many puppy training classes require certain vaccines (like kennel cough) to be up to date, and many veterinarians recommend limited exposure to other dogs and public places until puppy vaccines (including rabies, distemper and parvovirus) have been completed. In lieu of formal training, you can begin training your puppy at home and socializing him among family and friends until puppy vaccines are completed.
Talk to the breeder, describe exactly what you’re looking for in a dog, and ask for assistance in selecting a puppy. Breeders see their puppies daily and can make uncannily accurate recommendations once they know something about your lifestyle and personality.
The perfect Shih Tzu doesn’t spring fully formed from the whelping box. He’s a product of his background and breeding. Whatever you want from a Shih Tzu, look for one whose parents have nice personalities and who has been well socialized from early puppyhood.
All dogs have the potential to develop genetic health problems, just as all people have the potential to inherit a particular disease. Run, don’t walk, from any breeder who does not offer a health guarantee on puppies, who tells you that the breed is 100 percent healthy and has no known problems, or who tells you that her puppies are isolated from the main part of the household for health reasons. A reputable breeder will be honest and open about health problems in the breed and the incidence with which they occur in her lines.
The Shih Tzu suffers from many of the health problems common to tiny dogs and has a few particular health problems of his own. Shih Tzus can have teeth that are misaligned or missing. Because their small mouths contribute to tooth crowding, they're also prone to periodontal disease and require regular veterinary dental care. They can also be born with a cleft lip and/or palate.
Like many small dogs, their kneecaps can pop out of position easily — the common condition known as luxating patellas. Their eyes protrude and can be easily scratched or injured, and their breathing can be full of snuffles and wheezes that sometimes turn into major respiratory problems.
Then there’s renal dysplasia, an inherited condition in which the dog’s kidneys don't develop normally. This is something a puppy inherits from his parents, so buy puppies only from breeders who test all their dogs for renal dysplasia. You’ll want to see documentation that both parents’ kidney function is normal. Unfortunately, not even normal kidney biopsies in both parents can guarantee puppies won’t develop renal dysplasia. Shih Tzu owners need to watch their puppies carefully for excessive thirst, failure to gain weight, or signs that they’re not thriving.
The Shih Tzu is prone to several inherited eye diseases, including cataracts and progressive retinal atrophy (PRA). A cataract is an opaque cloudiness that affects the eye lens. Vision is affected and the effects can range from slight impairment to blindness. Cataracts can be treated surgically. Progressive retinal atrophy (PRA) is an inherited disease that leads to blindness. Shih Tzus are also prone to dry eye, or keratoconjunctivitis sicca -- a condition in which inadequate tear production leads to corneal dryness, pain, corneal ulcers, and other complications.
Dogs with bulging eyes, such as the Shih Tzu, are more likely to have an injury to the eyeball that causes the eyeball to bulge out of the orbit, called proptosis. When proptosis occurs, blood flow is cut off, and the lack of oxygen can result in blindness. It is a medical emergency.
Ingrown eyelashes, known as distichiasis, scrape and irritate the eye and can even scar it. Sometimes eyelash hairs burst through the eyelid (ectopic cilia). Both of these conditions can create corneal ulcers.
Like other brachycephalic (short-headed) breeds, Shih Tzus can have respiratory issues because of the shape of their head, face, and airways. Some brachycephalic dogs have an obstruction in their upper airways that makes it hard for the dogs to breathe. This by no means indicates that every flat-faced dog will have these issues. Severe problems can be treated surgically.
The Shih Tzu’s teeth come in a bit later than other breeds’, and they often fall out earlier than other breeds’. Shih Tzus can have underbites (or "undershot jaw") in which the lower jaw extends past the upper jaw, resulting in trauma to the gums and malocclusion of the teeth. They are also prone to periodontal disease and should have their teeth brushed daily.
The breeder should show you written documentation that both the puppy’s parents have had Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) patella (kneecap) evaluations, as well as eye clearances from the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF).
If a breeder tells you she doesn’t need to do those tests because she’s never had problems in her lines, her dogs have been vet checked, or any of the other excuses bad breeders have for skimping on the genetic testing of their dogs, walk away immediately.
