An ancient legend states that Buddha, traveling dressed as a simple priest, visited all four parts of the world. A small short-legged dog accompanied him on his journey, but this dog could turn in an instant into a huge lion, and then Buddha could travel astride on it.
A Lhasa apso is a very old dog breed, known for over two thousand years. The dog breed Lhasa apso originates from Tibet, and it has been bred from temple guard dogs. These dogs were bred and kept as charms because of their resemblance to lions, sacred animals, and symbols of the domination of Buddha over the animal kingdom.
Among Tibetan priests there existed a belief that Lamas’ souls, who have not reached Nirvana, have migrated into these dogs. Dalai Lamas presented these dogs to Chinese emperors, and Tibetan dogs became ancestors to Shih Tzu. Tibetans never sold their dogs, but gave them as presents, and they presented only puppies as a sign of their great respect or as a gift for a safe caravan trip to China, that lasted from 8 to 10 months. Without doubt, the dogs that accompanied the caravan, were larger and stronger than those gifted by Tibetan leaders to Chinese emperors. For that reason, probably, there is quite a large difference in the sizes of modern Shih Tzu. These “caravan” dogs were very highly regarded, but they would have hardly been sacred. Nonetheless, they have made their input into the development of the breed. On the other hand, there is information that even Chinese dogs were sometimes brought to Tibet, and they were also highly regarded there. In any case, Tibetan Dalai Lama had “a couple of pretty Chinese dogs” that he was very proud of.
In 1908 Dalai Lama gifted a couple of lion-like dogs to a widow empress Tzu-Hsi as a thank-you gift. She highly appreciated this great present and showed a great interest to dogs and their breeding. There were about 100 Pekinese dogs in her palace, but she was very strict to make sure those two breeds do not mix, and she herself looked after their breeding and wellness. The responsibility for their care was given to two eunuchs of the emperor’s palace. Picturesque portraits of the most outstanding animals were depicted on silk scrolls. Tzu-Hsi preferred “golden” color (the color of the emperor’s palace) and bred mainly the dogs of this color with symmetric marks, paying special attention to a white spot on the head. She considered it to be a mark of the highest quality, made by Buddha himself. These lion-like dogs were not only well known outside the palace, but they say that anybody who would illegally get even one of them would be condemned to death. However, it seems that the puppies that did not suit the strict standards of the empress Tzu-Hsi, would be secretly sold outside the palace by the eunuchs.
After the empress died, people stopped making breeding of dogs so important. The young emperor was not interested in dogs and breeding was continued by eunuchs randomly. Most likely, with years the Chinese changed the small Tibetan making it more and more in accordance with their interpretation of a “lion dog”: making the nose and the limbs longer, widening the head, and making the wool longer. It is possible that there took place experimental crossover with Pekinese, Chinese pugs, Maltese and other small dogs that were brought to China from Persia, Turkey, and Russia.
From Tibetan temple tradition it is considered that an apso look hidden by wool, can read the innermost human thoughts. These dogs were considered peace and prosperity messengers. From the ancient times apso dogs are sacred dogs for Tibetans, they are symbols of happiness, power and wisdom, they are live charms, able to warn about danger and divert it.
Apso translated from Tibetan means “a guard dog roaring like a lion”. A guard, a lion, barking, a goat are all the names of Lhasa Apso in his Motherland of Tibet. In the ancient times Lhasa Apso was called “a monument of peach and prosperity”. Now he is called “a dog-seismograph”, because these dogs are known for the fact that with their barking and worried behavior they warn about natural disasters like earthquakes and avalanches.
Other than numerous names that were given to the dog by travelers and Tibetans themselves, Lhasa apso also had another interesting name – “Dinner time sigher”. It was nicknamed this way by priests themselves, who were taking care of their stomach and would keep teaching the dogs persistently… to breath deeply. “If you don’t take care of yourself, only Buddha will take care of you”, they would say going from their temples into the world with preaching and asking for money. Laymen, living quite far away from the temples, would usually be quite reserved with the priests, considering them beggars and vagabonds, and were not quick to fill their bags with handouts, even less likely were they to offer dinner to them. Instead, they would just discuss religious issues that were interesting to them, and then they would see “the holy man” to the door. Seeing that the matters are not turning out the way they wanted, the priests without interrupting the conversation would get the dog out of the bag and let it run around the house. However reserved the laymen were with the priests, they were very much pleased with “little Buddhas”, the way they would call the dogs nicely. Having paid attention to sad sighs that the dogs would make from a barely noticeable signal of the owner, the owner could not but ask a question about what was going on with the dog. The response was that the fasting of “the little Buddha” was continuing for too long, and he was worried about the handouts, so the laymen ended up having to feed not only the dog but also the priest himself and having to give some snack for them to go. Only a very callous person would quietly listen to sad sighs of the dog and let the priest and the dog go out hungry.
More about Lhasa Apso. For many hundreds of years the Chinese Emperor lived far away from his constituents, for who Emperor Palaces were unknown worlds. The animals also lived in this seclusion. Therefore, breeding of the Emperor’s pets – dwarf dogs Lhasa Apso – were subject to royal privileges and were strictly prohibited and inaccessible for outsiders.
How and where Lhasa Apsos were bred is unknown. The life and traditions of the ancient emperor dynasty do not allow us to have any idea about it. That is why only fairy tales and legends tell us about the origin of lhasa apsos. Outside the Chinese Empire we only have very vague ideas about about the palace dogs (another name of Lhasa Apso), (it is different from sog-shi-tsu, a Chinese lion dog, a small dog, supposedly of Tibetan origin, that used to live in emperor’s palaces for a long time. Its long fur would be cut in such a way that the dog would look like a lion with a mane). Only European invader corps, who got into the summer Emperor’s Palace in Beijing in 1860, captured this original trophy of Lhasa Apso for Europe. Soon, particularly in England, this breed started to be widely raised. This way the former “Emperor’s pet” soon became a popular and favorite house decorative dog breed.