Shih Tzu: Dog Breed Characteristics & Care

History, Care Tips, and Helpful Information for Pet Owners

Shih Tzu standing indoors in profile

The Spruce / Kevin Norris

The Shih Tzu is a small but sturdy dog with a lush, long, double-hair coat. This breed's alert, confident, playful, and courageous demeanor makes it a favorite amongst toy dog enthusiasts. The Shih Tzu is an ancient breed and has a long history as a lap dog to nobles.

When properly trained and cared for, Shih Tzus can make wonderful companions. Its petite size makes this breed ideal for apartments and small living spaces. Just be prepared for some snorting and snoring; The Shih Tzu is considered a brachycephalic breed because of its head shape and short, "smooshed" face. Overall, most owners of the breed will tell you that the Shih Tzu is truly a lovable dog breed.

Breed Overview

GROUP: Toy

HEIGHT: 8 to 11 inches

WEIGHT: 9 to 16 pounds

COAT: Long double coat

COAT COLOR: Found in nearly any color, most commonly in black, white, blue, gold, liver, or combinations

LIFE SPAN: 10 to 16 years

TEMPERAMENT: Friendly, intelligent, playful, alert, loyal, lively

HYPOALLERGENIC: Yes

ORIGIN: Tibet

Characteristics of the Shih Tzu

Beloved for their charming and lovable temperament, Shih Tzus adore attention and will need lots of it, loving nothing more than hanging out with (and sitting on) their humans. They warm up to strangers quickly and will do well in homes and families large and small.

Affection Level High
Friendliness High
Kid-Friendly High
Pet-Friendly High
Exercise Needs Low
Playfulness High
Energy Level Medium
Trainability Medium
Intelligence High
Tendency to Bark Medium
Amount of Shedding Low

History of the Shih Tzu

The name Shih Tzu originates from the Chinese word for "lion" because of the breed's lion-like appearance. Evidence of the Shih Tzu 's ancestors can be traced back to ancient breeds, particularly in Tibet. DNA analysis shows the Shih Tzu, like the Lhasa apso, is a more direct branch from the wolf than many other dog breeds.

The exact origins of the Shih Tzu as a Chinese royal house pet are hazy, with different dates offered over the past 1,100 years. The breed became known as a noble dog of China, primarily as a royal house pet to members of the Ming Dynasty from the 14th to 17th century. They were also favorites of the Empress T'zu Hsi in the late 1800s.

The Shih Tzu has always been a house pet and lap dog and has never been bred for any other known purposes. This differentiates the breed from the Lhasa apso, which served as temple guards. Perhaps this is why the Shih Tzu remains, to this day, one of the most pampered and popular of the toy dog breeds.

Historically, Chinese royals didn't allow the dog to be traded outside of the nobility. It wasn't until 1930 that the first Shih Tzus were imported into Europe. They then arrived in the U.S. after World War II and were recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC) in 1969.

Shih Tzu Care

Due to their petite size and high intelligence, Shih Tzu dogs are relatively easy to train and care for. By keeping just a few important care requirements top of mind, you can ensure a happy and healthy dog for years to come.

Shih Tzu portrait
The Spruce / Kevin Norris
Closeup of Shih Tzu fur
The Spruce / Kevin Norris
Shih Tzu sitting on blue-gray and wooden vintage chair

The Spruce / Kevin Norris

Exercise

The Shih Tzu has a moderate energy level and needs routine exercise. Daily walks and fun activities like games can help keep your Shih Tzu mentally and physically stimulated. They adapt very well to apartment living as long as you give them enough time for active play. However, Shih Tzus will not do well in overwhelmingly hot environments or weather, due to their flat faces and propensity towards heat exhaustion.

Grooming

The Shih Tzu's coat grows continuously with very minimal shedding, leading the majority of people to consider them a hypoallergenic dog breed. The loose hairs are more likely to be retained in the coat rather than the air—however, be aware that the allergens remain in dander and saliva, so there will still be some present in the environment around the dog. If you're sensitive, it's wise to spend time with a Shih Tzu to see if this breed provokes your allergies before adopting one.

Many owners choose to keep their dog's hair trimmed short, making it appear somewhat curly and fluffy. Others opt to keep the coat long and luxurious. Because of their coat type, routine grooming is an absolute necessity for the Shih Tzu. They should be brushed once or twice a week (up to once daily if the coat is kept long) and haircuts may be necessary every several weeks. When their facial hair isn't trimmed, it can irritate their eyes—this is why you may see some Shih Tzus adorned with a topknot or a bow.

The dog's nails should be trimmed about once a month, and you'll need to help your dog with oral hygiene by brushing its teeth regularly.

Training

Proper training and socialization are important in order to keep your Shih Tzu happy and well-adjusted. Don't skip these practices just because the Shih Tzu is a small dog. The breed is relatively smart but also has a bit of a stubborn streak.

Shih Tzus can be difficult to housebreak, so you'll need to be diligent in training your dog beginning at a young age. They can be also trained to use a litter box indoors—be aware, however, that they tend to eat their own (and other dogs') feces, so you will need to keep your dog's area clean.

This breed gets along well in a multi-pet household with other friendly dogs and cats, especially if they're raised together. Shih Tzus are great with children as long as the child is old enough to handle a dog gently and respectfully. As a small dog, the Shih Tzu can be easily injured by rough play.

Common Health Problems

Responsible breeders strive to maintain the highest breed standards as established by kennel clubs like the AKC. Dogs bred by these standards are less likely to inherit health conditions. However, some hereditary health problems can occur in Shih Tzus. The following are some conditions to be aware of:

shih tzus as pets illustration
Illustration: The Spruce / Kelly Miller

Diet and Nutrition

As a small dog, a Shih Tzu needs only up to 1 cup of dry dog food per day. The exact amount depends on the dog's age, activity level, size, and health factors. It's important to monitor your dog's weight and take action if you see the dog is becoming overweight. Discuss the appropriate nutritional strategy with your veterinarian to get recommendations.

Where to Adopt or Buy a Shih Tzu

Anytime you're looking to adopt or buy a dog, there is a variety of price factors you need to consider, such as the cost of the puppy, supplies, and veterinary bills. On average, Shih Tzu dogs can cost around $850 and up to $1600. It's important to find a reputable breeder or adoption agency, which you can do through the following Shih Tzu organizations:

You can also get in touch with a local animal shelter to find out if there are any Shih Tzu rescues in your area.

Shih Tzu Overview

Pros
  • Loyal and affectionate

  • Great with kids

  • Loves to sit on your lap

Cons
  • High-maintenance coat

  • Difficult to housebreak

  • Issues with breathing

More Dog Breeds and Further Research

If you think the Shih Tzu is the right dog breed for you, be sure to do plenty of research before adopting one. Talk to other Shih Tzu owners, reputable breeders, and rescue groups to learn more.

If you're interested in similar breeds, explore these to compare the pros and cons:

Explore the variety of dog breeds out there. With a little research, you can find the right one to bring home.

FAQ
  • How do you groom a Shih Tzu?

    Because of their long and fluffy coats, Shih Tzus need to be brushed a few times a week, and bathed and groomed every few weeks. It's easy, once you get the hang of it, although you can always hire someone to do it for you.

  • How many puppies can a Shih Tzu have?

    Shih Tzu litters are usually about three to four puppies, unless it's the mother's first litter. If that's the case, it's one or two.

  • How do you train a Shih Tzu?

    Shih Tzus are notoriously hard to train. While you can do it yourself, you might want to enlist some help with online training, recommended books, or even hiring a trainer in person.