The Lhasa Apso is a companion breed native to Tibet, where it has lived in monasteries for thousands of years. Widely considered to be the one of the oldest of all dog breeds, the Lhasa Apso may be the ancestor to many other modern breeds of companion dog. Famed for its long coat and charming appearance, the Lhasa Apso is also known for its protective and dignified nature. For many decades a very popular breed in the United States, the Lhasa Apso has seen its numbers dwindle in recent years. The Lhasa Apso is also sometimes known as the Lhasa Terrier, Lhasa Monastery Dog, Tibetan Monastery Dog, Tibetan Lion Dog, Golden Lion Dog, and the Apso Seng Kyi.
Probably one of the most ancient of all dog breeds, the Lhasa Apso was created in a time before written records were kept of dog breeding and quite possibly before the advent of writing; as such almost nothing is known for sure about its ancestry. However, it is clear that the breed wsa developed in the mountains and plateaus of Tibet thousands of years ago where it served as a companion and guard dog in the Tibetan monasteries.
The Lhasa Apso can trace its origins back to the oldest dogs. Although there is substantial debate among researchers, most agree that dogs were the first animals to be domesticated and that they were completely domesticated sometime between 14,000 and 30,000 years ago. Genetic analysis has indicated that all dogs are descended from a single domestication event. Most agree that the dog was tamed in one of three places: the Middle East, India, or China. Wolves in these areas are smaller than those found elsewhere, as well as being less aggressive and more comfortable in the presence of man. The first dogs were probably very similar to wolves, and likely would have been virtually identical to the Australian Dingo and New Guinea Singing Dog. These dogs accompanied bands of hunter-gatherers and served as hunting aides, camp guardians, and companion animals. Dogs would prove to be an indispensible part of early mans survival and would travel with man as he migrated from one region to the next resulting in the dogs rapid spread around the world. Eventually dogs would come to reside in almost every location that man colonized prior to the 19th Century. Tibet which is centrally located between and borders India, China, and the Middle East, was surely one of the very first regions colonized by dogs after their domestication due to its location.
The Lhasa Apso appears to have been developed entirely within the confines of Tibet, and almost exclusively from native dogs; its first ancestors were probably the earliest domestic dogs to enter the region. Although both wolves and dogs are highly adaptable, these early domesticates would have had quite a challenge living in Tibet, often regarded as one of the harshest environments on Earth. Most of Tibet consists of a massive plateau which was created when the Indian Subcontinent collided with Asia. Tibet has some of the highest altitudes on the planet, along with some of the harshest weather. Due to its inland location and the cloud blocking effects of the Himalayas, most of Tibet is incredibly dry and arid. At the same latitude as Florida but with the same elevation as the Himalayas, temperatures often exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and drop below freezing at night. The high altitudes also mean that the air is thinner and it is more difficult to breathe. Dogs arriving from more temperate areas would have had to adapt to these conditions or perish.
Natural selection probably played the largest role in the early development of the Lhasa Apso’s ancestors. Those dogs that were ill-adapted to life in Tibet would have died and those that were better adapted would have survived to produce offspring. It is a commonly held belief that the first dogs in the region were crossed with Tibetan wolves. The wolves of Tibet have very short legs, thick coats, hunt in groups of two or three rather than in large packs, and often change color and shade during different seasons. Although very different in appearance, all dogs and all wolves are the same species and can freely interbreed to produce fertile offspring. Although it is impossible to prove that dogs and Tibetan wolves were crossed either intentionally or accidentally, it is highly likely given breeding practices found elsewhere in the world. The Tibetan Wolf is superbly adapted to life in Tibet’s challenging environment and crossings it with the domestic dog would likely have made the dog more capable of surviving in its new home. Such hybrids were also probably very short legged, and this is likely where the trait first entered the bloodlines of the Lhasa Apso ancestors. An additional trait that came to predominate among Tibetan dogs was a short, wide face. Although it seems strange, shorter wider faces make it easier to take in more breathable air in oxygen-starved Tibet. Similar adaptations can be seen in the foxes, bears, wild asses, antelopes, and gazelles of the region.
