Why Is My Shih Tzu So Aggressive?

You wouldn’t think that a cute little dog such as a shih tzu could have an aggressive side to its character and for most of the time you would be right. There is, however, a small percentage that do develop an aggressive streak, the severity of which can vary. If you do have an aggressive shih tzu it is essential that you take action to correct this bad behaviour before his aggression causes injury to himself, other dogs or people. It is important not to make the mistake of thinking everything will be okay if you just carry on and work around his aggression.

Charlie being cute, any aggression trained out of him at the puppy stage.

Then, why is my shih tzu so aggressive?

Shih tzu aggression can manifest itself from several causes, which I will go into in a moment but the honest answer to “Why is my shih tzu so aggressive?” is, despite the immediate reason for the anger, in most cases, albeit in all probability inadvertently, it is you, the owner, or the previous owners if you have a rescue or adopted shih tzu, who shoulders the burden of blame.

“How can this be?”, I hear you ask. Well, quite frankly, by loving your baby a little too much. If you act on your instinct and cuddle and pet your shih tzu when he has behaved inappropriately you are in fact, in his mind, endorsing his behaviour to the extent that he will think this is the right way to behave. The situation is worsened if you then also allow his good behaviour to pass by unrewarded. This needs to be turned on its head, you need to think like a dog, ignore your shih tzu when he behaves badly and make a fuss over him when he behaves well.

The leader of the pack

Which brings us on to the most common cause of shih tzu aggression – small dog syndrome, a condition brought about if the owner of a shih tzu, or any of the small breed dogs, gives in to his dog’s demands all of the time. This pandering gives the dog delusions of grandeur and he thinks he is leader of the pack, the pack being all of the humans in the home including his owner.

While your shih tzu is under the spell of small dog syndrome he may react with aggression to any attempt, however benignly intended, to approach him or try and handle him or, worse still try to grab his toy or food, all of which he will see as an attempt to usurp his assumed position of pack leader. This aggression can be anything from a growl to a nip to a ferocious bite drawing blood.

Why Is My Shih Tzu So Aggressive?
Courtesy of Isselee Dreamstime ID:14762428

Small dog syndrome needs to be addressed before it gets out of hand. All human members of the household and any visitors need to assert themselves as higher ranking pack members above that of the shih tzu. You as the owner have to demonstrate to your shih tzu that it is you that is pack leader and not he; your shih tzu must accept this.

A shih tzu will only become even more aggressive if you try to punish him by shouting at him or hitting him; this is not the correct course of action, it will just teach him that aggression is the right way. Any misbehaving such as aggressive barking, jumping at or on people or climbing up on any furniture needs to be punished in a calm and collected manner with a period of isolation, if possible, in a separate room or gated off area where the shih tzu can see that he is being ignored. After a few minutes or when he calms down he should be let back into the mainstream. This process has to be repeated every time aggressive behaviour is demonstrated. Eventually he will learn that his aggressive ways and misapprehensions are not getting him what he wants and as long as his good behaviour is consistently rewarded he will choose the more tranquil and friendly way of existence.

Perhaps your shih tzu’s aggression is not the result of small dog syndrome. It could be due to other causes.

Too much surplus energy 

Aggression can come out from the frustration and boredom of not having enough exercise. All of his pent up energy has to be released somehow. If this is true for your shih tzu then the obvious answer is to take him out more. A young shih tzu needs at least two walks a day of a minimum length of twenty minutes, preferably one walk early in the morning and the other just before dusk. See my post “How Often Should You Walk a Shih Tzu” for more detailed information.

Problem puppy mouthing 

When your shih tzu is at the puppy stage he has an instinct to play with his litter siblings by holding mouthing and nipping contests, nature’s way of preparing him for possible real future conflicts. When he is taken away from his litter then you become his sparring partner. If this mouthing and nipping continues into adulthood, at around fourteen months, this behaviour can escalate into full scale biting that is severe enough to draw blood.

