By Laurie Semple
The Shih Tzu breed standard is very specific when it talks about temperament. It states: “As the sole purpose of the Shih Tzu is that of a companion and house pet, it is essential that its temperament be outgoing, happy, affectionate, friendly and trusting towards all.” As responsible exhibitors and breeders, we are the guardians of our breed, and soundness of mind, along with soundness of body is of utmost importance.
Until I started doing rescue in my area, I assumed that all Shih Tzu had the happy, trusting nature that I’d come to take for granted. I soon found out that dogs that were indiscriminately bred suffered from more than just structural and health problems. Their temperaments also suffered greatly. Of course, early socialization is an important factor, along with a healthy and loving environment. Taking puppies away from their dam at too early an age can have a negative impact, but I am convinced that a very large percentage of what forms a dog’s temperament is inherited. While experts differ on the percentages, they do agree that inheritance plays a major role, even more so than environment.
Over the years, I have observed little behavioral habits and quirks in my own dogs that I recall seeing in generations before. For example, the tendency to take a bit of kibble or a biscuit and toss it around, pouncing on it until it is “dead” before eating it, is something I have observed in dogs I had many years ago, and I am now seeing the same behavior in some of their great-grandchildren. There are also those who enjoy digging in weird places, those who stand on their hind legs and wave both front paws in the air – other traits that they inherited from their parents or grandparents.
In light of this, it is apparent to me that many traits, including negative ones such as fear of the unknown, sensitivity to loud noises, and wariness of strangers are inherited behavioral traits. Please, let us use caution when choosing our breeding stock, because future generations can be greatly impacted by the temperament of the dogs we select. Just as we would never want to breed a dog that is unsound in structure, the same must hold true of a dog that is unsound in mind.
It is easy to make excuses for a dog that is shy in the show ring or walks around at a show with its tail down and reacts fearfully to strange noises. I’ve heard them all. “He had a bad experience.” Or, “I didn’t have opportunities to socialize him,” or, “he just needs time.” It is possible that many of us wait too long to begin socialization. Some problems are due to this, and a lack of exposure to noises while still young. A frightening event could also be a factor. However, a dog that does not begin to recover from its fear after a few good experiences is one that may have an undesirable temperament. A true Shih Tzu by nature is very resilient and extremely forgiving of frightening occurrences. By virtue of that naturally outgoing attitude, the Shih Tzu normally requires only a small amount of socialization before it is able to happily face the world. It is my hope that breeders and judges alike will do their best to ensure that it remains that way.
This article first appeared in the June 2006 AKC Gazette. Author Laurie Semple, who died in May 2008, was involved in Shih Tzu for 37 years and bred and or owned about 25 Shih Tzu champions. At the time of her death she was president of the Shih Tzu Club of Northern New Jersey and an active member of the ASTC Education Committee. For much of her life, she was deeply involved with Shih Tzu rescue.