The Chinese Imperial Dog is a breed of companion dog. The breed is the source of immense debate among Chinese Imperial Dog fanciers, Shih Tzu fanciers, major kennel clubs, veterinarians, and canine experts. Chinese Imperial Dog fanciers and a few rare breed kennel clubs insist that the dog is a unique breed, while most other dog experts claim that it is nothing more than a size variant of the Shih Tzu. There is also a dispute over the breed’s origins, with some claiming that the dog has existed for centuries and others claiming that the breed is a very modern creation, having only been developed over the last 50 or so years. Regardless of the breed’s true status, it is virtually identical to the Shih Tzu in all aspects other than its considerably smaller size. The Chinese Imperial Dog is also known as the Chinese Imperial Shih Tzu, Imperial Shih Tzu, Miniature Shih Tzu, Teacup Shih Tzu, and Tiny Toy Shih Tzu.
There are two competing theories as to the Chinese Imperial Dog’s history. The Chinese Imperial Dog Club of America (CIDCA) and many breed fanciers insist that this breed has existed for centuries in China. They claim that the breed was considered to be distinct from the Shih Tzu in China, due to its smaller size. There is supposedly a tapestry dating to before the birth of Christ depicting a Pekingese a Shih Tzu and a Chinese Imperial Dog which the CIDCA claims is definitive proof that the Chinese Imperial Dog has been in existence for over 2000 years. In the opinion of this author, that tapestry is not nearly so conclusive and the dog’s depicted on it are not definitely distinguishable as those three modern breeds.
Breed fanciers convinced of the Chinese Imperial Dogs uniqueness and ancient history point out that the Chinese Imperial Dog was only allowed to be kept by the Chinese nobility and to receive one as a gift was a great honor. This, however is far from conclusive evidence of the dogs ancient origins as similar statuses were granted to the Shih Tzu, Pekingese, Lhasa Apso, Hapa Dog, and Pug. One of the greatest Chinese dog fanciers was the Dowager Empress Cixi, one of China’s last monarchs. The Dowager Empress and the rulers that followed her gave many small Chinese palace dogs to foreign dignitaries as gifts. Most of these dogs went to England, the United States, and the Netherlands where they formed the basis of the Shih Tzu breed. The CIDCA claims that a number of Chinese Imperial Dogs were given away as gifts as well. Because Westerners were unaware that the two breeds were different, they lumped the Chinese Imperial Dogs in with the Shih Tzu’s as one breed. Allegedly, largely pureblooded lines of Chinese Imperial Dogs were maintained in Australia and the Netherlands. These lines were then imported to the United States where the AKC refused to recognize them as anything other than Shih Tzus. While these claims may be true, this author was unable to find any independent verification or evidence to support them. The Chinese nobility surely bred very small dogs, but it isn’t clear that they considered them to be separate breeds. For example, the famous sleeve Pekingese, which were so small they were carried around in sleeves, were still considered Pekingese. In the opinion of this author, there were probably very small Shih Tzus for many centuries in China, but they were not considered a different breed. Additionally, even if the Chinese Imperial Dog was considered a separate breed at one point, over the centuries it has been completely subsumed into the modern Shih Tzu breed.
The second theory for the breed’s origin holds that it was developed over the last 50 or so years in the United States. The Shih Tzu first gained widespread popularity in the United States in the 1960’s. As is the case with most small companion dogs, certain fanciers wanted to develop the smallest examples. These breeders began to breed Shih Tzus that were very small in size. Eventually, the small size became an inherent trait in some lines, lines that gave rise to the Chinese Imperial Dog.
At some point in the 1980’s and 1990’s, breeders of the small Shih Tzu lines began advertising their dogs as Miniature Shih Tzus, Teacup Shih Tzus, and Tiny Toy Shih Tzus. It was at this point that the American Shih Tzu Club (ASTC) started having problems with the breeders of the smaller Shih Tzus. As is the case with all AKC recognized breeds the Shih Tzu has a written breed standard. This standard is supposed to represent the ideal breed member that all breeders should try to produce. The Shih Tzu standard is very specific on size, stating that all Shih Tzus should stand between 8 and 11 inches at the shoulder and weigh between 9 and 16 pounds. This standard is based on the breed’s original standard which was developed by the Peking Kennel Club in the 1930’s. The goal of the ASTC is to continue to produce Shih Tzus which most closely follow that standard. The Chinese Imperial Dog is much smaller and therefore does not follow the standard. The ASTC attacked breeders of smaller Shih Tzus for producing animals that did not closely match the standard, and the American Kennel Club essentially backed up their position by penalizing and/or disqualifying the smaller Shih Tzus in the show ring. This made it impossible for the Chinese Imperial Dogs (aka Miniature Shih Tzus, Teacup Shih Tzus, and Tiny Toy Shih Tzus) to win championships. Other major kennel clubs such as the Federation Cynologique Internationale (FCI) and the United Kennel Club (UKC) and the various Shih Tzu breed clubs associated with those organizations acted in much the same way. Admittedly, the ASTC was equally concerned about the health and reputation of the Shih Tzu breed as well as standards. Many, but far from all, breeders of tiny Shih Tzu’s were primarily motivated by profit because smaller dogs often sold for significantly higher prices. These for-profit breeders often cared little for temperament and health, and produced low-quality dogs. Although there were many breeders of Chinese Imperial Dogs that were very reputable and genuinely cared for the health and temperament of their dogs, there are substantial concerns about these animals as well. The veterinary community is very concerned about the health of Teacup and Tiny Toy sized dogs. Dogs below a certain size usually have severe health problems, problems which are common to extremely small Toy Poodles, Yorkshire Terriers, Chihuahuas, and other breeds.
