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Although its precise origins are unknown, the Shih Tzu is undoubtedly descended from lion-like Tibetan holy dogs known as foo and have existed for centuries. Lions were sacred in Buddhism, which originated in India, and legend has it that Buddha rode on the back of a lion when he came to Earth.

A Ming Dynasty Treasure

Historians believe the Shih Tzu is a direct descendant of the Lhasa Apso. Given as wedding gifts for a safe 10-month passage from Tibet to China, Tibetans believed Shih Tzu possessed the souls of monks who fell from grace.

Shih Tzu lived with royalty throughout the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644 A.D.), but by the 19th century, Pugs became more popular. The Dowager Empress Cixi kept a kennel of Pugs and Pekingese. The Dalai Lama gave her dogs similar to the Shih Tzu, and she developed a breeding program devoted to the Shih Tzu’s unique characteristics. When she died, random breeding produced the Pug, the Pekingese, and the Shih Tzu.

Court artists for several hundred years portrayed the Shih Tzu on wall hangings that adorned the palaces of the Emper­ors. It is definitely known that the breed­ing of the Shih Tzu was delegated to cer­tain court Eunuchs, who vied with each other to produce specimens which would take the Emperor’s fancy. Those selected had their pictures painted upon hangings and drapes. The Eu­nuchs responsible for such dogs were said to have “made the book.” As a reward, the Emperor gave the proud producer of the animal a gift of the income from certain portions of rice land farms.

There were no lions in China, so the Chinese used lion-like dogs to represent the much larger mythical creatures portrayed in India.

Ch. Chumulari Ying-Ying, First Best In Show Shih Tzu; c. 1969.
AKC Library & Archives

Killing Off the Breed

After the 1949 Communist revolution, all Shih Tzu in China were killed because of their association with wealth.

At this time, Lady Brownrigg, an En­glishwoman who had made her home in China, was fortunate to find a few of these dogs, which she then imported to England. Along with a few Shih Tzu salvaged by an English Officer on duty in China at that time, these made up the stock that was re­sponsible for the continuation of the breed in England and Europe. Through the cooperation of several English breeders who became devoted to the breed, a pro­gram for the promulgation of the Shih Tzu was established. The future of the breed was assured.

From this source, dogs of this breed were sent to the Scandinavian countries, several European countries, and  Austra­lia. Some men in the United States Armed Forces, stationed in England, were enraptured with these dogs and brought several back to America. As these dogs were seen in America, many breeders became enamored with them. They imported some ex­cellent specimens, which have done much to keep up the good quality of the breed in America.

Shih Tzu pups from the Chumulari Kennels of Rev. D. Allan and Margaret Easton.
AKC Library & Archives

Descending From 13 Dogs

Modern Shih Tzu are therefore descended from just 13 dogs imported into England and Scandinavia between 1928 and 1952, plus one other “lion dog,” a black and white Pekingese introduced—with some measure of controversy among fanciers—into the breed in England in 1952. Breed clubs formed in Peking and later England further refined the breed, but not without much debate among fanciers as to proper type.

For some time, there were three separate groups of Shih Tzu fanciers in the U.S. — one in Texas and two in the Eastern states. The three groups merged their efforts and formed the Amer­ican Shih Tzu Club in 1963 for the pur­pose of gaining recognition by the AKC. The members of this parent club have faithfully exhibited and registered their Shih Tzu. The dogs were strongly ad­mired at shows, leading to a great interest in the breed. The Shih Tzu entered the AKC Stud Book in 1969.

AKC Library & Archives

Shih Tzu Today

Since then, the Shih Tzu has been one of the most popular toy dogs in the U.S. and United Kingdom. And they still treat their owners, no matter who they might be, like royalty. Owners as diverse as Queen Elizabeth II and Miley Cyrus have succumbed to the Shih Tzu’s charms.

As befits its royal ancestry, the Shih Tzu is an elegant, sometimes arrogant breed. With a long flowing coat, meltingly expressive dark eyes, and confident attitude, they’re ideally suited for lounging on a satin pillow or, despite their size, hogging your bed.

Today, the Shih Tzu’s sole purpose is to be a companion, as it was in the Chinese royal court long ago.

Related article: Collie History: From Queen Victoria to Lassie & Beyond
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