The Lhasa Apso is originally from the remote mountains of Tibet – particularly near the sacred city of Lhasa – where they were bred as sentinels and companions for temples and Buddhist monasteries, with special efforts taken to fix a type closely resembling a lion in color and shape. The breed’s keen intelligence, sharp bark, acute hearing and innate ability to distinguish friend from foe made them perfectly suited to these tasks. The origin of the Lhasa Apso is not clear. Some experts suggest that the smallest puppies of the larger Tibetan Terrier sheepdogs, whose legs were too short to make them effective flock herders, were given to the monks and became foundation stock for the breed. Others say that this is complete conjecture. The word “apso,” which is not Tibetan but rather Mongolian, suggests a northern component to the breed.
The monks selectively and purely bred these dogs for centuries and jealously guarded them from outside influence. Legend has it that when a monk (lama, or priest) died but did not reach Nirvana, he was reincarnated as one of the sacred monastery dogs. Occasionally, between the 16th and 20th centuries, the Dalai Lamas (the spiritual leaders of Tibet) presented small lion dogs as gifts to the Imperial families of China and to other dignitaries, as tokens of peace, prosperity and good fortune. These Lhasas were incorporated into strains of small Chinese dogs, no doubt contributing to the formation of the Shih Tzu and the Pekingese.
Before the 1930s, both the Lhasa Apso (a monastery dog) and the larger Tibetan Terrier (a working sheepdog) were referred to as “Tibetan Terriers,” which causes confusion when exploring the history of both breeds. Because they were so closely guarded in Tibet, the Lhasa Apso was late to become well-known among outside dog fanciers. One or two may have filtered out of Tibet in the 1800s, as Victorian paintings occasionally depict dogs quite similar to the Lhasa. Serious breeding outside of Tibet began around the turn of the century, when British explorers and emissaries brought them back from travels to Tibet. The Kennel Club in London recognized the Lhasa Apso in 1908 as the “Lhasa Terrier, 10-inch type,” to distinguish it from the taller and leggier “Lhasa Terrier, 14-inch type.” World War I nearly decimated the breed, but it reappeared in the 1920s.
In 1922, Colonel and Mrs. Eric Bailey acquired a pair of Lhasas when they lived on the Tibetan border in Sikkim. They returned to their English homeland in 1928 with six of their sturdy little dogs, which they showed as the “Lhasa Terrier, 10-inch type” for several years. The Kennel Club (England) finally decided to separate the Lhasa Apso from the larger Tibetan Terrier in 1934. Unfortunately, World War II was a roadblock to implementation of this change, and the breed descended into near obscurity. After the war, fanciers slowly rebuilt the Lhasa Apso breed, which finally achieved Championship eligibility in the Kennel Club (England) in 1965.
The breed fared somewhat better in the United States, where it gained a firm foothold during the 1930s and 1940s. During that time, the thirteenth Dalai Lama presented at least three Lhasa Apsos to Mr. and Mrs. Suydam Cutting of New Jersey. Three more quickly followed, and together they formed the foundation of the breed in North America. The American Kennel Club recognized the Lhasa Apso in 1935; today, it is one of three breeds of Tibetan ancestry being shown in the Non-Sporting Group. During the rest of the 20th century, the Lhasa Apso rose exponentially in popularity, until it became one of the most sought-after of all small dogs world-wide. A Lhasa took Best in Show at the Crufts World Dog Show in 1984.
Modern Lhasa Apsos thrive equally on large estates and in tiny apartments. They continue their service as sentinels, spirited show dogs and beloved companions in the United States and many other countries. The breed’s highly acute sense of hearing also makes them highly valued as service dogs for the deaf.
This average life span of a Lhasa Apso is 12 to 15 years, although then can live upwards of 18 years. Breed health concerns may include progressive retinal atrophy, pyloric stenosis, sebaceous gland tumors, keratocanthoma, hydrocephalus, intervertebral disc disease, entropion (usually lower lids), distichiasis, ectopic cilia, caruncular trichiasis, keratoconjunctivitis sicca (“dry eye”), prolapse of the gland of the nictitating membrane (“cherry eye”), refractory corneal ulceration and pigmentary keratitis and urolithiasis (calcium oxalate, struvite, silica). The most serious hereditary disorder in this breed probably is renal dysplasia, which is an often fatal familial kidney disease.