The remedy for this behaviour, you will be glad to know, is quite simple. It doesn’t involve shouting commands at your dog or holding his muzzle closed as suggested by some trainers but is much more effective. This method goes along with what I have said earlier about not treating aggression with aggression and ignoring bad behaviour. For this to work your shih tzu must be wearing his harness with lead attached. When he begins to mouth you, turn your back on him and step on his lead so that he cannot move and remains isolated behind you. After a couple of minutes or so when he has calmed down, let him go. If he starts mouthing again, repeat the process. Pretty soon he’ll realize that his mouthing behaviour will only end up with him being on his own, something no shih tzu wants to be, and he’ll stop doing it. Make his good behaviour a pleasurable experience for him by rewarding him with petting, stroking and cuddling, perhaps a treat as well. It will remain in his mind: “mouthing = bad times, behaving = good times”.

This method can also be employed to treat small dog syndrome instead of placing him in isolation. As with all training, this method is easier to administer at the puppy stage but can also be drummed into older dogs with a little more persistence on your part.

You can read more on this in my article on “How To Stop A Shih Tzu Puppy From Biting“.

Possessive aggression 

Your shih tzu may be aggressive because he is possessive over his territory, toys, bedding, food or all of these. Possessive aggression is easily rectified at feeding time.

Place his empty feeding bowl in front of your shih tzu and then put in a by hand a few morsels of his favourite food, making sure your clenched hand is in front of his nose before releasing the payload. As he finishes the first handful food, place in the bowl a second handful, pushing your shih tzu out of the way if necessary. When he is used to you doing this, add the next handful while there are still one or two morsels left in the dish, again pushing him out of the way if necessary. Then progress to actually taking out those one or two morsels as you add the contents of your hand. These actions will convince your shih tzu that you and your hand can be trusted near his bowl and that you are always going to give him more than you take away. He will no longer growl or snap at you when you approach him or his food bowl. He should now trust you near his possessions but if he still doesn’t you can use a similar strategy to put this right.

It is important to address shih tzu aggression.
Courtesy of Swapan Banik Dreamstime ID: 115899360

Aggression in rescue shih tzu 

If you have a rescue shih tzu he may show aggression out of fear caused by a past where he was abused or had a traumatic experience. Dogs with such a history can, in certain situations, feel trapped or cornered which causes them to panic and lash out in an attempt to escape. Whatever happened in the past is etched into their minds so severely that the only thing the owners can do themselves is to avoid the situations that trigger the aggressive behaviour. To actually make any headway into reducing the aggression displayed by such dogs is to enlist the help of a dog behavioural specialist. When consulting such a specialist it helps to provide as much information about the dog’s past as you can.

Shih tzu aggression from medical conditions 

If your shih tzu has no history of aggression but has now suddenly started becoming irritable and aggressive then this could be due to an underlying health problem that is causing pain and distress, in which case you will need to consult with your veterinary surgeon. Older dogs may become aggressive due to the distress caused by losing their hearing or vision; all you can do is to help them through this trauma with love and care the best you can.

The bottom line on shih tzu aggression 

To sum up, if your shih tzu is showing aggressive traits you need to do something about it as soon as possible preferably while he is still a puppy; if he is older you will have to work harder. Failure to take action could have serious consequences. Decide what is causing the aggression and apply the appropriate remedial action. With persistence and application you can both beat the problem.

I hope you have found this information useful. Please leave a comment or use our contact us form if you have any shih tzu related questions you would like to discuss.

12 thoughts on “Why Is My Shih Tzu So Aggressive?

  1. Hi,
    I’m hoping you can offer some advise about our 9 month, female Shih Tzu. She’s the youngest of our four dogs, and she recently started showing jealousy in the form aggression. She gets particularly upset when one of our other dogs approach us to snuggle and if my husband and I begin to hug or kiss. When this happens, our sweet little girl turns into a mean little monster. She will growl and snap at the dog/person advancing for snuggle time. Do you have any recommendations how to make this stop?

