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The Origin of the Shih Tzu


The origin of the Shih Tzu is obscure. The best information indicates that the Shih Tzu originated in Tibet where it was kept in temples as a sacred dog. It is known that they were occasionally given to the emperors of China during the Manchu Dynasty (17th Century) as a tribute of great honor and that is how they came to be established in China.

In that country, the dogs quickly became "little temple dogs," were kept in the palace and were carefully guarded and cared for by the court eunuchs. One of the later rulers, the Empress Dowager, was known to have personally supervised the breeding of the rare and sacred palace dogs. With her death in 1908 there is little known about what happened to the breed. Some stayed in the palace and probably some were given away to important Chinese families. When the Peking Kennel Club was formed in 1934 there was much confusion as to the difference between certain small breeds. Some believed that Shih Tzu had developed as a pure breed in Tibet while others believed that they were a cross between the Tibetan Apso and the Pekingnese. In 1938 and individual standard was set for the Shih Tzu and it was recognized as a separate breed from certain other Tibetan breeds with which it had previously been classified in a group.

The Brown Riggs are credited with bringing the first little temple dog to Great Britain in 1928. In 1933, the Shih Tzu was recognized as a separate breed from the Tibetan Apso and its name, denoting this particular breed as distinct from other similar types, was established. Individuals of the breed are alternately known as "little lion dog." This name depicts not only their similarity in appearance to the large jungle feline, probably because of the abundant golden hair of some breed specimens, but also that, along with the lion, the little dog was greatly revered even worshipped, within the Buddhist religion of its homeland. The Shih Tzu and lion were considered sacred animals in that land.

By the outbreak of the war there were known to be less than two hundred dogs outside China, including those in England and a couple of Scandinavian countries to which some were known to have been exported. And interesting story told in This is the Shih Tzu, by the Reverend D Allan Easton and Joan Brearley, was the wife of the Danish minister to China saw some dogs which were to be burnt as part of a funeral ceremony and saved them. A puppy of this line was presented to Queen Elizabeth in the early 1930's.

So the "little temple dogs" traveled from the temples of Tibet to the Royal Palace at Peking, and eventually to Buckingham Palace.
With the war and the communist takeover of Peking in January 1949 there were no more exports from China. In 1952 there was a strong fear that the breed was developing poor structure and it was decided to cross a Pekingnese into the line in England. The purpose was to obtain a less leggy dog with a better coat and shorter muzzle. This was accomplished; however, the bowed front legs of the Pekingnese are something that still can be seen on some Shih Tzu today.

There was also a faction in England called the Manchu Club that believed a smaller dog better represented the true heritage of the "temple dogs." The Kennel Club recognized this in their 1938 standard by stating the ideal weight was between 9 and 16 pounds which is what the current standard recognizes.
The United States obtained its first Shih Tzu in the late 1930's. However, as in England and Europe due to the war and rarity of the breed, there were only a little over 300 dogs recorded by 1963. The breed gained in popularity during the 1960's with many imports from England and Europe. The breed was shown in the miscellaneous class at dog shows; however, it was not until September 1969 that the Shih Tzu were permitted to be shown as a separate breed in the Toy Group.

In 1969, 2,811 Shih Tzu were registered which increased to 14,894 in 1978. Within that nine year period, over 85,000 Shih Tzu were registered with the American Kennel Club. This places the Shih Tzu in the top 25 most popular breeds according to AKC registrations.

The imperial temple dogs are now becoming enjoyed by more people. However, as more breeders get involved, there are risks that the breed will deteriorate as some new breeders try to profit from the Shih Tzu popularity. It is the individual Shih Tzu buyer's responsibilty to maintain the breed by rewarding the proper breeder.

For a detailed account of the Shih Tzu and its regal beginnings, refer to the book The Book of the Shih Tzu (H-996) by Joan Brearkey and Rev. D. Allan Easton and This is the Shih Tzu (PS-661) by the same authors. Both books have long been revered by Shih Tzu lovers the world over.