The Tibetan Spaniel, also known as a “Tibbie” is a dog of ancient origins and noble birth, whose ancestors (small monastery dogs, thought to be early representatives of the Tibetan Spaniel) were bred by Lamaist monks, deep in the Himalayan mountains of Tibet, commonly referred to as the “roof top of the world”. There is some debate as to the original creation of the breed for it is not exactly known how the transition into monastery dog and from there into the modern version of the breed occurred.
One theory to explain the breed’s prehistory has been provided by Professor Ludvic von Schulmuth, a noted cynologist, who began studying the history of Tibetan dog breeds in the early part of the 20th century. After studying skeletal remains of dogs found in human settlements dating as far back to the Paleolithic era (about 10,000 years ago), he created a genealogical tree of Tibetan dogs.
At the beginning of the tree was an early ancestor to the modern dog, a tiny scavenger called the “Gobi Desert Kitchen Midden Dog,” which according to von Schulmuth, would separate and develop over time into individual but parallel branches. One of these branches would become a line of small soft coated, drop eared hunting dogs from which would evolve the Tibetan Spaniel followed by the Pekingese and Japanese Chin. Of the other parallel but different branches one would give rise to the Papillon and Long-haired Chihuahua and another would develop into the Pug and Shih Tzu.
He further suggested that other distinctly Tibetan breeds such as the Lhasa Apso, Tibetan Terrier and Tibetan Mastiff took a different path. One that started not with the Kitchen Midden but with the “Large Spitz-Type Dog”, who in its own time evolved into the "Heavy-Headed Dog that Moved North." The “Heavy-Headed Dog” would form the Ovcharka breeds of Russia and central Asia; eventually dividing into the "Inner Mongolian" and "Mongolian" branches; from which the "North Funlun Mountain Dog" and "South Funlun Mountain Dog," would develop; and in kind the Tibetan Terrier and Lhasa Apso, respectively.
Probably the most compelling evidence for this theory in so far as to how it would relate to early Tibetan Spaniel development comes from the bones. Which were described as from a comparatively short legged, lightly boned dog with a long back, with a broad, short skull and slightly pointed short muzzle. A description that shares many similarities with the one currently in use for the Tibetan Spaniel. According to the professor, the dog, to which these bones once belonged, lived sometime between 150 – 950 B.C. This would have provided plenty of time for it to evolve into the small soft coated, drop eared dogs recorded to have accompanied the Lamiast monks; whose Lamaist or Tibetan Buddhism is recorded to have started with the delivery of the Kārandavyūha Sūtra from the sky onto the roof of the palace of the 28th king of Tibet, Lha Thothori Nyantsen around 650 A.D. over half a millennium later.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the breeds creation, the early ancestors of the modern Tibetan Spaniel have a long, documented and rich history with their Lamaist masters. A devoted companion, these early monastery dogs could often be seen following behind the monks residing in these ancient monasteries, it is here that the breed became known as the “little lion”; a term of honor that brought with it great value and prestige. Owing to the ancient Guardian Lions of Buddha, as it was the belief of his followers, that he himself had tamed lions and taught them to follow after him. A tremendous guard dog in spite of its small size, the term may also have referred to their habit of being perched atop the monastery walls like Chinese Guardian Lion statues (decorative stone lions that were believed to have guarded imperial palaces and temples of the time), ready to alert the inhabitants of any activity or the arrival of visitors.
The legend of the Tibetan Spaniel also provides that the monks may have put his ancestors to work, as tiny helpers running a treadmill like apparatus that would power their prayer wheels. A highly valued member of Lamaist monetary culture the Tibetan Spaniel was looked upon as prestigious and occupying a place of honor; perhaps even a bit sacred. Because of this, Tibetan Spaniels were never sold or used to barter but were given as gifts to esteemed friends and royalty. The gifting of the breed to palaces and monasteries in China and other Buddhist countries, the exchange of other oriental breeds to Tibet, and the research of Schulmuth all give evidence to the modern Tibetan Spaniel as having common ancestral ties to the Japanese Chin and the Pekingese.
The Tibetan Spaniel was not only loved and revered by the monks, but the breed also commonly lived among the common villagers of ancient Tibet. Unlike their brothers in the monastery, village-bred Tibetan Spaniels tended to vary more in size. The smallest specimens being the most prized, they were often sent to the monasteries, while the larger members of the breed would remain among the villagers. Whether they would reach their potential through a life devoted to worship among the ancient monks, or as a workingman’s companion, the Tibetan Spaniel was useful and available to all Tibetans, regardless of societal status.