    1. Hello Leah.
      I had a similar problem with Charlie at that age when I would pet Bruno.
      Your girl is it the age where she pushes the boundaries to find her place in the pack and if you let her go on with such behavior she will start thinking that her place in the pack is number one, so you need to teach her that what she is doing is wrong.
      My first suggestion is that when she starts to show her aggressive behavior just turn your back on her and totally ignore her. All family members must ignore her. No shih tzu likes to be alone and eventually she will learn that it is her bad behavior which is causing her isolation.
      It is equally important that after you do this and after she has been quiet for at least five minutes, that you give her some praise and petting, perhaps even a treat as well. This will reinforce her thinking that staying calm will be rewarded.
      If turning your back on her doesn’t work, try putting her on “time-out”, that is section of a part of the room where she is trapped but can still see you, other family members and the other dogs.
      Again, she must be totally ignored by all until she has been calm for at least five minutes when you can praise and reward her again.
      You will have to perform this action a few times before it sinks in and you may have to increase the interval between the calming down and the rewarding if she starts being aggressive again straight away.
      I hope that this will help.
      Best wishes,
      Shih Tzu Steve.

  2. Hi our 3 year old Shih Tzu has developed very aggressive behaviour which is difficult to describe and distressing. One minute he starts growling and snarling if you approach him and will even try and bite, then in the next instance he suddenly becomes loving and cuddly again with a wagging tail. I’ve tried making him sit and wait for food, sit and wait for his lead before going for a walk. I’ve had large breeds of dogs before which didn’t show the slightest aggression even under difficult circumstances so I’m finding this hard to deal with.

    1. Hello, Greg.
      My Charlie is 3 years old too and I had a similar problem with him a few months back. Under certain circumstances, he would growl and snap at people, including me, but at other times he would be very affectionate and attention-seeking.
      I managed to stop his bad behavior by doing two things.
      First, whenever he started his angry growling I would carefully pick him up (from behind to reduce the chances of him being able to bite me) and place him on his own in a dark bathroom and close the door. Ideally, when your shih tzu does this, you should isolate him, either by gating him off somewhere nearby or by placing him in a crate, where he can see everyone. In my case, it was just more practical to place Charlie in the bathroom.
      When you have isolated your shih tzu, it is important that everyone completely ignores him. Shih tzu thrive on human company and hate being on their own. After he has been quiet for a few minutes you can set him free again.
      Repeat this every time and eventually, your shih tzu will come to associate his bad behavior with this, what is for him, unpleasant experience and stop the growling and snarling.
      Secondly, you have to make it clear to your shih tzu that any praise and attention will be given on your terms and not his.
      When he comes to you seeking attention, turn your back on him and ignore him, no matter how much he persists. Wait until he has been quiet for a few minutes, then call him over and pet and praise him. You could also bring in the “sit’ command in here before you call him over if you want.
      Try these two things. As I say, they worked for my Charlie. I appreciate that all dogs are different, so if you then still have problems let me know and I will come up with something else.
      Best wishes,
      Shih Tzu Steve.

  3. I have a shih tzu poo 2years old everytime I walk him he gets aggressive and barking at everyone he was not like this ,but lately is getting so bad my husband walks him early in the morning and evening . He so loveable and sweet but always wants attention for him. Help us