The ancient Tibetan people were traditionally semi-nomadic. These ancient herdsmen and wanderers needed to protect themselves and their livestock from predators such as bears, wolves, and snow leopards, and from marauding thieves and raiders. At a very early time, they developed at least two distinct types of dog. One was a massive and ferocious guardian. These dogs were traditionally chained up outside of the entrance to the dwelling to deter or attack potential intruders. Another was quite small and affectionate. This breed served two functions, it acted as an intruder alarm if someone or something made it past the guard dogs and sentries posted outside and a constant companion for its masters. Although these dogs went through many names throughout the ages, they became known in the West as the Tibetan Mastiff and the Lhasa Apso. Both breeds eventually made their way from nomadic camps to cities and monasteries where they served the same functions. It is unclear exactly when these breeds were developed but it certainly several thousand years ago. The ancient origins of the Lhasa Apso have been confirmed with genetic testing. Recent tests have shown that the Lhasa Apso is one of the oldest breeds of dogs, or at least one of the breed’s that is most similar to the wolf. Eventually, the Tibetans also developed at least two other breeds, the Tibetan Spaniel and the Tibetan Terrier. It is believed that the Lhasa Apso figured prominently in their ancestry, but their exact relationships to each other are unclear.
Tibet has long had close contact with China, including trade relationships. This would lead to Chinese traders and monks bringing the Lhasa Apso out of Tibet and into China, often as gifts. It is unclear when the Lhasa Apso first left its homeland, but what evidence has survived seems to place the timing between 500 and 200 B.C. The Lhasa Apso is thought to have had a major impact on Chinese dog breeding. It is currently unclear whether the Lhasa Apso is the primary ancestor of all Chinese companion dogs or whether it was crossed with existing Chinese breeds. The Lhasa Apso is thought to have been very important in the development of the Shih Tzu, Pekingese, Japanese Chin, and possibly the Pug.
Buddhism first arrived in Tibet in the first few centuries B.C. and eventually came to dominate the country. In Tibet, Buddhism and traditional religions fused to create a distinctive variety of Buddhism known as Lamaism. Buddhist monasteries soon came to dominate Tibetan life, and also came to house the Tibetan Mastiff and Lhasa Apso. The Lhasa Apso continued to serve its monastic masters as companions and guardians. However, some changes were likely made to the breed’s appearance at this time. Although Lions are not native to Tibet, they were once commonly found across India, the birthplace of Buddhism. Lions figure prominently in the Buddhist religion and consequently they figure prominently in Tibetan society. Tibetans realized that some of their Lhasa Apsos bore a striking resemblance to lions, and these dogs were greatly favored. Over time, the breed came to closely resemble a tiny lion. This was especially fitting as the miniature Lhasa Apso was a courageous protector of its masters, and was frequently said to have the heart and courage of a lion. The Lhasa Apso became known as the Apso Sent Kyi, loosely translated as,” Golden Lion Dog.”
Over time, the Lhasa Apso’s status in its homeland would continue to grow, so much so that the breed became a part of their religion. Tibetans believe that the spirits of deceased Lamas and other holy men can inhabit the body of the Lhasa Apso while they wait for reincarnation. Additionally these dogs were considered extremely lucky and selling them a taboo, which would explain why the practice was very rare. Instead, these dogs were given as gifts to those with whom religious leaders formed friendships or desired political relationships with. Eventually, Lhasa Apsos were not found exclusively in Tibet, but had gifted their way into neighboring countries such as Bhutan, Nepal, Sikkim, and parts of China.
