The Lhasa Apso: Facts About Tibet’s Favorite Lapdog

Explore the rich history of one of Tibet’s native breeds. Although cute and cuddly, you wouldn’t want to mess with these watchdogs!

Feb 4, 2024By Jessica Montes
the lhasa apso facts about tibets favorite lapdog

Imagine a dog considered so precious, that it could not be sold or bought, only gifted. That’s part of the Lhasa Apso story! These snuggly lap dogs are an ancient breed with high regard in spiritual and royal settings. You won’t have to travel to Tibet’s snowy mountains to learn about these canines’ religious importance, activity levels, and fun grooming styles. You can continue reading to learn more!

Lhasa Apsos Come from Tibet

Tibet map
Photo by: BBC News

Lhasa Apsos are from Tibet in southwestern China. It’s a high-elevation region with cold, dry climates and mountainous ranges (Mount Everest sits on its southern border with Nepal). Their Tibetan name is “Abso Seng Kye,” which translates to “bearded lion dog.” Lhasa Apsos have been beloved by monks and monasteries for thousands of years and hold spiritual significance. Tibetan folklore says that the area is protected by a snow lion, and it’s believed that they appear as Lhasa Apsos when they come to Earth.

Buddhist monks also believed that when lamas (spiritual leaders) passed away, they were reincarnated as Lhasa Apsos before being reborn as humans. These pups were so valued that it was forbidden to buy or sell them. Instead, they were only given as gifts, and even the Dalai Lamas gave them away to other Buddhist countries, political leaders, and close friends. In fact, a gift from the 13th Dalai Lama to an American traveler is how the breed got its start in the U.S.

These Are Watch Dogs Who Love Cuddling

Lhasa Apso
Photo by: Alexas Fotos

Don’t be fooled by their small stature. Although they only stand 10-11 inches tall and weigh between 12 and 18 pounds, Lhasa Apsos were used as watchdogs in monasteries and royal palaces. They looked out for unfamiliar people and worked with the bigger, bear-like Tibetan Mastiff to keep away intruders. Lhasa Apsos are always on guard and might need time to welcome in someone new.

They remain vigilant and will do so from the comfort of your lap. Much like the Japanese Chin, these little dogs love lounging on your legs or by your side, regardless of how many dog beds you have around.

When they aren’t on supervision duty, they are incredibly affectionate with their family. Lhasa Apsos also make fun pets for younger kids who like running around and will keep the entire family entertained with their humorous habits. Just be careful with how much attention you show your pup versus other pets and children, as they can get jealous.

Grooming Styles for the Lhasa Apso

Lhasa Apso show
Photo by: David Woo

Lhasa Apsos are often paraded in dog shows with their silky, floor-length fur and awesome bangs covering their eyes. This style requires more care with washes one to two times a month and brushings every two or three days to prevent matting. After bathing, their fur must be dried and brushed, and their bangs can be clipped to the side or into a topknot to let them see.

For a look that requires less grooming, but more frequent trims, go for the puppy cut! This is a short style where fur is the same length around the body. It’s best for owners who want to deal with fewer baths and brushings or for dogs who love exploring the outdoors and are likely to pick up dirt with longer fur.

Choose the topknot cut if you want a bit of the elegant show cut and a lower maintenance style. It’s essentially the puppy cut but with fur on the head and upper eye area longer, so you can put it in a ponytail or knot. It’s cute and convenient!

The Lhasa Apso Diet

Dog food

These pups will feel their best when they eat meals packed with protein and healthy fats. Their bodies are used to supporting thick skin with an even thicker coat, so they need food that can get the job done. Feel free to use kibble made from beef, turkey, salmon, or any other high-quality food with their protein of choice. The American Kennel Club (AKC) recommends finding a food with a 14% fat level or higher to meet their nutritional demands. Be careful not to overfeed them, as this breed is prone to upset stomachs.

Supplement their protein and fats with fiber from yummy fruits and veggies. Some of the healthiest foods for dogs include:

  • Carrots
  • Pumpkins
  • Kale
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Berries
  • Seedless watermelon
  • Bananas

Since most of these foods have sugar, consider them treats, and feed them to your pup in moderation. Remember to limit these goodies to 10% of their daily calories and keep their size and activity levels in mind.

Health Concerns with the Lhasa Apso

Happy Lhasa
Photo by: Fritz dela Cruz

Luckily, this breed has a healthy streak so you can expect 12 to 15-plus years of memories with your Lhasa Apso. However, the biggest concern is an inherited kidney dysfunction. Responsible breeders will choose parents with the best health and who aren’t likely to pass conditions on to their litter. Even with these precautions, there isn’t a 100% accurate test that can determine if a dog will develop kidney problems in the future. As noted, adopting from an ethical breeder decreases these odds.