    1. Hello, Catalina.
      From what you say I think that your shih tzu poo sees himself as the pack leader or Alpha and when someone is near you he becomes aggressive while trying to protect the pack, i.e. you.
      To prevent this aggression you need to establish yourself as the Alpha of the pack, that way you get to call what is the correct behavior towards other people and other dogs.
      The most important thing you can do to establish yourself as Alpha is to control feeding. Controlling the food will quickly establish you as pack leader. Try to put the main meals out at regular times, twice a day should be sufficient for a two year old.
      If, when you fill the food bowl your dog doesn’t come to eat it straight away, take it away and do not return it until the next meal time. This will demonstrate to your him that you are in charge of the feeding.
      Along with this, there are two other things you can try to speed your way to the Alpha position, both are concerned with going out for a walk.
      First, when going out through the door and also when coming back home, make sure that it is you who goes through the door first, make your dog follow behind you. In a pack situation, it is always the Alpha who crosses the threshold first.
      Secondly, when actually out walking, keep your dog by your side and slightly behind you so that you are leading the way. If he starts pulling, turn around and walk in the opposite direction. Eventually he will realize that it is you who leads the way and will walk by your side.
      Try these things and if your dog is still barking at people at least you will be in charge and in control. At the first sign of growling or barking, crouch in front, facing him and blocking his view of the person or dog that has attracted his attention. Hold him gently under the chin, by the collar if worn. Stay calm, assure him that there is nothing to worry about, and calm him down. I think you will be surprised at how well this works.
      As for the attention seeking, you may find this hard to do but when your dog seeks attention turn your back on him and ignore him until he calms down. When he has stayed calm for some minutes, heap all of the praise on him that you want to. These actions demonstrate that it is you who decides when your dog gets attention and not him.
      Dogs just need to know their place in the pack hierarchy and are more at ease and happier when they do know.
      I hope all of this proves helpful. Don’t forget to encourage further positive behavior by rewarding any positive behavior from your dog with a treat, his favorite toy or plenty of praise.
      Best wishes,
      Shih Tzu Steve.

  4. My year old male shih tzu has started to not be very friendly. He takes a very long time to get used to people. He makes it hard for people to groom him if I’m not there with him. I thought about having him go to a doggy day care to see if maybe more socializing would help. Any ideas?

    1. Hello Makayla,
      Does your shih tzu get aggressively excited in front of other people and other dogs? If so there’s a simple way to calm him down. First of all, you must remain calm at all times to demonstrate to your shih tzu that there is nothing to get excited about.
      Crouching down, gently grab hold of his collar under the chin, as this is more calming than grabbing the collar at the back of the neck and it gives you more control.
      Still holding his collar under the chin, turn your back on the person or dog he is getting excited about. This demonstrates to him that if you are not worried, then there is nothing to worry about.
      So the last step is then to maneuver yourself and your shih tzu so that you are blocking his line of vision to the person or dog. You should then find that he calms down but just keep his leash on for safety’s sake.
      I do think that socializing will help him get used to being around people and dogs but I would recommend an obedience school rather than doggy day care as it is better for him to be around well behaved dogs so that he doesn’t learn any unruly behavior.
      There are also some very good professional dog walkers that can walk four or more dogs at a time and they all behave themselves under his or her control.
      I hope I have given you some good pointers here.
      All the best,
      Shih Tzu Steve.

  5. My Shih Tzu is completely out of hand sometimes. I love him to death but I don’t know how to deal with his aggression. He’s had horrible ear infections on and off for a couple years. After taking him to the vet this last time, they gave me droplets to put in his ear which is near impossible.
    When he went for a deep cleaning, he had to be sedated to the point that he needed to be asleep in order for the vet to do his job.
    Now that I need to give his droplets, he’s in defense mode when I walk by. I try to just sit on the floor and pet him or give him a sock to play with or give him a treat so he knows that I’m not after him every time I touch him. Nothing helps and I really need to use the droplets everyday so the infection doesn’t come back, it hurts him and smells like death. he’s just always ready to bite. He’s 10 years old.

    It’s not only the ears, I tried touching his chest, legs, tummy. He hates it all, but has no reason, he used to love belly rubs

    And don’t get me started on groomers, I’ve had to change the groomer probably 7 times because no one can finish their job. Sometimes I’m in there with them holding him down. I don’t even expect them to style him anymore, I just ask them to do what they can. Calming treats won’t do a thing. I’m thinking of buying snow gloves or garderer gloves so he can bite as much as he wants And know it’s not stopping me from doing his droplets.
    Any suggestions?

