Breed History

1000 Years of History 

Shih Tzu from Tibet have a recorded history going back 1,000 years. As in many cultures, the people of Chinese-lion.jpgthis remote land kept dogs in a domestic environment. They kept large fierce dogs that were used for guarding, then there were small shaggy dogs used as companions and as watchdogs to alert the larger dogs, ancestors of or near to modern Shih Tzu. It has been said that the small dogs or Lion Dogs were kept in monasteries throughout Tibet, they were trained to turn the prayer wheels as part of a daily ritual however, when Audrey Dadds told this tale to a Tibetan Monk he said this was utter nonsense, Shih Tzu were never kept as temple dogs. Buddhism in Tibet recognised a large number of divine beings each symbolising an aspect of life. One of these was the Buddha Manjusri the God of Learning who was said to travel with a small Lion Dog that would turn into a full sized lion and carry him vast distances on his back. Perhaps this is how the small dogs came to be associated with the lions - a link that was to continue through their adventurous history as there were no actual lions in Tibet, the artistic renderings of the animal were often somewhat fantastical. It is hard to be sure whether the Lion Dogs were a breed to resemble the drawings and statues of the symbolic lions or if the artists created their 'lions' in the likeness of the little dogs.

The Move to China

Despite it's inaccessibility Tibet was not entirely isolated from its neighbours, especially China. From time to time gifts were sent as a tribute to the Chinese emperors, among which were Tibetan Lion Dogs. After long journeys, presumably with the caravans of the traders who travelled over the high mountain passes from one country to another, the little dogs found themselves in the Chinese Imperial Palace. Here everything would have been different including the climate, for the summers in Peking are warm and humid with a lot of rain while the winters are very cold indeed with a minimum temperature as low as 0 F ( -18 C in January. However, the Tibetan Lion Dogs adapted well as they have done wherever they have gone over the centuries. It is recorded that they settled in and became great favourites of the Manchu emperors. It is likely that they were interbred from time to time with the short faced Chinese breeds, the Chinese Pug or - more probably - the Pekinese. That gave the Shih Tzu the characteristics that make them different from the Tibetan Lion Dogs that have become today's Lhasa Apsos (These were introduced to Europe via India). A lot of this is hearsay and different students studying the history of the breed take different views.

Dowager Empress 

There was a very powerful lady at the Palace in China in the form of Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi who was very tzu-hsi.jpginterested in dogs and supervised her staff in the breeding of the palace dogs, paying particular attention to family lines and colour. The Shih Tzu is classified as a Chinese breed in Britain because it was originally brought through to this country from China. The name Shih Tzu means something like 'Little Lion' in Mandarin and the name came from that country with them. Several dogs were brought to Europe during the pre-war years, to Norway as well as England. They were brought to our shores in 1928 by a very remarkable woman, Lady Brownrigg, the much travelled wife of the Quarter Master General to the North China Command. She was about thirty years old and very fond of animals and birds. When she and her husband returned to England they bought with them 2 Shih Tzu, a dog called Hibou and a bitch called Shu-ssa both black and white and described as small. Shu-ssa was said to have a thick but smooth coat which stuck out on her head and face so that she looked like a baby owl or alternatively like a chrysanthemum, just as Shih Tzu resemble today - especially puppies.