Although having an eastern lineage and upbringing, by the late 19th century the Tibetan Spaniel was making his way to the West; into Europe first, and eventually to America. One of the first of the Tibetan breeds to reach the West; records indicate that the Tibetan Spaniel first arrived in England beginning around the 1890’s. There is some speculation surrounding how the breed first arrived in England. One story of the Tibetan Spaniel’s journey to England is said to have begun with a dog named “Chin”. A pet dog acquired by a sailor who had returned from a far-east voyage, who brought the dog back with him in 1885. Upon reaching England “Chin” was purchased from the sailor by the father of Mrs. Russell-Alan of Dalhabbouch, as a gift for her. It is rumored that Chin lived until 1908. Another and equally popular story is that the Tibetan Spaniel may have first arrived in the West accompanying missionaries returning from the East.
Regardless of how they actually arrived, it is more than likely that some small scale breeding of the Tibetan Spaniel may have occurred during this time, but there is limited information to support this and it was not until the 1920’s that England would see a real interest in the Tibetan Spaniel breed; when a man by the name of Dr. Greig would begin seriously breeding Tibetan Spaniels. Despite his efforts, the on-set of World War II brought any breeding of the Tibetan Spaniel, and many other dog breeds, to a near end. As the pressures and expenses of wartime grew, many breeders could not afford to maintain their kennels. Because of this, most modern breeds of Tibetan Spaniels found in the West, can trace their heritage back to a single female dog named “Mughiwuli”.
In keeping with the tradition of giving Tibetan Spaniels as gifts, Lady Wakefield, a descendent of English nobility, was presented with Mughiwuli as a gift from the Maharajah of India. According to accounts of the dog’s history, she was treated quite royally. When it was time to breed Mughiwuli, Sir Pratap Singh of Nabba insisted on sending her in his own Rolls-Royce for the journey to meet her mate. “Tashi”, a male Tibetan Spaniel brought from the Tashi-Gong Monastery in Western Tibet was acquired especially for the purpose of mating with Mughiwuli. In 1946, their union would produce two puppies called “Garpon” and “Potala”. These pups would be brought to England and registered there.
The Maharajah was very influential, and although it was rare that the monasteries of Tibet would give female Tibetan Spaniels to others, he was able to acquire a second female called “Dolma”. She was presented as a gift to Lady Wakefield’s husband, Sir Edward Wakefield, and brought back to England in 1947. The descendants of Dolma and “Lama”, the son of Mughiwuli and Tashi, became the foundation of the English bred Tibetan Spaniel.
The Tibetan Spaniel Association (TSA) was formed in 1957 to look after the interests of the breed. By 1959, enough Tibetan Spaniels had been registered with The Kennel Club (58 Tibetan Spaniels total) that they were allowed to compete for Championship status for the first time. This would encourage breeding of the Tibetan Spaniel, however, their registration numbers would remain perilously low until 1965, when registration numbers would increase to 165 registrations for the year.
The first reference to the Tibetan Spaniel in America would also be in 1965/66, and is of a litter born from two specimens imported from a Tibetan monastery. Further importation occurred and in 1971, the Tibetan Spaniel Club of America (TSCA) was founded. For some time, the Tibetan Spaniel was listed in the miscellaneous class, until 1984 when the American Kennel Club (AKC) officially recognized the breed and placed it in the Non-Sporting group. Although breeding of the Tibetan Spaniel continues, their registration numbers grow only slightly, and they are not exactly what would be considered a “popular” breed. Interest in the breed does continue to grow, however, and as of 2010, they were ranked 104th of 167 breeds by the AKC, up from 111th place in 2009.
Longer than it is tall, the Tibetan Spaniel is overall, a small breed measuring about 10 inches at the withers, and weighing between 9 and 15 lbs. The outline should be well-balanced, and slightly longer in length than height. The Tibetan Spaniel, although small, is well-balanced, with no features exaggerated.
Distinctive, small in proportion to the body, and held proudly, the Tibetan Spaniels head is somewhat dome shaped with a slight but defined stop. The breed has a muzzle of medium length with a noticeable chin displaying some depth and width, leading to an undershot mouth that is wide between the canines, with the upper teeth fitting nicely into the lower incisors. When the mouth is closed, the teeth and tongue should not show.
A dark nose that is blunt, free from cushioning and black in color is characteristic to the Tibetan Spaniel breed. The eyes are set wide apart, but forward looking. They are oval in shape and dark brown in color, bright and intense.
