What Were Shih Tzus Bred For? Past Role, Jobs, History, and More

Written by Lisha Pace
Updated: October 5, 2022
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Key Points:

  • Shih Tzus were bred over 1,000 years ago by Chinese imperial breeders to be companions for the Emperor and his family.
  • This sweet-tempered breed is content to sit in your lap – but is also athletic and capable of enjoying agility training.
  • Affectionate and easygoing, Shih Tzus are known to be great with children.
  • Shih Tzus long, silky hair has little dander and doesn’t shed much – making them good pets for people with allergies.

Shih Tzus, also called little lions, are small, cuddly dogs who can comfortably live in an apartment as long as their high energy needs are met. These pint-sized canines were actually bred for companionship – so it’s no wonder they are so good at it. Shih Tzus are still popular for companionship now, but they are also sometimes trained for dog sports as well as obedience and agility competitions.

Although these dogs were called little lions, there isn’t anything fierce about them. They are affectionate and enjoy giving and receiving attention. This breed is intelligent and easy to train, and happiest when with their family.

Shih Tzus are an old dog breed that dating back 1,000 years to Imperial breeders in the palace of the Chinese emperor developed the little “lion dog” from Tibetan breeding stock. They were most likely crossed with even older Tibetan breeds, the Lhaso Apso and the Pekingese.

The little dogs became popular in the Imperial Court in China and were trained to sit and wave at the empress each time she visited. It is said that the emperors would give valuable gifts to breeders of Shih Tzu who produced the most beautiful and affectionate dogs. When the breed came to England in 1928, its’ popularity grew among ordinary people.

Since their European introduction, the Shih Tzu has been one of the most popular toy dogs in the United Kingdom and the United States. They still treat their owners like royalty, no matter who they might be.

Although Shih Tzus are lap dogs and like being affectionate, they are also alert and lively and are known to be excellent with children. They might bark a little at visitors but are easygoing and charm everyone they meet.

Shih Tzu Teeth - Shih Tzu Puppy

Shih Tzus make wonderful, affectionate, and

loyal pets


©Daz Stock/Shutterstock.com

Shih Tzus at a Glance

ShedabilityLess than other breeds; mostly when groomed or brushed
General HealthGood and they live long lives; can suffer from eye and ear problems and back pain
SizeSmall; toy dog breed
Energy LevelModerate; needs routine, daily exercise
Exercise needsUp to 60 minutes daily
Friendly with other dogsVery friendly and sociable
Family and kid-friendlinessVery friendly and sociable
Trainability and obedienceVery easily trainable and follows directions well
TemperamentPlayful, affectionate and intelligent
Yappiness and barkingHigh-alert and protective; tends to bark often
Tendency to chewModerately high when puppies or if they are stressed, neglected, or left alone for too long
Purebred cost to own$500-2,000
Dog groupToy
Used for huntingNo
Hypoallergenic (nonshedding)Yes
Life spanLong; generally lives to 10-16 years
Female Weight9-16 lbs
Male Weight9-16 lbs
Separation anxietyModerately high—if left alone for too long (more than a few hours), your Shih Tzu will get stressed

The Seven Different Types of Shih Tzus and Shih Tzu Mixes

Breeding Shih Tzus was a crime in the past because they were meant for royalty only. Today, this has changed, and other breeds have been created from the originals. They include:

  • Pug-Zu: Pug and Shih Tzu mix
  • Malshi: Maltese and Shih Tzu mix
  • Shih-Poo: Toy Poodle and Shih Tzu mix
  • Affen Tzu: Affenpinscher and Shih Tzu mix
  • Weshi: West Highland White Terrier and Shih Tzu mix
  • Cava Tzu: Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and Shih Tzu mix
  • Zuchon: Bichon Frise and Shih Tzu mix

The Best Dog Food for Shih Tzus

Shih Tzus have tiny bodies but are athletic canines that are sometimes trained for agility competitions. These tiny-bodied dogs grow long, luxurious fur that doesn’t shed much, and whose health depends on the diet they eat.