For several hundred years, Great Britain maintained substantial influence in Tibet, essentially treating the country as an unofficial part of the British Empire. Many British citizens developed close relationships with Tibetan religious leaders. Some of these religious leaders presented their British friends with Lhasa Apsos, which were then brought back to Britain. Initially, the British referred to the breed as the Lhasa Terrier. Lhasa is Tibet’s holiest city and administrative capital, and also where the Lhasa Apso was most common. Since the dog was similar in size to most British Terriers, the British mistook it for one. In 1901, the first known Lhasa Apsos were imported to the United Kingdom by Mrs. A. MacLaren Morrison. Lhasa Apsos quickly became fashionable in the United Kingdom, and the following year the Kennel Club granted full recognition to the breed. Although Tibetan cultural restrictions on their sale meant that it was very difficult to acquire them, a small number of these dogs were imported. The breed quickly earned a reputation for intelligence, and it was noted that dogs which only understood Tibetan could learn English commands in a few days or weeks. Despite its small numbers over the next decade the Lhasa Apso would enjoy a relatively high level of popularity as new breeders and fanciers got involved with the breed. The first major stumbling block the breed would experience would come in the form of World War I, which would prove devastating to Lhasa Apso populations in the United Kingdom. With the cessation of the war, however, British enthusiasts were very motivated to reestablish the breed on English soil and imported a number of dogs from China to restock their kennels. While some of the dogs that they imported may have been Lhasa Apsos, most of them were probably Shih Tzus or Pekingese.
The Lhasa Apso’s history in America began in the early 1930’s. The breed’s introduction to the New World was a result of C. Suydam Cutting and his wife Mary, residents of Gladstone, New Jersey. Mr. Cutting was a world traveler and a naturalist of some renown. He began to correspond with the 13th Dalai Lama and arranged a meeting in 1933. The two became friends and per Tibetan custom exchanged gifts. Among the gifts were several Lhasa Apsos, which Mr. Cutting then brought back to America. In 1935, the Lhasa Apso was granted full recognition with the American Kennel Club (AKC), but it was named the Lhasa Terrier and placed in the Terrier Group. The breed quickly attracted American fanciers and more were imported from both the United Kingdom and Tibet.
Records from dog fanciers who traveled to Tibet to bring back more of these dogs seem to indicate that there were two varieties of Lhasa Apso, one known as the Lhasa and another known as the Apso. The two varieties were apparently very similar but the Apso was golden in color and slightly longer-bodied than the Lhasa. The Apso also was believed to have been the exclusive property of the wealthier classes while the Lhasa was owned by all levels of Tibetan society. It quickly became clear to Lhasa Terrier fanciers that their dogs were in no way similar to true terriers and had been both misnamed and misclassified by the AKC. In 1944, fanciers successfully lobbied the AKC to change the breed’s name to the Lhasa Apso, a combination of the names of the two Tibetan varieties. In 1959, the American Lhasa Apso Club (ALAC) was founded to promote and protect the breeding of Lhasa Apsos. One of the club’s primary goals was to convince the AKC to reclassify the Lhasa Apso as a member of the Non-Sporting group. The clubs efforts would pay off and by the end of 1959, the AKC had both recognized the ALAC as the Lhasa Apso’s official parent club and moved the breed from the Terrier Group to the Non-Sporting Group. In 1975, the United Kennel Club (UKC) also granted full recognition to the Lhasa Apso as a member of the Companion Dog Group.
Over the next 40 years, the Lhasa Apso would gain a great many fanciers and a lot of popularity in the United States, and the breed became especially common in the 1980’s and 1990’s. As a result of the breeds popularity and perceived value, a large number of commercial and inexperienced breeders began to produce Lhasa Apso puppies (puppy mills and backyard breeders). The overwhelming majority of these breeders cared for nothing other than profit, and their dogs often conformed poorly to breed standards as well the dogs they produced were typically temperamentally unsound and physically unhealthy. Since many Lhasa Apsos continue to be bred poorly or be descended from poorly bred dogs, anyone interested in acquiring a Lhasa Apso is highly advised to carefully research pedigrees and select a reputable breeder or rescue group.