The Tibetan Spaniel’s ears are pendant shaped and set high on the skull, well feathered and medium sized. The neck is slightly short, but well-set and strong, covered in a mane of hair, often called a “shawl” that is longer than the rest of the coat, and more obvious in males than females. The neck leads to a level back, with a body that is well-ribbed and deep.
The Tibetan Spaniel’s shoulders are well laid, leading to slightly bowed, but firm front legs. The Hindquarters are strong and straight. The feet are well feathered between the toes, but small and neat. The tail of the Tibetan Spaniel is plumed, set high and carried curled over the back when walking, but may drop when standing still.
Dogs native to Tibet possess a shared characteristic of appearance, they all sport a double coat to protect them from the harsh elements of their home country. A dense undercoat keeps the Tibetan Spaniel warm, while the outer coat is soft and silky, smooth on the face and front legs.
Like the ears, the Tibetan Spaniel has feathering on the back of his legs. It has been described as looking like the breed is wearing pantaloons. The tail and rear quarters have longer hair than the rest of the body. Male Tibetan Spaniels have a fuller coat, with a thick lion-type mane on his neck, whereas females have a “shawl” of hair covering the shoulders and less feathering through the legs.
There is no specification to color in the Tibetan Spaniel breed, all colors are permissible. The most common colors however, are cream, gold, and sable.
The Tibetan Spaniel is not a typical hunting Spaniel. In fact, he is not truly a Spaniel at all. He is not a gun-dog, does not hunt or retrieve, and does not share the same ancestral lineage or history as any of the other Spaniel breeds. Of this fact, the TSCA states: “The misnomer, spaniel, came to be part of their name from the French word epagnuel which, in the Middle Ages, referred to a companion dog and comforter much loved by the ladies of the European and Oriental courts.”
The Tibetan Spaniel was a prized and cherished companion held in extremely high regard. This upbringing gives the Tibetan Spaniel a regal air, and don’t they know it. In the book, The Kennel Club’s Illustrated Breed Standards, published in 1998, it describes the Tibetan Spaniel as having: “a delightful temperament, for while he obviously likes to stress his superiority of breeding by his somewhat haughty expression, he is only too ready to let his hair down in a mad rush round the garden with his friends.”
The Tibetan Spaniels of today still display this sense of their position being that of a treasured companion to the nobility. Dedicated and loyal, the Tibetan Spaniel will treat you like royalty, but will expect the same treatment in return.
Independent and agile, the Tibetan Spaniel has, at times, been compared to a cat. They are sure-footed climbers and are graceful in their movement. In ancient times they were often perched atop the monastery walls, giving this breed a love of heights. The Tibetan Spaniels of today can often be seen sitting atop window sills, on top of the couch, or any other spot that gives them a view. True to their ancient duties of guarding the monasteries, the Tibetan Spaniel is a superb watchdog, but not to be confused with a guard dog. The Tibetan Spaniel will alert their owners of any arrivals or unusual events occurring near the home. They are not excessively loud, however, and will not bark unnecessarily.
The Tibetan Spaniel thrives on his relationships with human companions. For this reason, kenneling is discouraged for this breed. The Tibetan Spaniel greatly enjoys being part of a family, and as long as playtime includes that family, the breed will be happy and thrive in that home. He is content with activities such as long walks together, but is just as pleased with a night in, curled up and cuddling on the couch. The Tibetan Spaniel is known to be a very sensitive breed, and will sense the emotions and moods of their owners, often responding in kind to those feelings. Because of this emotional sensitivity, arguing and fighting around the Tibetan Spaniel may upset him the most, and a clam home is recommended.
The Tibetan Spaniel will want to be involved with his family, and is an easy companion to adults. He is generally good tempered with respectful children, however, the Tibetan Spaniel is a small breed, and should be supervised (as all dogs should) when in the company of children. Elderly or retired people make particularly excellent owners for the Tibetan Spaniel. The breed requires a more moderate amount of physical maintenance, but a lot of emotion support. The Tibetan Spaniel can suffer from separation anxiety and someone who has time to devote to them is of the utmost importance.
Included among his ancient duties at the monastery, the Tibetan Spaniel worked alongside the larger Tibetan Mastiffs kept by the monks to guard the monasteries, barking to alert the larger breed of new arrivals. Because of this, the Tibetan Spaniel is accustomed to and behaves well around other dogs; The Tibetan Spaniels of today still maintain this temperament and are friendly with dogs and other animals. They are however, not so friendly with strangers. Although never aggressive, the Tibetan Spaniel is a watch dog at heart and protective of their family and their home. The breed may be aloof to strangers, approaching them cautiously at first. Over time, however, the Tibetan Spaniel may warm to newcomers once they establish a level of trust.