    1. Hello, Melody.
      I am sorry to hear about your problems with your shih tzu. I had similar problems with Bruno with ear drops and oral medication but not nearly as severe as yours seem to be. You say you have tried treats, but have you tried the click and treat method to actually train your dog to accept his ear drops? You will need a clicker or a bell or whistle, or you could say something such as “good”, any of these as long as you are consistent, plus a big bowl of small treat size pieces of whatever you shih tzu’s favorite food is. Oh, and plenty of patience!
      It’s best to do this somewhere where your dog is relaxed, perhaps his bed, favorite cushion or mat. Have the ear medication with the lid on close by, but not too close. Press the clicker and, as long as he stays relaxed, give him a treat. If he isn’t relaxed, wait until he is until you give him the treat. Repeat this several times, clicking and only giving the reward when he is relaxed. After a few times wait until he looks away before clicking. If he looks back at you when you click, he is starting to understand.
      To progress, click and then just brush your hand against his body before gently pulling it away and giving him his treat, again only when he is relaxed. Repeat the touching stage a few times, gradually increasing the contact time, before progressing to moving his ear flap slightly.
      Keep on clicking and rewarding for relaxed behavior, but each time make increased contact with his ear flap until you can successfully fold it backward, exposing his inner ear without him getting excited. Then, with the top still on the ear medication, you can move on to getting him used to feeling the nozzle of the dropper around and just inside his ear. Eventually, when this doesn’t bother him at all, take the top off of the nozzle and let him smell the medication.
      At this stage, you may have to go back a couple of steps and work your way back up to putting the nozzle in his ear again. When you do, insert the nozzle a few times before actually squirting in some gel. Reward him for that, click again and give his ear a good massage before rewarding him again. You may have to repeat the whole process for the other ear and the next few times you administer the drops, but each time should get easier and quicker until, eventually, you can just click the clicker, squeeze a few drops in his ear, massage and reward.
      I must stress that you should only reward good behavior. If the good behavior isn’t forthcoming, go back a step and try again. As I said, it will need patience on your part.
      I hope this will work for you.
      Shih Tzu Steve.

  6. My 9 mos old male shih tzu picks up and eats and/or chews everything he comes across. On his walk outside it could be leaves, wood chips, pebbles, etc. Sonetimes i can get these things out of his mouth and other times he goes after me and bites.
    He was food agressive at feeding and this was resolved with hand feeding portions at this bowl, patting his head snd telling him he was a good boy. But what do i do about this other behavior when he is eating something that could be harmful and he becomes really agressive and bites.

    1. Hello, Kathy.
      I am sorry to hear about the problems you are having with your shih tzu. There are basically two problems here, the chewing of foreign objects and the aggressive behavior.
      For the chewing, have you tried teaching the “drop it” command? When your shih tzu has picked up something he shouldn’t call his name followed by a calm but firm “drop it”. At the same time you will need to distract him with a favorite treat or toy while you then pick up the offending object. After a few times he will learn what “drop it” means.
      Also, question why he is doing this. At 9 months he should now be growing out of the experimental puppy teething phase and if you can rule out underlying health conditions it could be either attention seeking or boredom. Some extra exercise and some mental stimulation may help here. For the latter I suggest trying a chew toy that is designed to be filled with treats that your dog has to work out how to get to.
      As for the aggression and the biting, you need to firmly establish yourself as the Alpha of the pack. Luckily, you are already most of the way there as you have control over the food bowl, the key to being seen as pack leader. To further reinforce your claim, when you are passing through entrances and doorways with you shih tzu, ALWAYS make sure you go through first, even if you have to pull him back on the lead. When you are out walking, make sure he walks by your side; if he starts pulling in one direction turn around and walk the other way.
      Treat biting like any other bad behavior and isolate your dog for at least ten minutes. Place him in a crate, section off a part of the room or tread on his lead with your back turned on him. During this time it helps if he can see you, but you must totally ignore him, including no eye contact. This way he will come to associate his bad behavior with an unpleasant experience for him and, hopefully, stop doing it.
      I hope that you will find these tips useful, I would be interested to know if they work for you.

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