In recent years, the Lhasa Apso has seen a dramatic fall in popularity in the United States. In 2010, the breed ranked 62nd out of 167 total breeds in terms of AKC registrations after ranking 33rd in 2000. This trend is probably due to a combination of factors. Poorly bred dogs may have damaged the breed’s reputation. Additionally, the breed has earned a poor reputation with children that is largely undeserved. The single biggest factor is probably trendiness. Other companion breeds have become more popular in recent years. Now breeds such as the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Havanese, and a wide array of so-called Designer Dogs are all the rage. Once these breeds are no longer as popular, the Lhasa Apso may once again return to prominence.
The Lhasa Apso is often used as a therapy dog and sometimes as an assistance dog for the handicapped. The breed also is a regular competitor at a number of canine events such as agility and obedience trials. However, the vast majority of American Lhasa Apsos are companion animals and show dogs, which is where the breed’s future certainly lies. Several American breeders have expressed their fear that the breed is moving too far from its original Tibetan form. These breeders have been advocating for the importation of Tibetan Lhasa Apsos to add to Western Lines. In 2011, 17 dogs from the Gompa Lhasa Apso Preservation Program of Tibet were added to the AKC’s official studbook. Some breeders would like to add more Tibetan bred dogs to their lines, but it is unclear whether or not this will occur.
The Lhasa Apso is quite similar in appearance to several other breeds of East Asian companion dog, especially the Shih Tzu for which it is often mistaken. However, the Lhasa Apso is significantly larger, hardier, and less brachycephalic (its face is less shortened and pushed in) than most of those breeds. The Lhasa Apso is a small dog, but is closer to being medium-sized than it is to being tiny. Height is less important to Lhasa Apso breeders than other features, and as a result these dogs exhibit a substantial amount of variation in size. However, the average height for males is between 10 and 11 inches at the shoulder, and the average height for females is between 9½ inches and 10½ inches. Lhasa Apsos are variable in terms of weight, but most breed members are between 12 and 16 pounds, although it is far from unheard of for a Lhasa Apso, especially a male, to reach 20 pounds. This breed is significantly longer from chest to rump than it is tall from floor to shoulder. However, this tendency is not nearly as exaggerated as on a breed such as a Dachshund. The Lhasa Apso is not a delicate dog and is very sturdily built without being thick. The Lhasa Apso should always have straight legs that are free from kinks or bending. The tail of the Lhasa Apso is relatively short and is carried in a curl over the back. Often, there is a small kink at the end of the tail.
The head of the Lhasa Apso is brachycephalic, meaning that the dog has a shortened and pushed-in muzzle and face. However, this trait is very moderate in the Lhasa Apso, and the face of a Lhasa Apso looks nothing like that of an English Bulldog or Pekingese. The head itself is relatively small and short for the size of the dog’s body. The head is not exactly flat, but should never appear domed or apple-shaped. The short muzzle should be approximately one-third the length of the head, but not much less. The muzzle is straight but not square. The muzzle is relatively wide, but not excessively so, and ends in a black nose. The Lhasa Apso should have either a level or slightly undershot bite. Breed standards strongly disfavor dogs whose lower teeth show when the dog’s mouth is closed, but this happens with some regularity. The eyes of the Lhasa Apso are medium-in-size and dark in color. Although the eyes are prominent and expressive, they should never be bulging. The average-sized ears are pendant, hanging closely to the sides of the heads.
