How Smart Are Shih Tzus? Everything We Know About Their Intelligence

Written by Mandy Trotti
Updated: September 22, 2023
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The shih tzu has been around for centuries as a loyal companion. The name shih tzu translates to the Mandarin phrase “little lion.” Their association with lions, who are a symbol of strength and protection, makes these tiny yet mighty dogs the perfect companion. But how smart are shih tzus? Keep reading to find out where this toy breed ranks on the intelligence scale and what skills they possess.

Exploring the Intelligence of Shih Tzus

Shih tzu dog relaxing on the sofa in the living room.

Shih tzus are bold and confident dogs.

©Drazen Zigic/

We can’t yet answer the question, “How smart are shih tzus?” First, we need to understand how canine intelligence is determined. One of the most well-known canine psychologists is Dr. Stanley Coren. He developed the criteria for measuring canine intelligence, focusing on their ability to solve problems, adapt to new situations, and learn new commands. To determine canine intelligence, their skills fall into the groups instinctive, adaptive, and working and obedience intelligence.      

As part of his research, Coren tested over 100 purebred dog breeds with the help of obedience judges from the American Kennel Club and the Canadian Kennel Club. The obedience trials assessed how many repetitions it took every breed to learn a new trick and how often they obeyed a known command on the first try. These assessments determined how intelligent each breed is according to their obedience results.   

While these tests were simple, they primarily considered only one aspect of canine intelligence: obedience. As a result, dogs with high obedience levels are considered the most intelligent. However, it doesn’t take into account the other factors that influence a dog’s potential. Such factors include genetics, environment, and their upbringing. When it comes to shih tzus, they are bold and confident. This is great once they are familiar with a command but can make training challenging. Keep reading to take a closer look at how these traits influence their intelligence.  

The Cognitive Capabilities of Shih Tzus: Understanding Their Problem-Solving Skills and Brain Size

shih tzu dog is looking a snack

Shih tzus are naturally curious and empathetic toward humans.

©Yarnawee Nipatarangkoon/

Shih tzus are small dogs, weighing only 9-16 pounds and standing 9-10.5 inches tall. As a result, they have a slightly smaller brain than large dogs like the Great Dane. In fact, a shih tzu’s brain is about the size of a small citrus fruit like a lemon or tangerine. Depending on the breed and overall body size, it can be slightly bigger or smaller. 

However, brain size means little, if anything, regarding intelligence. So, how smart are shih tzus? Shih tzus are naturally curious, so they can solve a puzzle if it piques their interest. They also have great intuition regarding human emotions, which makes sense since they spend so much time tagging along with their humans. Since they understand human emotion well, they know how to get what they want. They can communicate their desires well, calculating their humans’ moods and routines. Both of those skills require a lot of attention and brain power.

The Shih Tzu’s Learning Aptitude: How Quick and Adaptive Are They?

Shih Tzu standing on an ice floe with icicles. Shih Tzu puppy, 9 months old

Contrary to popular belief, the shih tzu originates from Tibet.

©Tatiana Gasich/

Shih tzus are a small toy breed that originates from Tibet. They are believed to be a direct descendent of the Lhasa apso and blessed by the Buddha because they resemble lions. Due to their association with wealth and strength they were given to Chinese royals and as wedding gifts to bring safety to those traveling from Tibet to China.  

But how does their history help us answer the question, “How smart are shih tzus?” Well, their lineage impacts their instincts and adaptability. Many shih tzus were treated like royalty, so they love attention. They are good-natured, friendly, and eager to please. They also get along well with other animals and children. Furthermore, they adapt to apartment living, making them well suited for any living situation.   

Unlike some breeds that are natural hunters or help farmers protect their livestock from predators, these “little lions” are solely companion dogs. They are naturally lap dogs, so they don’t get around much unless you train them. Some owners have plucked their shih tzus off the couch and enrolled them in agility training. If you’re patient, they are successful in competitions. 

Intelligence Ranking: Where Does the Shih Tzu Stand Among Other Breeds?

Cute shih tzu is sitting at the sofa

Shih tzus are stubborn, making them difficult to train.

©Pattarit S/

So, how smart are shih tzus? It depends on how you measure their intelligence. Compared to other breeds using Coren’s measure of intelligence, they rank relatively low on the scale. Their stubbornness and slow comprehension make it difficult for them to learn new commands. That’s why they rank 128 out of 138 with the lowest degree of working and obedience intelligence. Overall, shih tzus require 80-100 repetitions to learn a new command and obey a known command on the first try only 25% of the time or less.  

On the other hand, the top 10 smartest dog breeds require less than five repetitions to learn a new command. They also obey a known command on the first try with a 95% success rate. These numbers put shih tzus in the top 10 least intelligent dogs, along with the bloodhound, English bulldog, beagle, and the Pekingese. While these dogs are no match for the brilliant border collie, poodle, German shepherd, Shetland sheepdog, and the Rottweiler, they are all still wonderful and smart in their own ways.  

The reality is that shih tzus aren’t dumb. They are slower to pick up on new commands and can be stubborn. The strong-willed shih tzu only obeys if they want to or if they get their favorite treat as a reward. But if they put their mind to it, they can do almost anything.

Unlocking the Shih Tzu’s Intelligence Potential: Training Techniques and Mental Stimulation

Red and white Shih Tzu dog

Shih tzus can learn to play fetch and jump through hoops.

©Sue Thatcher/

Now we’ve gotten our answer to the question, “How smart are shih tzus?” That means it’s time to cover how to unlock their intelligence potential through training and mental stimulation. Keep in mind the earlier you start training, the easier it will go. However, the key to success is consistency and patience. You also want to keep training and play time short to prevent burnout.


Despite ranking low in Coren’s intelligence trials, the shih tzu can be trained to complete various activities. They can learn to play fetch and jump through hoops, a common activity in agility trials. Their exercise needs are moderate, so they require daily walks and playtime to be happy and healthy. But they don’t have nearly as much energy to burn off as a high-energy dog like the Siberian husky. Shih tzus are perfect for moderately active families. 

As mentioned, they are adaptable and eager to please. That means your biggest competition is their stubborn attitude. It’s not that shih tzus aren’t intelligent, but the reward for your command needs to be more enticing than whatever they have in mind. Therefore, consistent positive reinforcement goes a long way. 

Mental Stimulation

A shih tzu’s activity is relative to their size. They have moderate energy levels, so two to three short walks outside accompanied by light play is beneficial. Daily indoor playtime with a ball or interactive toys like puzzle toys gives them the mental stimulation they need. Some shih tzus enjoy agility training, hide and seek, and other games. But when it comes to running or other activities that require more movement, don’t push them too much. Due to their genetics, hip dysplasia is a common health issue for shih tzus that can worsen with specific activities. Therefore, you should ensure they don’t run or jump more than necessary. Keep training and play time light.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Seba Tataru/

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About the Author

Mandy Trotti is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on dogs and travel. Mandy has been writing professionally for over two years and holds a Bachelor's Degree in English Literature from the University of South Florida, which she earned in 2022. A resident of Florida, Mandy enjoys going on walks with her beagle, visiting botanical gardens, and watching the sunset on the beach.

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