Look out for cases of dry eye, a condition involving an inflamed cornea and lack of moisture to the eye which can lead to pain and impaired vision. Another possible condition is hip dysplasia. This means the hip joint’s ball and socket grind together with movement (versus moving smoothly) leading to decreased function in that area. Speak with your vet if you notice reduced physical activity, limping, difficulty jumping or climbing stairs, and bunny hop movements.

Shih Tzu vs. Lhasa Apso

Brown Lhasa
Photo by: Steshka Willems

Both breeds are small, long-coated watchdogs who call the same region home. Because Lhasa Apsos were used to develop the Shih Tzu breed, both have adorable mustaches and are seen sporting a bouncy topknot or ponytail. So how can you tell these pups apart?

Lhasa Apsos have thicker, heavier coats meant for cold mountain temperatures and sturdier bodies. Shih Tzus are toy dogs with silky fur and have coat colors uncommon in Lhasa Apsos, like gold & white, brindle, silver & white, and blue & white.

There are clear differences in their personalities as well. They each have watchdog roots, but Lhasa Apsos are more protective of their homes and families. As mentioned earlier, these canines can get along with kids and pets, but Shih Tzus almost immediately become best friends with children and other doggos. Shih Tzus have even less physical activity demands and are satisfied with indoor playtime and quick walks, whereas Lhasa Apsos need a bit more space to run and tire themselves out.

The Benefits of a Small Dog

Lhasa Apso pack
Photo by: Alexas Fotos

Smaller dogs, like Lhasa Apsos, fit comfortably in smaller living spaces without access to an outdoor play area. As long as you are careful, the living room or kitchen can double as a dog park and provide enough space to toss a ball or tug on a rope. Additionally, if you have a smaller pup, there’s a higher chance of being approved by landlords who often have weight limits for pets.

A second benefit of owning a petite pup is saving time and money. Unless you have a high-maintenance pup who needs daily brushes, a tinier body means less time spent brushing, bathing, and grooming your pet. You’ll also use less of the shampoo and grooming products. If you take your doggo to the groomers, this usually means a smaller bill as well. Having a Lhasa Apso also helps save money because they eat less food, and one bag of kibble will last much longer compared to owning a large dog.

Other Ancient Breeds Like the Lhasa Apso

Photo by: Milica Popovic

Only a handful of breeds have bragging rights for being the oldest dogs in the world. Their DNA was often used to develop entirely new lines of canines, making them the foremothers and forefathers of later breeds. Lhasa Apsos have a history of about 3,000 years, but some dog breeds have been around for even longer.

Salukis are beautiful, slender sighthounds with fluffy ears that originated in Egypt. They are warmhearted hunting dogs who were adored by pharaohs and even mummified in tombs. Based on the testing of remains, it’s believed that Salukis lived as early as 5,000 years ago.

Another ancient breed that dates back 6,000 years ago is the Basenji. The barkless dog is thought to have developed in central and northern Africa, although the time and location of origin are debated. Basenjis are cat-like in their self-grooming habits, but not in activity. This breed has tons of endurance and needs a daily dose of high-energy activities.

When Lhasa Apsos Came to the U.S.

Lhasa Apso winner
Photo by: AKC Library and Archive

Because Lhasa Apsos were only gifted primarily to neighboring countries and leaders, the first pair didn’t make it to the U.S. until 1933. Charles Suydam Cutting, adventurer and dog enthusiast, and his wife visited Tibet in the 20s and 30s. They became acquainted with the 13th Dalai Lama, who was also passionate about canines, and their friendship began.

When the Cuttings returned to the U.S., they gifted the Dalai Lama dogs. Depending on the story, they sent either two Dalmatians or Dachshunds and then a pair of Great Danes to Tibet. As a thank you, the Dalai Lama sent back two Lhasa Apsos named Taikoo and Dinkai. This pair gave the breed its U.S. origin! Only a few years later, the AKC registered the first Lhasa Apso. In 1959, The American Lhasa Apso Club was founded with the mission of preserving the pure-bred standards set by the AKC.

Jessica Montes
By Jessica Montes

Jessica is a California-based writer, journalist, lover of animals, and vegan of 17 years. Growing up, she owned parakeets, fish, a rabbit, and a red-eared slider turtle. She currently has a black cat named Marty and a tabby named Jellybean. In her free time, she enjoys reading, baking, camping, and roller skating to funky tunes.