To maintain their health, you should feed them the best nutritious food you can find – formulated for small dogs. Other factors to consider when buying your Shih Tzu’s food is their particular size, age, and weight. Shih Tzu puppies have different dietary requirements from the fully grown dogs, much like any other breed.

If your Shih Tzu is involved in competitions that require high energy, calories are a high priority in their diet. Even if they’re not, you want to make sure your Shih Tzu is getting enough calories to support their energy levels and nutritional needs.

On the other hand – if your dog loves nothing more than sitting in your lap – make sure that the fat content in his food is low in order to prevent weight gain and health complications. The preferable food for your Shih Tzu should have Omega-3 fatty acids and contain biotin that promotes skin and healthy coat growth.

Additionally, you should choose foods that have simple, clean ingredients, and aren’t packed with any fillers, dyes, gums, or additives.

Owning a Shih Tzu: Pros and Cons

Beautiful fur: Shih Tzus can come in a variety of different color coats, like gold and white, gold with a black mask, and solid black.High maintenance: Shih Tzu’s beautiful coats are high-maintenance. They require daily brushing to prevent matting and tangling.
Kid-friendly: Due to their friendly nature and charming personality, Shih Tzus are affectionate with kids. However, children should show respect to the dog to avoid aggressiveness and violating boundaries.Stubborn cute little lions: The Shih Tzus are gentle and easy to train, but they can be stubborn if you don’t train and properly socialize them when young.
Great lapdogs: Shih Tzus were initially grown for companionship, and they love attention. They make good lap dogs.  Can have a weak immunity: Shih Tzus are prone to conditions like hip dysplasia, eye anomalies, and cataracts.

Shih Tzus Size and Weight

Height (male)10 inches tall
Height (female)10 inches tall
Weight (male)16 lbs, fully grown
Weight (female)16 lbs, fully grown

Common Health Issues

In general, Shih Tzus are healthy little dogs, but they are susceptible to some common ailments. This breed is sensitive to allergies, as well as ear, eye, and breathing problems. Its floppy ears are prone to ear infections due to allergies or too much moisture in the ear canal.

Shih Tzus sometimes suffer from Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS) because of the shape of their head, face, and nose. Their narrow upper airway makes it hard for the dog to breathe and for them to regulate their body temperature.

Shih Tzus have sensitive eyes that can suffer from cataracts. This disorder is primarily hereditary, but other underlying issues can cause it, such as diabetes mellitus (sugar diabetes), eye trauma, toxin exposure, hypocalcemia (too little calcium in the blood), and uveitis (inflammation of the middle layer of the eye). It can also come from aging. The symptoms include: excessive eye discharge, a cloudy or icy appearance in the eyes, a visible white spot or streak in the eyes, clumsiness, bumping into things, changes in pupil size and/or shape, walking with caution or with their nose to the ground, and noticeable loss of vision.

Shih Tzu eyes are also sensitive because of their positioning and could suffer eye injuries. They are susceptible to proptosis, where the eyeball dislodges from the socket.

Temperament and Behavior

The Chinese emperors kept these dogs beside them – perched on expensive silk cushions- to avoid feeling lonely and to signify royalty. Since these dogs are so naturally lovable, they blend well with family members, kids, and other dogs. These little pets can also be good cuddling buddies.

This dog’s intelligent and outgoing personality makes them great charmers. They are quick learners and have a lion’s confidence, hence the name little lion. They tend to be extroverted and are quite easily affectionate and sociable.

One not-so-good behavioral trait of the Shih Tzu is stubbornness. Although the little toy dog is intelligent and easy to train, their pride and assertiveness can sometimes be a disadvantage. Shih Tzu owners should consider training their furry friend while they are still puppies or quite young, as this is the best time to train them.

Shih Tzu (Canis familiaris) - portrait

Shih Tzus were originally bred by Chinese royalty!

©Angel LeBlanc/Shutterstock.com

How to Take Care of a Shih Tzu

Some ways to maintain your “little lion” are by grooming, exercising, and training.