Mild mannered when inside the home, the Tibetan Spaniel is known to have a different attitude when outdoors. The breed has an independent nature, and therefore can be stubborn or even difficult to train at times. Consistent with their noble upbringing, it is common for an owner to call a Tibetan Spaniel, only to be ignored, as the dog will only come when it is good and ready. Unless an owner enjoys running around the neighborhood after their little prince/princess, it is recommended to keep a Tibetan Spaniel on a leash when walking. Early training, discipline, and socialization are a must for the Tibetan Spaniel. If these are done properly, the dog’s affection for its master will be something near worship.
Despite this tendency toward stubbornness and independence, the Tibetan Spaniel makes an ideal pet. They are clean and respectful of housemates, with a cheerful and loving disposition. Although the Tibetan Spaniel may believe he deserves a mansion, they are an adaptable breed, suitable for urban apartment living, the suburbs, or the country home.
In Stanley Coren’s book, The Intelligence of Dogs, the Tibetan Spaniel is rated 46th in intelligence, meaning he is of “Average Working/Obedience Intelligence”. The Tibetan Spaniel will understand new commands after just 25-40 repetitions, and will obey first commands 50% of the time or more. The Tibetan Spaniel is good at his “job” of being a watchdog, and he most enjoys lying about while peering out the window. The Tibetan Spaniel is also a great companion. They are not generally nervous in nature and mostly display a consistent and calm attitude.
The Tibetan Spaniel, because of the breeds intelligence and occasional stubbornness, can at times, become bored. When left alone for extended periods, they may become destructive. They are clever problem-solvers, often acquiring whatever their desire through their own dexterity. Although small, with tiny feet, Tibetan Spaniels have been known to open purses, doors, and even cabinets in search of a treat. They may not however, like what they find inside those cabinets, as Tibetan Spaniels are known to be picky eaters.
Although a low maintenance breed when it comes to grooming, the Tibetan Spaniel still requires physical attention to make sure they look and feel their best. He is one of the easiest breeds to groom however, and little time will be required to keep the Tibetan Spaniel looking great. Grooming time can be made “fun” for the Tibetan Spaniel as he enjoys attention from his owner. The grooming time should be used as a bonding opportunity. It also gives the owner a chance to notice and address any health concerns.
The Tibetan Spaniel is a seasonal shedder because of his double coat. When shedding begins, the Tibetan Spaniel should be brushed regularly to remove the dead hair and to bring sheen back to the outer silky coat. Mats may form behind the ears and in other thick areas of the coat. They should first be dealt with through gentle brushing and combing. If this is not effective at removing the mat, it can be shaved out with a clipper, but should never be cut out with scissors, so as not to accidentally injure the dog.
The Tibetan Spaniel does not have a strong dog odor; therefore regular bathing is not generally necessary. A daily or every-other-day brushing session should be adequate to keep the Tibetan Spaniel’s coat clean, shiny, and free of mats. When the occasional bathing is required, the Tibetan Spaniel is small enough to bathe in a sink.
As with all dog breeds, the Tibetan Spaniel’s nails should be trimmed regularly and their teeth brushed. This can be done either at home or by a professional groomer.
The Tibetan Spaniel is a very healthy breed. When properly cared for, they can live a long time. The average life span of a Tibetan Spaniel is 9 to 15 years, with some reports of members of the breed living even longer. As healthy as they are, there are always specific breed concerns when it comes to health, and the Tibetan Spaniel is no different.
Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA) has been identified in the Tibetan Spaniel breed, and is an inherited form of blindness. It is a currently untreatable condition, but often the dogs affected adapt well to the condition. Other eye problems may occur and it is recommended that the Tibetan Spaniel have regular eye exams with a veterinarian.
Porto systemic Shunt (also referred to as a liver shunt) has also been identified in the breed. This is a condition in which an abnormal vessel develops that lets blood bypass the liver, and is therefore unfiltered from toxins. Cases of Progressive Nephropathy (PNP) have been reported for the breed in several countries. PNP is a progressive renal disease cause by the under-development of the kidneys.
As the Tibetan Spaniel has medium length feathered ears, the breed is also prone to the ear infections. Regular care and attention should be paid to keep the ears clean and dry.
Also of concern to the Tibetan Spaniel are: