The Shih-tzu ~ Tibet’s gift to the dog breed world
When Mariah Carey was given a pair of Shih Tzu during a tour of Japan a few years ago, those puppies, Bing and Bong, were proudly carrying on a tradition that dates back hundreds of years. Traditionally, in Tibet, the Shih Tzu’s birthplace, dogs were held in such high esteem that they were never sold, but only given as gifts.
It was as gifts that small, shaggy-coated dogs were first brought out of the Tibetan mountains and into the royal court of neighbouring China, where they were prized as earthly representations of the sacred Buddhist lion. The name “Shih Tzu” means “lion” in Mandarin Chinese. Living in the palace among the other favoured breeds such as the Pekingese, Lhasa Apso, Tibetan Spaniel, and Pug, the Shih Tzu were pampered by their own cadre of servants and slaves and jealously guarded.
With the fall of the Chinese empire, the royal dogs were killed or carried off by invaders and locals alike, bringing the Lion Dog breeds, including the Shih Tzu, to the attention of the outside world. During the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s, various dog-lovers visiting China adopted Shih Tzu and exported them to the visitors’ home countries.
One of these was a Mrs. Kauffmann, the wife of a Danish diplomat, who happened upon some small dogs that were going to be sacrificed in a religious ceremony. After pleading with the owners to spare the dogs, she was allowed to rescue one little bitch, later named Leidza. Her new owner was so delighted by Leidza that she sought out and acquired several more of the breed and brought them all back to Scandinavia when she left China, thus establishing the breed in northern Europe. One of Kauffmann’s puppies, Choo-Choo, was given by Queen Maud of Norway to England’s Duchess of York, Elizabeth, who was later to be beloved as the Queen Mother.
Today, the Shih Tzu is the cheerful companion of commoners and celebrities alike. Former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell reportedly dotes on her “Harry,” taking him to film sets, photo shoots, restaurants, posh shops, and even to visit the British prime minister (where Harry showed his opinion of politics by messing on the rug). Harry has the honour of having his image stand beside Halliwell’s in the famed Madame Tussauds wax museum in London.
Not to be outdone, Nicole Richie’s “Honeychild” sleeps on a replica of her owner’s bed, complete with designer linens. Honeychild has been known to visit her coiffeur to have coloured hair extensions done to match Richie’s own locks.
The Shih Tzu’s natural coat colour can be any shade or combination of shades. While this breed is often confused with its big cousin, the Lhasa Apso, one distinguishing characteristic is the denser, slightly wavy coat of the Shih Tzu.
The breed standard allows them to weigh between 9 and 16 pounds and does not recognize ultra-tiny variations sometimes touted as “Imperial” or “teacup” Shih Tzu. If you choose to own one of these miniature types, be aware that health problems can increase with smaller size.
The Shih Tzu’s double coat requires daily brushing and combing and the long hair around the top of the head should be put up in a topknot to keep it out of the eyes and prevent eye ulcers. The hair around the eyes should also be kept clean and tangle-free. A full show coat requires extensive grooming, but pet Shih Tzu can be kept in a puppy clip. Brushing their teeth regularly helps to maintain good health, because germs leaching down from dirty teeth can cause all sorts of health problems, including heart and kidney issues.
The breed’s worst health problem is renal cortical hypoplasia. If you are considering adding a Shih Tzu to your household, consider having blood and urine tests done by a veterinarian, which will provide some information. Many of these little dogs have a “dry eye” problem (their tears aren’t wet enough to properly lubricate the eye) and, in addition, since they’re brachycephalic (flat-faced) an eye can easily pop out if they run into something while playing. When buying a dog, always ask to see health clearances and ask the breeder for a health guarantee to a reasonable age. Since their faces are flat, heat will bother them more than cold, so if it’s a hot day, don’t put your Shih Tzu outside to play or encourage him to exercise vigorously.
Like all dogs, Shih Tzu need gentle, positive obedience training and they respond well to either lure training or clicker training. Although small, these dogs do require exercise and enjoy working with their humans, so owners should consider getting involved in a fun dog sport like rally obedience or canine musical freestyle.
Above all, however, the charming little dogs from the Far East are born to be loved and give love in return as the centerpiece of some lucky human’s life.
Thank you, Tibet, for a lovely gift!
By Darlene Arden and Marian Buechert | Photographs by Deborah Samuel