Careful breeders screen their breeding dogs for genetic disease and breed only the healthiest and best-looking specimens, but sometimes Mother Nature has other ideas and a puppy develops one of these diseases despite good breeding practices. Advances in veterinary medicine mean that in most cases the dogs can still live good lives. If you’re getting a puppy, ask the breeder about the ages of the dogs in her lines and what they died of.
Remember that after you’ve taken a new puppy into your home, you have the power to protect him from one of the more common health problems in dogs: obesity. Keeping a Shih Tzu at an appropriate weight is one of the easiest ways to extend his life. Make the most of diet and exercise to help ensure a healthier dog for life.
Is it the Shih Tzu’s flowing locks of gold and white that made you fall in love with him? The Chinese emperors probably had an entire army of servants who did nothing but comb their dogs, because even one day without grooming and that coat can become a tangled mess.
Fortunately, the long coat is mostly seen in the show ring; retired champions and house pets mostly sport a short puppy clip. Some pet owners can do it themselves with a pair of scissors (difficult) or electric clippers, but keeping your Shih Tzu beautiful and free of mats and skin problems often requires regular professional grooming as well as daily combing at home. Tools you’ll need include a wire pin brush and a stainless steel comb with fine and coarse teeth.
Many Shih Tzu puppies who are approaching a year old tend to change coat; during this period they shed so profusely that you wouldn’t think it possible if you didn’t see it. Keep brushing daily, if not more often, through the change. Thankfully this is a short-term condition that lasts only about three weeks.
The coat is easier to care for after it changes. How much you need to brush or comb a Shih Tzu depends greatly on the texture of his particular coat. Some require daily care, and some need it only once a week. A softer coat gets matted more quickly — even more so if it is thick. A dirty coat will also mat quickly.
Bathe your Shih Tzu as often as you like, but be sure to comb out any tangles before you bathe him. They will tighten up when they get wet. Blow-dry the coat thoroughly to keep your Shih Tzu from getting chilled.
Comb the moustache and topknot daily. A puppy will have enough hair for a topknot when he is about 5 months old. Use a latex band sold at dog shows or good pet supply stores to tie the topknot. Rubber bands will break the hair.
The rest is basic care. Trim the nails as needed, usually every week or two. Clean the inner corners of the eyes daily with a damp washcloth to minimize staining. To keep the hind end clean, trim the fur around the anus. Brush the teeth with a vet-approved pet toothpaste for good overall health and fresh breath.
Whether you want to go with a breeder or get your dog from a shelter or rescue, here are some things to keep in mind.
Finding a good breeder is a great way to find the right puppy. A good breeder will match you with the right puppy and will, without question, have done all the health certifications necessary to screen out health problems as much as possible. She is more interested in placing pups in the right homes than making big bucks.
Good breeders will welcome your questions about temperament, health clearances, and what the dogs are like to live with, and come right back at you with questions of their own about what you’re looking for in a dog and what kind of life you can provide for him. A good breeder can tell you about the history of the breed, explain why one puppy is considered pet quality while another is not, and discuss what health problems affect the breed and the steps she takes take to avoid those problems.
The American Shih Tzu Club is a good place to start your search for a responsible breeder. Look for a breeder who abides by the club’s code of ethics, which does not permit the sale of puppies through brokers, auctions, or commercial dealers such as pet stores. Breeders should sell puppies with written contracts guaranteeing they’ll take back the dogs at any time during their lives if the owners become unable to keep them, and with written documentation that both their puppies’ parents (and if possible, his other close relatives) have at a minimum had their knees and eyes examined and certified by the appropriate health organizations.
A Shih Tzu should weigh between 9 and 16 pounds, but some breeders produce, and some misguided puppy buyers want, even smaller dogs. So-called Teacup or Imperial Shih Tzus are simply dogs below the minimum healthy size for the breed. They’re marketed as something special, but are plagued with health problems and often live very short lives. The code of ethics of the ASTC specifically bars its members from breeding undersize dogs or using those terms to describe their puppies.