The coat of the Lhasa Apso is the breed’s most important and popular feature. This is a double-coated breed, and has a soft, moderate undercoat. The Lhasa Apso’s outer coat is very hard and incredibly dense, both necessary for life in Tibet. The coat should be straight, not wavy or curly. Similarly, the coat should not be silky or wooly. The coat gets very long, and often reaches the floor. The ears, legs, and tail are heavily feathered. The hair on the face is somewhat shorter but still is long enough to form a beard and mustache. For show purposes, this breed must be left as long as possible. However, most owners of pet Lhasa Apsos choose to have their dogs trimmed into puppy cuts for maintenance and comfort. Some such cuts trim the entire dog, but most leave longer hair on the head, face, ears, tail, and legs. Lhasa Apsos may come in any combination of colors and patterns. It is especially common for black tips to be seen on the tips of the ear and beard hairs, but this is not essential.
The Lhasa Apso has a temperament which is intermediate between that of companion dog and a protection animal, which makes sense considering it was traditionally used as both a companion and a watch dog. The Lhasa Apso tends to form very close bonds with its family, with whom it shows intense loyalty. Most Lhasa Apsos are very affectionate with their favorite people, but are somewhat less fawning than many other toy breeds. This breed is definitely a lap dog and enjoys being in close contact with its family. Lhasa Apsos have a tendency to become one person dogs. When raised by a single person, most shun all others. When raised in a multiple person household, the breed forms attachments with all members but most have a favorite person with whom they are closest. This breed craves to be around its family, and many suffer from severe separation anxiety.
Lhasa Apsos are generally quite wary of strangers. This is an inherent breed characteristic that was bred into these dogs after serving as watchdogs for thousands of years. When properly trained and socialized, most Lhasa Apsos will accept the presence of strangers, but few will warmly welcome them. Lhasa Apsos that have not been properly trained or socialized frequently develop nervousness, shyness, and human aggression issues. Lhasa Apsos are incredibly alert and protective and make some of the world’s greatest watch dogs. This breed will always alert its owners to the approach of a stranger, which often needs to be controlled to prevent it from getting out of hand. Lhasa Apsos are not large or intimidating enough to make effective guard dogs, but most are unaware of this. Lhasa Apsos exhibit complete fearlessness in defense of their territories and families, and will challenge (even attack) intruders. Lhasa Apsos are not bite inhibited and most will use violence if they feel the need.
This breed has developed a poor reputation with children, which is only partially deserved. Lhasa Apsos have a tendency to be defensive, and are completely intolerant of rough play or harassment. Lhasa Apsos have a tendency to go on the offensive rather than to retreat, and most will nip and sometimes bite if they feel the need to defend themselves. For these reasons most experts strongly recommend that Lhasa Apsos not be placed in homes with children under the ages of 8 to 10, and some breeders refuse to sell their puppies to such households. That being said, training and socialization can reduce potential problems and Lhasa Apsos generally do very well with older children who are more likely to respect them.
Most breed members are average when it comes to other animals. Lhasa Apsos that have been well-trained and socialized with other dogs are generally quite accepting of them and rarely have major issues. However, breed members that have not been properly socialized may show substantial levels of dog aggression. Lhasa Apsos tend to be somewhat dominant with other dogs, but their most severe issues with other dogs stem from territoriality, possessiveness, and jealousy. These issues are most severe when the owner is not in control of the dog. Lhasa Apsos have very low prey drives, and most coexist peacefully with non-canine animals such as cats when they have been properly introduced. Many Lhasa Apsos are uncomfortable with strange animals in their territory and may attempt to drive them away.
Lhasa Apsos are highly intelligent, but they can be incredibly challenging to train. This breed tends to be very stubborn and strong-willed, and many actively resist training. These dogs also have a tendency to exhibit selective listening. Food and rewards-based training methods work considerably better on Lhasa Apsos than correction-based ones, but are not always effective. The greatest challenge for Lhasa Apso trainers is maintaining dominance. This breed likes to take control and many will regularly challenge for authority. As Lhasa Apsos that come to believe that they are in control often refuse to obey anyone else, it is imperative that their owners maintain a position of dominance at all times. None of this means that Lhasa Apsos are untrainable, but it does mean that training them takes a great deal of extra time, effort, and patience, and that the end results may be less than desired. Lhasa Apsos pose special training difficulties in the housebreaking department. Their small bladders cannot hold it in for as long and their small accidents often go unnoticed and uncorrected. Expect several extra months housebreaking a Lhasa Apso, and for there to be frequent accidents.
