The fancy-coated Lhasa Apso is prim in appearance, confident and even haughty in character: a spirited, charismatic dog of royal bearing and fascinating backstory stemming from the roof-of-the-world heart of Asia. This ancient breed long served as a watchdog of Tibetan monasteries and a carrier of Buddhist lamas’ reincarnated souls: some impressive pedigree, to say the least!
The Lhasa Apso dog breed
The Lhasa Apso is widely regarded as one of the oldest known breeds, its history dating back at least a thousand years in the high-elevation mountain and plateau kingdom of Tibet. An early name for these small but watchful and stout-hearted dogs was Abso Seng Kye, which means “Bark Lion Sentinel Dog”: a moniker stemming from the Lhasa Apso’s role guarding the interiors of Buddhist monasteries while the gigantic (and potentially ferocious) Tibetan Mastiffs patrolled the outside.
“Lhasa” in the common name refers to the venerable Tibetan capital city; “Apso” means “bearded” or “long-haired,” although some speculate that originally the word was “Rapso,” which in Tibetan means “goat-like.” (Either way, the labels evoke the pooch’s resplendent coat.)
Besides its highly practical role as a monastery alarm system, the Lhasa Apso has great spiritual significance in Tibet: The breed, also known as the Tibetan Lion Dog, is often associated with a mythic, protective beast known as the Snow Lion, and furthermore it’s believed that Lhasa Apsos can be carriers of the souls of recently deceased lamas (Tibetan Buddhist masters).
Via British India, a few Lhasa Apsos made it to England, where they initially were called “Lhasa Terriers.” Their foothold in the United States came via a pair gifted by the 13th Dalai Lama to the explorer/naturalist Suydam Cutting in the early 1930s. Today they are a popular breed in the U.S., valued for their good looks, spunkiness, compact size, and adaptability to a variety of household settings.
The small but sturdy Lhasa Apso, longer than it is tall, stands about 10 or 12 inches and weighs 12 to 18 pounds. When not in puppy trim, the dog boasts a long, regal, hard coat with a heavy mane and beard and a plumed tail curled over the back. The eyes–overhung with silken hair – and the nose make dark points on the expressive face.
That coat comes in multiple colors, from “Snow Lion” white to black.
Personality and temperament
The Lhasa Apso has a strong, independent character. It can be stubborn, but for many owners its willful, highly individual personality is a big part of the dog’s charm. With proper training, furthermore, that proud bearing fits nicely within a well-behaved and intensely loyal framework.
Socializing Lhasas early is key to their being agreeable around other dogs and strangers, whom in general they regard a bit suspiciously – not surprising, given their watchdog credentials.
With the right socialization and training, Lhasa Apsos can make excellent therapy dogs.
Shedding / grooming
Lhasa Apsos are not major shedders. Whether you maintain them in a short-clipped puppy trim or with long hair, regular brushing and combing is required: ideally several times a week. Occasional bathing will ensure a smooth, mat-free coat.
Health and lifespan
The Lhasa Apso is, on the whole, a healthy small dog that commonly lives 12 to 15 years, and often more.
Some of the primary health concerns, according to the American Lhasa Apso Club, include patellar luxation (that slipped-kneecap condition often seen among small dogs), corneal ulcers, bladder stones, and umbilical and inguinal hernias. Lhasa Apsos can be prone to progressive retinal atrophy, which at its most severe can result in blindness.
The Tibetan Lion Dog requires moderate exercise, physical needs that can generally be met with walks and either outdoor or indoor play sessions. The American Kennel Club notes the Lhasa Apso is “adept at self-exercise,” and with the focused stimulation of training can become fine agility and scenting athletes.
Training and intelligence
We’ve alluded already to the Lhasa Apso’s strong-willed nature, and that’ll certainly come out during your training sessions. But be persistent: This is a very smart dog that will happily learn housetraining and obedience fundamentals as long as you keep the lessons interesting. Lhasa Apsos don’t respond well to boring repetition and they may test you; be positive but firm and always consistent, and challenge that talented Lion Dog of yours.