A Beginner's Guide to Examining & Judging the Shih Tzu

By Joe Walton

Judging the Shih Tzu can be a challenging task for the newly approved breed judge. Because the Shih Tzu is a heavily coated breed, one must take extra care during the hands on examination. During the gaiting, confusion can arise because of the flowing coat which can create illusions both positive and negative. And lastly, what one finds in the ring is often quite different from what was learned in seminars, and study groups. Often in these sessions, one only sees good examples of the breed. The reality of judging is that most of the time one has to pass judgment on, shall we say, less than stellar examples of the breed.

What then are the most important characteristics to keep in mind while judging these beautiful dogs? One is the head. The head should be large in proportion to the body. We have lost size in heads, and what is more alarming is that most dogs’ heads are nearly flat between the ears. There should be good “doming” above the eyes and between the ears. The head should be ROUND when viewed from the front or from the side. The muzzle should be broad, and square from the front, and perpendicular when viewed from the side. The nostrils should be wide open. The teeth ideally are straight, but the width of the jaw (per the standard) is more important than slightly misaligned teeth or a missing tooth. Many years ago Jay Ammon described the “Persian Kitten” syndrome in the breed, as a look in which the face is small with the muzzle pinched, with small nose leather, and the entire muzzle turned up. The Shih Tzu should NEVER give that impression when viewed straight on. There should be good bone, good substance (referred to many times in the standard); good spring of rib; and long luxurious “double coat”. The eyes are large and as dark as possible; set wide apart with the bridge of the nose no lower than the bottom of the eye sockets. The nose leather (not length) should be large and black with wide open nostrils. If you must choose between “down faced” or a nose placed too high, choose the latter. The eyes should be large, round, and dark, with as little eye white as possible. The Shih Tzu should have a broad lower jaw with reverse scissors bite.

Many newer judges are hesitant to thoroughly examine the head of the Shih Tzu for fear of “messing up the grooming”. It is not difficult to examine the Shih Tzu’s head thoroughly without disturbing the grooming at all. To examine the head, cup the head with your hands and fingers behind the ears. With your thumbs, check the ear set to see if the ears are set just below the crown of the head, and to see if there is “doming between the ears. Use either thumb to determine the depth of the stop and the length of the nose. Using either thumb, push inward on the topknot (between the bow, and the stop) to see if there is sufficient skull forward. Often the skull falls away above the eyes, with practically no fore skull. Run both thumbs down each side of the muzzle and mustache to determine the width. Using either hand hold down on the beard below the lower lip, and push the lips upward with the other to examine the bite. The mouth should be a reverse scissors bite. This means the upper incisors are inside the lower. When perfect the incisors just touch. The amount of “undershotness” is not important as long as the teeth and tongue do not show. The width of the jaw is more important than misaligned or a missing tooth. Check the muzzle from the side to see if it is perpendicular, and not swept (laid) back).

The remainder of the physical examination, of the Shih Tzu is like that of most other breeds. When examining the coat texture, feel the coat between your fingers, to determine the texture. Do not massage (stroke) the coat back and forth along the spine. Lay the tail back to see if it is set on high. Also determine whether the tail lays flat on the back, or is more like a teapot handle. There should be room for you to slide you hand between the tail and the dog’s back when the tail curs over the side. The tail is set on high; arching well over the back, and not carried tightly over the side of the dog or lying flat on the back. Step back to determine the shape of the dog. The Shih Tzu should be only slightly longer than tall (leggy-ness is a fault); neck length is not mentioned in the standard, but a Shih Tzu should have enough neck to balance with the arch of the tail. Color (parti-colored, solid any color, black and white, or having a dark face) is of no importance, as all colors and marking are equal.

Movement in Shih Tzu should be the same as for any soundly moving dog. The head should be carried high. The standard refers to a “distinctly arrogant carriage”. There is absolutely no mention in the standard about length of neck. The standard requires that the Shih Tzu have arrogant carriage. In order for a Shih Tzu to carry its head high (without being “strung up”), it must have good shoulder layback. Moving away from you, you should see two black pads. The Shih Tzu should cover ground but is not to be raced. Per the standard “the Shih Tzu moves straight and must be shown at its own natural speed, neither raced nor strung-up”. Enough tension on the lead to guide the Shih Tzu is appropriate.

Temperament in judging a Shih Tzu should never be an issue. This is a happy breed, which would rather kiss you than have you examine it. A bit of happy “naughtiness” should be expected. Please do not expect the Shih Tzu to be a robot.