Arrival In The West 

Shu-ssa was mated to Hibou and to a dog called Lung-fu-ssa which a Mrs Hutchins brought back to Ireland in 1933. It was from the off-spring of Hibou, Shu-ssa and Lung-fu-ssa that all the Taishan (Lady Brownrigg's prefix) Shih Tzu were descended, as are so many of our present day dogs. The weight of all these 3 dogs were known to be within the range of 12-15 lbs which she considered to be the ideal weight. There must have been great excitement when Shu-ssa, Hibou and Lung-fu-ssa were exhibited tachi.jpgat WELKS for the first time in 1933. They were in a class with other dogs from Tibet. One could see straight away the difference between the Tibetan Lion Dogs which Colonel and Mrs. Bailey had imported from Tibet. These were narrower in skull and had longer noses. These were eventually known and loved as Lhasa Apso. Other Tibetan dogs slightly larger with longer legs are known as Tibetan Terriers. The Tibetan Lion Dog Club was formed and the Brownrigg's were instrumental in preparing the first breed standard. By 1934 the breed was separated from the other small hairy dogs of oriental origin and by 1935 the name of the Club had changed to the Shih Tzu Club. Shu-ssa was exhibited at Crufts in 1936 where she went B.O.B. The breed as we all know it went from strength to strength with over 100 registered in 1939. They were granted their own register in 1940. Up to then Lady Brownrigg bred 14 litters. The Taishan Shih Tzu made their own contribution to the war effort as the combings from their coat were gathered up and made into knitting wool. After the war she carried on the good Shih Tzu work as Secretary of the Shih Tzu Club and through her breeding and exhibiting. The first 2 Shih Tzu to gain their titles were both owned by Lady Brownrigg, in 1947 Ch. Ta Chi of Taishan and Ch Yo Mo of Chunang of Boydon the latter bred by Mrs H Moulton.

A Chance Encounter 

It was when Lady Brownrigg's cook Mrs Doig was exercising 8 of the Shih Tzu in Thurloe Square inwiddringtonbrownrigg.jpg London that a lady called Gay Garforth-Bles, later Gay Widdrington, saw Shih Tzu for the first time. This was in 1939. Gay bought her first Shih Tzu from Lady Brownrigg shortly after sighting them. This was a black and white bitch puppy called Mee-Na of Taishan. She was only bought as a companion, but this puppy set her off on a course that would lead her to become one of the best known figures in the breed. Even today wherever in the world people gather to talk Shih Tzu you can be sure they all know the name Lhakang. Gay admits she was somewhat casual in her breeding programme in the early days, as a result Mee-Na's first litter was after a liaison with a Dachshund which she never admitted to Lady Brownrigg until much later. Gay's outstanding contribution to the Shih Tzu development has been through her breeding programme, never fearing to introduce new bloodlines to widen the gene pool but always cleverly breeding back into her own line thereafter, thus preserving the best from the very earliest strain that came to England. In 1989 she bred a litter using frozen semen imported from Norway, doing this specifically in order to counteract what she regarded as a potential danger from an hereditary problem in the breed, the ever increasing umbilical hernias. Sadly the Kennel Club did not agree to register this litter, so it has never served the purpose Gay had in mind. But this shows the efforts this dedicated lady had in the advancement of the Shih Tzu.

Development Of The Breed In The UK 

In the post war years Gay helped with the development of the Shih Tzu Club. Later in the 1950's she was involved in the formation of a second club namely the Manchu Shih Tzu Society. Gay's aim was to promote Shih Tzu at the smaller end of the standard range. The Kennel Club did not agree to the division of the breed into two sizes so the Manchu was given official status only on condition that it promoted welfare of all sizes of Shih Tzu - as it does to the present day. Lhakang remains the longest established kennel of Shih Tzu to date, a record that will be hard to beat.

Later on a breeder of Pekinese, Freda Evans of the Elfann prefix, acquired two Shih Tzu. She decided that what the breed needed was the introduction of the Peke blood and so it was that she carried out the famous (or infamous) Peke cross in October 1952. The fact that the cross had been carried out by a newcomer to the breed and without consultation with the Breed Club seemed to have caused a great deal of bad feeling, especially as it was not generally agreed that the faults Miss Evans was seeking to correct were particularly bad in the breed as it then stood. These included being too big and leggy, having too much length of nose and bad pigment. Four generations down the line the Kennel Club accepted these as pure bred Shih Tzu, although it is interesting to note that in the U.S.A. Shih Tzu were not accepted as such until seven generations after the initial cross. Today the vast majority of British Shih Tzu carry the Peke cross far back in their pedigrees.