1. Maintenance and Grooming

Little Shih Tzus have a lot of fur, and you must maintain it to prevent tangling and shedding. Use the right hair products to wash and condition it. You should dry it with a towel in a downward motion to prevent tangling.

If the coat is long, use a fluff or stand dryer to line dry it. You can then detangle and brush it using a metal comb.

Although Shih Tzus don’t shed a lot, they require routine grooming after 2-3 weeks of age. You can also keep the pet’s hair shorter by trimming it weekly.

Shih Tzus should be brushed regularly.


Shih Tzus grasp instructions fast. However, they are hardest to train when they become mature.

It is also challenging to house-train them due to their small bladders. To help them, take your pup outside every three hours after feeding or playing.

It’s best to encourage Shih Tzus to socialize when young by taking them to different places and allowing them to interact with people and other animals, so they can learn to interact nicely. These dogs like treats and praises, which helps train them to socialize.

3. Exercise

Due to the respiratory problems of Shih Tzus, dog owners are cautioned against over-exercising them. An hour of exercise every day is enough. You can walk them along the streets, but ensure they walk on clean paths to protect them from eye infections as a result of debris or toxins getting caught in their eyes.

As part of the exercise, explore the surrounding areas with them to help strengthen their memory and familiarity with their environments. You can also involve them in enrichment activities like scent work and ball throwing.

All of these activities provide great mental and physical stimulation for your pup!

4. Shih Tzu Puppies

Shih Tzu puppies are easy to raise because they are naturally well-mannered. They are trusting and play with children and other dogs well. These dogs generally like being indoors. Having the right, nutrient-rich foods for these puppies help in maintaining a strong body and beautiful coat, allowing them to grow up strong and extra healthy. Be sure to buy puppy-specific food so they get the nutrients and vitamins they need.

Shih Tzu and Children

Shih Tzus are playful and kid-friendly. They are loyal and always ready to cuddle.

However, Shih Tzus can be emotionally sensitive and vulnerable to teasing and other behaviors. Parents should train their kids to speak and interact with these dogs respectfully, so the pup’s natural boundaries are not violated.

Pay attention to when your Shih Tzu looks overstimulated, agitated, or growing in aggression.

Dogs Similar to Shih Tzu

Other dogs with similar characteristics as the Shih Tzu are the Maltipoo, Yorkshire Terrier, and Pekingese:

  • Maltipoo: like Shih Tzus, Maltipoos don’t shed much, and they are gentle and affectionate. These dogs are also easy to train.
  • Yorkshire Terrier: also called Yorkies, Yorkshires are easy to live with. They fit in small spaces like apartments and don’t require too much exercise.
  • Pekingese: their friendly and calm traits resemble those of Shih Tzus. These dogs are also compatible with families and are energetic.

Popular names for Shih Tzu include:

  • Bella
  • Milo
  • Bailey
  • Nina
  • Sebastian

Up Next…

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Daz Stock/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

After a career of working to provide opportunities for local communities to experience and create art, I am enjoying having time to write about two of my favorite things - nature and animals. Half of my life is spent outdoors, usually with my husband and sweet little fourteen year old dog. We love to take walks by the lake and take photos of the animals we meet including: otters, ospreys, Canadian geese, ducks and nesting bald eagles. I also enjoy reading, discovering books to add to my library, collecting and playing vinyl, and listening to my son's music.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

How much does a Shih Tzu cost to own?

You can get a Shih Tzu for as low as $250. But, if you buy the dog from a registered breeder, you could pay up to $3000. Generally, the cost to buy is between $500-2,000. Some purebred Shih Tzus cost as high as $6,000.

Keep in mind that adopting is the cheapest and most ethical route to own a Shih Tzu, or any dog breed.

Are Shih Tzus good with kids?

Shih Tzus are friendly with kids. However, dog owners should train their children to interact respectfully with their dog.

How long do Shih Tzus live?

Shih Tzus can typically live for 10 to 16 years.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

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