Avoid breeders who seem interested only in how quickly they can unload a puppy on you and whether your credit card will go through. You should also bear in mind that buying a puppy from a website that offers to ship your dog to you immediately can be a risky venture, as it leaves you no recourse if what you get isn’t exactly what you expected. Put at least as much effort into researching your puppy as you would into choosing a new car or expensive appliance. It will save you money in the long run.
Lots of reputable breeders have websites, so how can you tell who’s good and who’s not? Red flags include puppies always being available, multiple litters on the premises, having your choice of any puppy, and the ability to pay online with a credit card. Quickie online purchases are convenient, but they are almost never associated with reputable breeders.
Whether you’re planning to get your new best friend from a breeder, a pet store, or another source, don’t forget that old adage “let the buyer beware”. Disreputable breeders and facilities that deal with puppy mills can be hard to distinguish from reliable operations. There’s no 100% guaranteed way to make sure you’ll never purchase a sick puppy, but researching the breed (so you know what to expect), checking out the facility (to identify unhealthy conditions or sick animals), and asking the right questions can reduce the chances of heading into a disastrous situation. And don’t forget to ask your veterinarian, who can often refer you to a reputable breeder, breed rescue organization, or other reliable source for healthy puppies.
And before you decide to buy a puppy, consider whether an adult Shih Tzu might better suit your needs and lifestyle. Puppies are loads of fun, but they require a lot of time and effort before they grow up to become the dog of your dreams. An adult Shih Tzu may already have some training and will probably be less active, destructive, and demanding than a puppy.
With an adult, you know more about what you’re getting in terms of personality and health and you can find adults through breeders or shelters. If you are interested in acquiring an older dog through breeders, ask them about purchasing a retired show dog or if they know of an adult dog who needs a new home. If you want to adopt a dog, read the advice below on how to do that.
Adopting a Dog From a Shih Tzu Rescue or Shelter
There are many great options available if you want to adopt a dog from an animal shelter or breed rescue organization. Here is how to get started.
1. Use the Web
Sites like Petfinder.com and Adopt-a-Pet.com can have you searching for a Shih Tzu in your area in no time flat. The site allows you to be very specific in your requests (housetraining status, for example) or very general (all the Shih Tzus available on Petfinder across the country). AnimalShelter.org can help you find animal rescue groups in your area. Also some local newspapers have “pets looking for homes” sections you can review.
Social media is another great way to find a dog. Post on your Facebook page that you are looking for a specific breed so that your entire community can be your eyes and ears.
2. Reach Out to Local Experts
Start talking with all the pet pros in your area about your desire for a Shih Tzu. That includes vets, dog walkers, and groomers. When someone has to make the tough decision to give up a dog, that person will often ask her own trusted network for recommendations.
3. Talk to Breed Rescue
Most people who love Shih Tzus love all Shih Tzus. That’s why breed clubs have rescue organizations devoted to taking care of homeless dogs. The American Shih Tzu Club can help you find a dog that may be the perfect companion for your family. You can also search online for other Shih Tzu rescues in your area.
The great thing about breed rescue groups is that they tend to be very upfront about any health conditions the dogs may have and are a valuable resource for advice. They also often offer fostering opportunities so, with training, you could bring a Shih Tzu home for a trial to see what the experience is like.
4. Key Questions to Ask
You now know the things to discuss with a breeder, but there are also questions you should discuss with shelter or rescue group staff or volunteers before you bring home a pup. These include:
What is his energy level?
How is he around other animals?
How does he respond to shelter workers, visitors, and children?
What is his personality like?
What is his age?
Is he housetrained?
Has he ever bitten or hurt anyone that they know of?
Are there any known health issues?
Wherever you acquire your Shih Tzu, make sure you have a good contract with the seller, shelter, or rescue group that spells out responsibilities on both sides. Petfinder offers an Adopters Bill of Rights that helps you understand what you can consider normal and appropriate when you get a dog from a shelter. In states with “puppy lemon laws,” be sure you and the person you get the dog from both understand your rights and recourses.
Puppy or adult, a breeder purchase or a rescue, take your Shih Tzu to your veterinarian soon after adoption. Your veterinarian will be able to spot problems and will work with you to set up a preventive regimen that will help you avoid many health issues.
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