In some ways breeding to type in the early pioneer days must have been easier, since the sole aim of those concerned was to improve the breed, and was watched over as previously stated by Lady Brownrigg. Whenever possible, puppies were placed with people who would breed or show, and faulty dogs were sold cheaply as pets. Sometimes points which are not nowadays regarded as faults were then considered undesirable, and however good the animal was it would then be sold as a pet. One example of this was to show the white cornea of the eye, which was referred to as a squint, it was not considered good to show any white. A dog or bitch can be outstanding for its show quality or for its breeding quality. Frequently both are combined, but this is not always so. A dog has a far better chance of being labelled as influential than has a bitch, for it has greater opportunities to beget the most puppies, and for the stud dog to be outstanding it needs to sire good stock to many, and even to some indifferent bitches. A mediocre bitch can appear to be outstanding when she produces fine puppies to an outstanding dog, but if she can produce good puppies to indifferent dogs then her good influence is manifest. Most of the credit invariably goes to the dog rather than to a bitch, but then he usually gets any blame too.

There have been many excellent small kennels, which didn't have the same opportunities to achieve fame as the larger establishments, but they continued to produce sound quality stock. Most kennels in this breed are not very large, since the amount of attention required by the Shih Tzu makes it impracticable to keep large numbers.

Top Kennels 

The 1950s and 60s were something of a golden age for the Shih Tzu in Britain. Although Lady Brownrigg was no longer so active in the breed, both Gay Widdrington and Freda Evans continued so there was continuity from the early days. Amongst the English kennels that entered the breed during this period, three in particular have been important, not only because of the quality of the dogs they bred and owned but also because of the influence of their stock overseas, and their dedication to the breed right up to recent times.

For those new to the phraseology of the dog world, kennels refers to breeders not the commercial establishments that make a living from selling and boarding dogs - in fact, all the three of the kennels I will mention briefly, keep or have kept their dogs in a domestic situation. These are the Antarctica kennel of Betty and Ken Rawlings, Jeanne and Arnold Leadbitter's Greenmoss and Audrey Dadds' Snaefell. All these breeders have earned their place in the history of the breed both by the length of time over which they played a part, and by their significant contribution to the welfare of the Shih Tzu through their support for the breed clubs. The Antarctica kennel of Ken and Betty Rawlings has been one of the most successful in the history of the breed in Britain exhibiting winning dogs for over thirty years, making up their first champion in 1963 and their last in 1996. Jeanne and Arnold Leadbitter have not only had great success in the show ring themselves, but have contributed to the success of kennels in other countries where the Greenmoss Shih Tzu have been imported. Their first Champion was made up in 1964 and their last in 1992. The name of Audrey Dadds and her Snaefell prefix is known to Shih Tzu enthusiasts across the world not only for the quality of her dogs, which have been successful in Europe and as far afield as Australia and South Africa, but also for her prolific writing of the breed. She was always willing to give her time and advice to help a new owner. She made up her first champion in 1963 and her last was at Bournemouth in 2003. Together with Taishan, Lhakang and Elfann, the kennel names of Antarctica, Greenmoss and Snaefell will be found behind many of the Shih Tzu across the world today. Anyone who searches through the names at the back of his or her dog's pedigree will be very likely to find one or more of these names or a more recent kennel founded on their dogs.

Gaining Popularity 

From about 1970 onwards the most potent influence on the Shih Tzu was no longer that of one individual breeder but the effect of the growing popularity of the breed itself. The increase in numbers and the popularity has also led to more and more clubs being formed to promote the well-being of the Shih Tzu. Besides the Shih Tzu Club and the Manchu Shih Tzu Society there are now three regional clubs - the Northern Counties Shih Tzu Club, the Shih Tzu Club of Scotland and the Shih Tzu Club of South Wales and Western Counties, plus one in Ireland.

In the show ring the increased popularity of the breed led to much stiffer competition and has attracted skilled exhibitors from other breeds, who have brought new standards of presentation with them. It is probably in the area of coat preparation and care that the greatest changes have taken place over the last twenty years. Entries remained high throughout the 80's and 90's and the introduction of the pet passport and associated relaxation of quarantine restrictions have seen a rise in imports, especially from Europe and North America. The breed itself remains popular although show entries are lower. Although registrations have declined in the last 10 years, in 2023 there were half as many as 2013, Shih Tzu are just outside the top 20 in terms of overall breed popularity. Most Shih Tzu breeders now aren't exhibitors. Reaching out to these breeders to help educate them about essential Shih Tzu characteristics is probably the largest challenge breed organisations face in the coming years if we are to keep this little dog the unique dog we have enjoyed to date.