The cute little Shih Tzu has interesting ancient and royal history in Tibet and China. Up until the 1930s, they were virtually unknown to the world outside China, where they lived in temples and palaces as the best affectionate and loyal companions. But what are the ancestors and the roots of Shih Tzu?
The history and origin of Shih Tzu is somewhat mysterious, but it is generally believed, that the breeds origin lays in ancient Tibet. Similar dogs to the Shih Tzu are depicted on various Tibetan artworks from at least 2000 years ago. Those dogs are sometimes called as little lion dogs and they were normally used not only as affectionate companions, but also as alert watchdogs. Lion is a symbol of strength and protection in Buddhism, which is why these dogs were probably bred to look like little lions.
The Shih Tzu is not the only dog, that evolved from these Tibetan lion dogs. The other is Lhasa Apso, which has very similar appearance as the Shih Tzu.
For a long time, these so called lion dogs lived only in isolation of Tibetan highlands. Back in the past, Tibet was very isolated country, but they did have some relations with their neighboring countries, such as China. And China is the country, where the Shih Tzu was developed into the breed we know today.
So how did the Tibetan lion dogs ended up in China. Again, we do not know it for sure, but it is believed that they were sent as gifts to Chinese Emperor. This probably happened during the time of Qing Dynasty, probably in the middle of 17th century.
Until then, these little dogs lived in harsh Tibetan mountanious climate, mostly outdoors. When they got into the Chinese imperial palace in Beijing, everything was different. Especially the climate and environment and these dogs had to adapt to it and they were probably also crossbred with the Pekingese. Some sources also say, that they were crossbred with Pugs, but the Pekingese crossbreeding is more likely.
So the most likely ancestors of the Shih Tzu are Pekingese and the Tibetan lion dogs, today most often known as Lhasa Apso. And indeed, the Shih Tzu does resemble both of them!
BTW, not only that Shih Tzu resembles a little lion, their name actually translates into english as a Lion dog.
Unlike the Lhasa Apso, who has strong protective nature, the Shih Tzu has absolutely friendly and trustful temperament. That is thanks to the centuries on Chinese Royal courts, where they had only one purpose, to be the best possible companions.
There is one Chinese lady who made the Shih Tzu breed especially famous. She was a Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi and she was a big dog lover, who actually consider her dogs as sacred. She did not only bred Shih Tzus, but also Pekingese and Pugs and she paid particular attention to family lines and colour. It is believed, that she was the one, who standardize the Shih Tzu and who developed the breed as we know it today.
The Shih Tzu breed was unknown for the world outside China up until the beginning of the 20th century. It was because they were highly prized as favourites of Chinese royals, who refused to sell or trade them. That changed with the end of Chinese empire and start of Chinese republic in 1912.
The first dogs got into Europe, to be more specific to England and Norway, in 1930s and first standard was written in 1935 by the Shih Tzu club. Only few dogs were imported into England, but it was enough to start a breeding program in here.
Shih Tzu quickly spread throughout Europe and became great companion for local people. Of course, the World Wars were hard times for all breeds, Shih Tzu included, but the breed survived and after the war, it was also imported to United States and later, all around the world.
Today, the breed is recognized by all the major kennel clubs around the world and they belong into one of the most popular companion dogs of all. For example in the USA, according to the AKC breed popularity ranking, the Shih Tzu is 20th most popular dog. And the situation will be similar in most of European countries as well.
So in a nutshell, the Shih Tzu is a very old dog breed with its roots in Tibet, but that was developed into the breed we know today in China, most probably by crossing Lhasa Apso with Pekingese. For most of the time, they lived only in Chinese royal courts and they spread around the world only in the 20th century.