Please judge the Shih Tzu by the standard, and not the group it is placed in. Frequently, judges ask me if Shih Tzu are getting too big. I always ask what they mean by big? Shih Tzu are frequently tall and leggy (a fault) BUT many, many of them have little or no body and are too fine boned. Breeders and judges should remember that most everywhere else in the world the Shih Tzu in NOT in the Toy Group. The Shih Tzu has not been bred down from some other combination of breeds. The Shih Tzu should be the third heaviest breed in the toy group, right behind the Pug, and the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Many years ago, we always talked about the Shih Tzu being “surprisingly heavy for its size”. The standard says the ideal weight for a Shih Tzu should be 9 to 16 lbs. The majority of dogs being shown today are between 8 and 11 pounds. My answer to those asking are they are not getting too big is NO. Most old time breeders would like to see Shih Tzu, regardless of sex, in the 12 to 15 pound range. In reality, most Shih Tzu today are too small, lacking bone and substance. A nine pound male “special” is just too small. Recently, a breeder judge told me about showing a nine pound male champion special. There is nothing “special” about a nine pound female, let alone a nine pound MALE. A Shih Tzu can be small in stature (height) and still carry good substance and bone. Many years ago, Elfreda Evans in England did the very controversial “Peke Cross”. She bred a Ch. Pekingese male to a Shih Tzu bitch. Why? Because the Shih Tzu were getting too leggy, too slab sided, too fine boned, and were losing head size. After three generations of breeding the progeny back to Shih Tzu, the Kennel Club recognized them as pure bred Shih Tzu again. Maybe that is where we are today. The brachycephalic head shape is the hardest shape to maintain. The tendency is for canine heads to become smaller and to lengthen, with longer muzzles.

The standard is a good standard, explicit and easy to understand. It is very frustrating as a breeder/judge to attempt to judge by the standard and not be able to because of so much divergence from the standard. Judges can not change breeding programs only breeders can. It appears that either many breeders do not understand the standard or disregard the standard in favor of what they prefer, or think they can win with. Breeders can only choose “preferences” within the parameters of the standard. If breeders don’t like the standard, they have two choices; one, to change the standard (not a choice in my estimation) or go to a different breed. Just as with any other breed standard, judges do not have the right to say “I don’t care what the standard says, I like . . .” It is very frustrating and confusing when prospective judges are told one thing in seminars, study groups and tutoring and then can not apply what they have learned when in the ring. Judges, and especially breeders MUST judge and breed by the standard. Here are five quotes from the standard:

GENERAL APPEARANCE - The Shih Tzu MUST be “compact, solid, carrying good weight and substance”

SUBSTANCE - Regardless of size, the Shih Tzu is always “compact, solid and carries good weight and substance”

BODY - Short-coupled and “sturdy” with no waist nor tuck-up

CHEST - “Broad and deep with good spring of rib”, but not barrel-chested

FOREQUARTERS, HINDQUARTERS - LEGS - “Straight, well-boned”.

I have heard others say that a Shih Tzu can not have straight legs if it has proper rib spring. Tell me why then can a Pug have straight legs? Further, if a Shih Tzu does not have much rib spring, then it should be even easier to have straight front legs.

This has undoubtedly been a lot for you to absorb at one time, but do not worry. With time and practice you will be able to quickly and efficiently perform a thorough examination without messing a hair, and the exhibitor will very quickly be able to tell that you do understand the essence of the breed.


This article was first published in the April 2008 issue of Top Notch Toys. Joe Walton and his wife Bobbi began exhibiting Shih Tzu under the Shen Wah prefix in the early 1970s; to date they have finished more than 78 champions, including two all-breed BIS winners. Joe began judging in 1987 and is licensed to judge the AKC Hound, Terrier, Toy, and Non-Sporting Groups. The current president of the ASTC, he has held many offices in the national club. He was the first chair of the ASTC Judges Education Committee, served on the 1989 breed standard revision committee, and was a member of the committee that produced the Illustrated Guide to the Shih Tzu Standard. Joe has judged and presented seminars throughout the world and served as annual seminar chair for the Dog Judges Association of America. Past president of the Toy Dog Fanciers of Southern California, he was for many years Show Chairman of the Santa Ana Valley Kennel Club and served as Toy and Non-Sporting Group education coordinator of the Los Angeles Area Dog Judges Educational Association.