Lhasa Apsos have low exercise requirements. These dogs are quite active in the house, and most breed members will be satisfied with a long daily walk and several shorter potty walks. The average committed person will be able to meet the exercise needs of a Lhasa Apso without too much trouble. This breed is also regarded as being among the best-suited for life in apartments. It is absolutely imperative that the minimal needs of this dog are met, or else behavioral problems will likely result. Lhasa Apsos are perfectly willing to find outlets for their energy if one is not provided for them, and this breed is likely to become excessively vocal, destructive, hyper excitable, and aggressive if one becomes bored. Although the Lhasa Apso greatly enjoys long walks and an occasional romp off leash in a secure area, this breed is not a tremendous athlete and those looking for a dog to go on vigorous adventures with them should almost certainly consider a different breed.
Lhasa Apsos have a tendency to bark a great deal. These dogs were bred to sound the alarm and most will. Unfortunately, many sound the alarm at anything and everything. Many dogs also sound the alarm repeatedly and frequently. Training and exercise can greatly reduce this tendency but it will not eliminate it.
Lhasa Apsos are perhaps the most likely of all breeds to develop a behavioral condition known as small dog syndrome. Small dog syndrome occurs when owners of a small dog do not correct its behaviors in the same way that they would a larger dog. This is for many reasons including cuteness, humor, inexperience, and threat and danger levels. Whatever the reason, the end result is a dog that comes to believes that it is control of everyone and everything. Dogs suffering from small dog syndrome are often aggressive, dominant, vocal, misbehaved, and totally out of control. Luckily, small dog syndrome is largely preventable and correctable with proper training of the dog and appropriate behavior on the part of owners.
The Lhasa Apso has some of the most extreme grooming requirements of any dog. Keeping a Lhasa Apso in a show coat requires between four or five hours of work every week, and often more. This breed needs to be thoroughly brushed and groomed on a daily basis. These dogs also need regular baths, which any Lhasa Apso owner will tell you are usually unappreciated. Most owners of pet Lhasa Apsos choose to have their dogs professionally groomed every couple of months. They are frequently trimmed into short puppy coats. These coats require substantially less maintenance, but can be expensive to maintain. Lhasa Apsos do shed, but only a very minimal amount.
Lhasa Apsos are considered to be relatively healthy dogs. This breed does suffer from high rates of a number of inheritable diseases but is generally healthier than most similar breeds. In particular, the relatively longer face and muzzle of the Lhasa Apso means that that this breed has far fewer respiratory problems than most brachycephalic breeds. Luckily for the Lhasa Apso, most of the conditions from which it suffers are not life threatening or even life-shortening. The Lhasa Apso lives one of the longest average lives of any breed, and well-bred Lhasa Apsos have a life expectancy of between 12 and 15 years, although they often reach ages of 17 or 18. Veterinarians either have already or currently are developing screening tests for the conditions which impact the Lhasa Apso, and breeders are employing them to reduce their potential occurrence in the future.
Lhasa Apsos are very likely to develop keratojunctivitis sicca, better known as dry eye. Dry is caused by a deficiency in the tear ducts that causes them to produce insufficient eye moisture or none at all. Dry eye may affect either one or both eyes, and may appear in both eyes at different times. The severity of the symptoms of dry eye are determined by the severity of the deficiency and can range from mild discomfort to intense and near constant pain to total blindness. There is currently no cure for dry eye, although a number a treatments are available. As these treatments only alleviate the symptoms, they most must be continued for the dog’s entire life and many are quite expensive.
Because skeletal and visual problems have been 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.
A full list of health problems experienced by Lhasa Apsos would have to include: