There are two main schools of thought on the origin of the Shih Tzu and the name itself has been used as ‘evidence’ for both theories.
DNA analysis can confirm that Shih Tzu are one of the most ancient breeds of dog and ten thousand year old bones, of what is believed to be early versions of the breed were dug up in China and Tibet.
Animal geologist believe that original Shih Tzu were an exotic mixture of Lhasa and Pekingese and what we do know for certain is that they came to western countries via China in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s and almost every Shih Tzu dog that lives in Europe and America can trace its ancestry to a handful of dogs from this time.
It does not really matter which theory or legend you believe when researching the origin of the breed as both are wonderful stories and have equal points of interesting possible fact and incredible improbability!
The most likely theory is that the breed originally came to China from Tibet and either so long ago, or in such a recognized different form, that our ‘modern day’ Shih Tzu can be considered Chinese.
Shih Tzu were believed to be kept as pets or ‘ornamental’ dogs in Tibet for more than 1000 years. There is nothing to back up the story that they were once considered sacred by Buddhists and kept in the temples. This idea may have come from a legend that Manjusri, the Buddha or god of learning, carried a very small dog with him and this was known as the ‘Lion Dog’ as it was believed to turn into a lion and carry Manjusri on his back. Despite the Shih Tzu shaggy hair and flat face it would be a considerable stretch of the imagination to assume this small dog was the lion dog in question, but as there were no Lions in Tibet few Tibetans would be sure of what the Big Cat of Africa looked like.
Perhaps the ancient Tibetans never meant to insinuate the small dog looked like a lion when in its ‘dog form’ and it was only because of its small size and the fact that it was easy for the great Manjusri to carry around with him, that it became associated with this legend. The fact that this is a Tibetan story and the name ‘Shih Tzu’ means lion dog in mandarin, a Chinese language, does little to kill this legend. The name may have been added after the first dogs and the legend were sent to China.
It was customary for gifts of exotic animals to be given to rulers of great nations and China was no exception. Theories based on ancient paintings and documents suggest that a pair of Shih Tzu were given to the Chinese imperial court in the 7th centaury. It has been widely reported that they were the great favorite of the court ladies and were often carried around in their wide sleeves and this is where smaller Shih Tzu get the title ‘Imperial’.
For many years they were a novelty until the Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi took an interest in their breeding and care. This formidable woman is thought to have been involved in the breeding and training of all the court dogs and was especially fond of the little lap dogs. With her careful attention they developed into a robust true breed.
In 1920’s English society, it became fashionable for society ladies to be accompanied by a small exotic lap dog. These pampered pooches accompanied their mistress everywhere and were usually snuggled in the folds of a fur coat at every daytime social occasion including lunch at the Savoy! They were constantly fed tit bits from the table and were handed over to a member of the household staff for short and infrequent exercise. As a result they were not known for their longevity and obese dogs were exchanged frequently for sleeker or more fashionable versions.
It was into the height of this trend that Lady Brownrigg brought a dog and a bitch Shih Tzu 1928.
Lady Brownrigg was a great animal lover and had been staying in China with her husband who was the quartermaster general to the north China command. She eventually joined forces with a Mrs. Hutchings who had returned to Ireland with a Shih Tzu dog and the mating of these three are responsible for many of standard breed that eventually spread to the rest of Western Europe and the USA.
When the dogs hit fashionable society they were nicknamed the ‘Chrysanthemum’ dogs because of the way their long hair stood out from their faces and may also have been used as a reference to their Chinese origin. At first the Shih Tzu were put in the same category as other small oriental dogs and it was not until 1934 that they were recognized and separated as a different breed. They were not granted their own register until 1940.
The bitch that Lady Brownrigg brought back from China was ‘shown’ at Crufts in 1936 and won The coveted best of breed’ trophy even though they had yet to be established officially as a singular variety.
It was in 1939 that Gay Widdrington, one of the most famous names in modern Shih Tzu breeding, bought her first Shih Tzu bitch from Lady Brownrigg. Unfortunately her first attempt was a Shih Tzu – Dachshund mix which would have infuriated the purist Lady Brownrigg had she known at the time.
Later Mrs. Widdrington began to source other ‘true’ Shih Tzu bloodlines in Europe, in particular Norway and other northern European countries, helping to widen the gene pool and avoid any complications associated with close inbreeding, and the consequential issues that have plagued many breeds.
She continued to breed for many decades and always with the duel aims of keeping the bloodlines pure while eliminating any hereditary problems. Her efforts were not always condoned or even recognized by the Kennel Club but she is mainly responsible for the relatively health specimens we have today. She is also credited with helping to found the Shih Tzu and Manchu Shih Tzu clubs.
In 1952, Freda Evans crossed the Shih Tzu with a Pekinese in an effort to ‘breed out’ and correct many of the features of the pure Shih Tzu that were considered to be ungainly or unsuitable. It was a bold move that caused much controversy but after seven generations this ‘cross breed’ was eventually accepted as the pure standard Shih Tzu. The Pekinese line helped to correct bad pigmentation, ‘leggyness’ and disproportional facial features.
Renowned American dog breeders, Philip Price and his Aunt, Maureen Murdock are credited with being the first to bring the Shih Tzu to the United States. In 1954 they imported a pair from England and began their program but it was not until 1957 the first Shih Tzu club was formed in America. Military and commercial trips to Europe saw more Shih Tzu crossing the Atlantic and by 1961 more than 100 pure Shih Tzu were officially registered.
The Shih Tzu were an exciting novelty and the focus of great interest at shows and conventions. More and more breeders became interested and by the end of 1962 the number had trebled.
Conscientious breeders and owners have ensured the numbers have increased every year and it is thanks to these dedicated Shih Tzu lovers that we have access to so much pedigree information and attractive, healthy, prize winning Shih Tzu today.