Information about the Tibetan Spaniel

The Tibetan Spaniel is a breed of assertive, small, intelligent dogs originating in the Himalayan mountains of Tibet. They share ancestry with the Pekingese, Japanese Chin, Shih Tzu, Lhasa Apso, and Pug. This breed is not a true Spaniel; its breeding and role differs quite a bit (Spaniels are gun dogs.) The name Spaniel may have been given due to its resemblance to the bred-down lapdog versions of the hunting Spaniels, such as the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

The Tibetan Spaniel has a domed head that is small,in comparison to the body. It has a short blunt muzzle. Teeth meet in an undershot or level bite. The nose is black. The eyes are medium but in keeping with the face and are set wide apart, these are oval in shape. The Tibetan Spaniel does not have extra skin around the eyes and this helps to tell the breed apart from the Pekingese. The ears hang down either side of the head to cheek level and are feathered with a v shape. The neck is covered in a mane of hair, which is more noticeable in the male of the breed. The Tibetan Spaniel’s front legs are a little bowed and the feet are hare-like. This dog has a great feathered tail that is set high and is carried over their back. The coat is a silky double coat lying flat and is short and smooth on the face and leg fronts, it is medium in length on the body and has feathering on the ears, toes and tail. The Tibetan Spaniel dog can come in all colours and be solid, shaded and multi-coloured. Colours that are seen are red, fawn, gold, white, cream, black and tan, and black, and often there are white markings on the feet. The Tibetan Spaniels’ life expectancy is 12-15 years. By show standard this breed grows to about 10 inches and the weight is 9-15 pounds. Slightly larger Tibetan Spaniels can often be found outside the show ring.

Progressive retinal atrophy is a problem with this breed. The disease is an inherited form of blindness in dogs that occurs in two forms: generalized PRA and central PRA. Generalized PRA is primarily a photoreceptor disease and is the form found in Tibetan Spaniels. The clinical signs have been observed between 1½ and 4 years, but as late at seven years. The disease is painless and affected dogs become completely blind. Currently there is no treatment, but affected dogs generally adapt well to their progressive blindness.

The earliest clinical sign of progressive retinal atrophy is “night blindness.” The dog cannot see well in a dimly lit room or at dusk. The dog will show a reluctance to move from a lighted area into darker surroundings. The night blindness develops progressively into complete blindness. The British institution Animal Health Trust (AHT) is at present intensively researching PRA in Tibetan Spaniels, aiming to isolate the responsible gene.

Like many breeds of dog, Tibetan Spaniels are susceptible to allergies. They also tend to experience “cherry eye”, a prolapsed third eyelid. The shape of a Tibetan Spaniel’s face makes them prone to “weeping eye”.

Small monastery dogs, thought to be early representatives of the Tibetan Spaniel, loyally trailed behind their Lama masters and came to be regarded as “little Lions” owing to their resemblance to the Chinese guardian lions that gave them great value and prestige. The practice of sending the dogs as gifts to the palaces of China and other Buddhist countries grew significantly, and more “lion dogs” were presented back to Tibet, continuing until as late as 1908. As a result of exchanges of Tibetan Spaniels between palaces and monasteries, the breed is likely to have common ancestors with Oriental breeds such as the Japanese Chin and the Pekingese.

Professor Ludvic von Schulmuth studied the origins of skeletal remains of dogs in human settlements as old as ten thousand years. The Professor created a genealogical tree of Tibetan dogs. It shows that the “Gobi Desert Kitchen Midden Dog”, a small scavenger, evolved into the “Small Soft-Coated Drop-Eared Hunting Dog” which then evolved into the Tibetan Spaniel, Pekingese, and Japanese Chin. Intermixing of the Tibetan Spaniel with the Tibetan breeds Lhasa Apso and Shih Tzu resulted in both the latter breeds birthing the occasional “Prapso” – a pup with a shedding coat closely resembling the Tibetan Spaniel.

Legend has it that Tibbies were trained to turn the monks’ prayer wheels, but it is more likely that their keen sight made them excellent monastery watchdogs, barking to warn of intruders and alert the monks.

Village-bred Tibetan Spaniels varied greatly in size and type, and the smaller puppies were usually given as gifts to the monasteries. In turn, these smaller dogs used in the monastery breeding programs were probably combined with the more elegant Tibetan Spaniel-type dogs brought from China. Those bred closer to the Chinese borders were characterized by shorter muzzles.

Not only was the Tibetan Spaniel prized as a pet and companion, it was considered a useful animal by all classes of Tibetans. During the day, the dogs would sit on the monastery walls keeping watch over the countryside below. Their keen eye, ability to see great distances, and alarm barking, made them good watchdogs. Modern-day Tibbies retain their ancestors’ love of heights.