The dispute between the ASTC and the breeders of Chinese Imperial Dogs became increasingly virulent. The debates became incredibly nasty and personal, and ruined many relationships. Eventually a group of Chinese Imperial Dog breeders decided to break off from the AKC in order to develop an entirely separate breed. In 2000, the CIDCA was founded to organize breeders and fanciers of the Chinese Imperial Dog and to promote and protect the breed. In 2005, the National Canine Association (NCA) became the first breed club to recognize the Chinese Imperial Dog as a unique breed, followed in 2006 by the United All Breeds Registry (UABR), and the National Kennel Club (NKC). The breed has also been recognized internationally by the International Progressive Dog Breeders Association (IPDBA). In 2008, the Chinese Imperial Dog Registry of America (CIDRA) was founded to keep the official Chinese Imperial Dog studbook. Currently, the CIDCA and CIDRA are recruiting as many breeders and owners of Chinese Imperial Dogs as possible to their organizations, in order to ensure the largest possible gene pool for their dogs.
Even as the CIDCA continues to grow and more and more multiple breed registries grant full recognition to the Chinese Imperial Dog, the stance of the ASTC and other kennel clubs remains unchanged. Most claim that there is no such thing as a Chinese Imperial Dog and that if it exists it is nothing more than a poorly bred Shih Tzu. These positions will probably soften over time as more and more Chinese Imperial Dog fanciers separate their dogs completely from Shih Tzu lines therefore reducing any threats to the Shih Tzu breed standard. Although the debate continues to rage over the true nature of the Chinese Imperial Dog, the dog’s loyal and dedicated fanciers will continue to push towards universal acceptance of the breed as a unique and distinctive breed.
The Chinese Imperial Dog is almost identical in appearance to the Shih Tzu, differing mainly in size and the head’s size relative to the body. This is a very tiny dog. The Chinese Imperial Dog is approximately half the size of a Shih Tzu. Breed members ideally stand less than 8½ inches tall at the shoulder, and are disqualified if they stand more than 9 inches. Breed members in good condition should weigh between 4 and 7 pounds. The head of the Chinese Imperial Dog is much larger in proportion to its body size than that of the Shih Tzu, in some animals almost to the point of being unnatural looking. The round eyes of this breed are also considerably larger in proportion to body size, making many breed members almost look like children’s toys.
The Chinese Imperial Dog is essentially identical to that of the Shih Tzu, but this breed is much less well-suited to living with young children. This is not due to any unique behavioral feature but rather the fact that this dog is so small and delicate that even adults are easily injured accidentally.
It does not appear that any health studies have been conducted on the Chinese Imperial Dog specifically, which makes it impossible to make any definitive statements about the breed as a unique entity. However, thousands of Chinese Imperial Dogs have been included in Shih Tzu health surveys so any health information about the Shih Tzu is likely to apply to the Chinese Imperial Dog as well. The health of this breed is a source of immense contention. The ASTC claims that Chinese Imperial Dogs are usually very unhealthy, and the CIDCA claims that their dogs are usually in very good health. Due to the lack of dedicated health surveys it is impossible to say which side is correct. A sizable majority of the veterinary community is probably in agreement with the ASTC based on previous experience with other Teacup –sized dogs. However, the Chinese Imperial Dog is significantly larger than many other Teacup variants such as the Teacup Chihuahua and the Teacup Yorkshire Terrier and may not be as prone to health problems as those breeds.
Because skeletal and visual problems are known to occur in this breed it is highly advisable for owners to have their pets tested by both the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF). The OFA and CERF perform genetic and other tests to identify potential health defects before they show up. This is especially valuable in the detection of conditions that do not show up until the dog has reached an advanced age, making it especially important for anyone considering breeding their dog to have them tested to prevent the spread of potential genetic conditions to its offspring.
The Chinese Imperial Dog is very closely related to the Shih Tzu and suffers from all of the same health problems at similar rates. However, this breed is known to be more susceptible to a number of conditions than the Shih Tzu including: