An unfamiliar and fascinating Tibetan breed has been
showing up at rare breed dog shows recently, and questions are being asked
about its origins and relation to other Tibetan dogs. Is it a Bearded
Tibetan Mastiff? A big Tibetan Terrier? The answer is no; research indicates
that the Tibetan KyiApso is a distinct and separate breed.
The Tibetan KyiApso is a moderately large and shaggy dog
with an extremely engaging, laid-back temperament. Just watching the breed
in the show ring is fun, as it has an unusual bouncing gait. KyiApso owners
consider their dogs more friends than they do pets.
A mature KyiApso male might weigh as much as 90 pounds
and stand 28 inces at the shoulder; a female will weigh about 75 pounds and
measure 27 inches. The KyiApso is a working dog, traditionally used for
guarding either flocks of sheep or Tibetan homes and nomad camps. In the
Tibetan language “Kyi” means dog and “Apso” means bearded or hairy. Thus the
Tibetan KyiApso is also called the Tibetan Bearded Dog.
The KyiApso has a double coat. The undercoat is thick and
soft with the longest hairs being about 6 inches in length. It is the
bearded face though, not the overall coat, that defines the breed´s
appearance. The hair does not fall over the eyes, but sort of bursts out all
over the face.
Sara-Louise Anderson and her husband Judd, who have
seriously raised and shown half a dozen breeds, have had two KyiApsos over
the last 10 years and know the breed as well as any KyiApso authorities here
in the West. They describe the KyiApso in this way “….these dogs don´t come
to live at your home, they invade your heart…They are deliberate in their
actions, whether playing, whether guarding home and family. They are anxious
to please… I have never had a dog with more human qualities.”
Historically, experts have suggested that the Tibetan
KyiApso was a variation of the already known Tibetan Mastiff (Bailey,
Pure-Bred Dogs/American Kennel Gazette, March 1937; and Dr. Donald
Messerschmidt, DOG WORLD 1988 All breed Standards/Buyer´s Guide, and the
November and December 1988 issues). Currently, however both the Tibetan
KyiApso Club and the American Tibetan Mastiff Association feel this
designation to be incorrect. There are differences between the breeds
involving much more than the coats. The Tibetan KyiApso and the Tibetan
Mastiff are separate breeds.
The standards of the two breeds outline a number of these
differences. Two easy-to-see examples are: KyiApso tails must have at least
one complete curl; Tibetan Mastiffs do not require a full curl-and a double
curl is a fault. KyiApso ears are also longer than the ears of Tibetan
In the show ring, another difference is also obvious:
KyiApsos are more uniform in appearance than Tibetan Mastiffs. This is not
surprising, as KyiApsos come from only one region of Tibet; Tibetan Mastiffs
have a much wider distribution and variation. In initiating the Tibetan
Mastiff breed in the West, a priority was not placed on tightening this
In recent years we have gained more information about
these dogs in Tibet, as this once-closed region has opened to travel in
recent years, and as Western scholars began rigorous research there. The
opportunity for research is important. Much of the current published
information about Tibetan dogs comes from the memories of refugees
(anecdotes that are often romanticized), and such reports need confirmation
based on documentation and field observation of Tibetan dogs in their
The KyiApso history is a saga of evolving understanding.
The first Western knowledge of the breed came from Hon. Mrs. Eric Bailey in
1937. Bailey described a KyiApso that was kept by the 13th Dalai
Lama, the spiritual ruler of Tibet. In March 1937, she provided a dramatic
photograph of the dog.
Bailey and her husband were attached to the British
Diplomatic Mission in Lhasa. There they made a serious study of all Tibetan
dogs. However, the Baileys were unclear as to what group of Tibetan dogs the
KyiApso was affiliated with, but suggested that it may be a mastiff. They
had, after all, seen only one KyiApso specimen.
The next Westener to focus on the KyiApso was Prof.
Melvyn Goldstein, who learned of the dog while conducting extensive field
work in northwestern Nepal during the early 1970th.
Traders, shepherds and pilgrims brought these dogs across
the border from somewhere in Tibet: Goldstein became fascinated with these
dogs and acquired a fine pair in 1973. He started back with them from the
remote Limi Valley and wlked for two weeks until he came to the remote
bushplane strip of Jumla. There, the dogs were denied boarding on the small
plane and had to be left behind.
The next year Goldstein returned to Nepal for more field
research and acquired another KyiApso, a bitch. After his fieldwork was
done, he walked for three weeks to an airstrip where a larger aeroplane
landed. The dog was allowed to board this time.
In 1976, Goldstein and I were conducting medical research
in the same remote area of northwestern Nepal. We were sharing a tent
together and agreed that we should put forth a strong incentive to get some
KyiApsos brought across the border to us. Goldstein took the initiative and
posted a reward of a pair of my pants and two of my best shirts (without my
approval) for the trader who would cross into Tibet and smuggle back a male
dog. Two weeks later a black male, Thumdru, appeared.
Thumdru lived for several years with our family in West
Virginia, then in 1980 moved to the Anderson home in Colorado.
In 1988, Messerschmidt published a three part article on
the KyiApso in DOG WORLD Magazine. With the comprehensive account, interest
in the breed grew among non-Himalayan experts. In 1989, Ann Rohrer and Cathy
Flamholtz published their book “The Tibetan Mastiff”. In it they labelled
the KyiApso “the rarest of Tibetan dogs,” and were the first authors to
suggest that the KyiApso is distinct from the Tibetan Mastiff.
In 1990, I pushed the search for the breed´s origins
further. By then, I had travelled considerably around Tibet in connection
with my professional work in the wilderness and cultural conservation.
Despite these travels, I had found only poor KyiApso specimens. (Good
specimens or Tibetan Mastiffs were equally hard to find) Evidence seemed to
suggest that the KyiApso came from Mount Kailash, the alleged Centre of the
Universe for Hindus and Buddhists.
I assembled an expedition for the 2,000 kilometre (1,240
mile) drive from Lhasa, the capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region of
China, to Mount Kailash. (Almost all of the drive is across the dusty,
high-altitude tracks of the Tibetan Plateau.) Two vehicles were in the
caravan – a four-wheel-drive Land Cruiser and a four-wheel-drive pickup
truck loaded with supplies and 500 gallons of gasoline.
It made sense for this, the rarest of Tibetan dogs, to
come from Mount Kailash, Mount Kailash is revered by three religious groups
– Hindus, Buddhists and Jains – which equal one-quarter of the earth´s
peoples. Kailash is a remote mountain that rises out of the Tibetan Plateau.
The base of the mountain is so high that the air is only half normal
atmospheric pressure. On the mountain´s southern flank rises the great
Tsangpo/Brahmaputra River, on its western side begins the sacred Ganges, and
on its northern slope begins the mighty Indus River. Could it be that for
this one very rare breed of dog this mountain might be the centre of origin,
The expedition travelled for five days across the Tibetan
Plateau. We saw many Tibetan Mastiffs, but no Tibetan KyiApsos. Many nomads,
however, knew of the dog. Finally, at the monastery at the base of Mount
Kailash the expedition members found a fine specimen. Half dozen puppies
were eventually tracked down, the finest three of which (two females and one
male) were brought back to the United States.
Breed Development Underway
With foundation stock, breed development is under way.
The Tibetan KyiApso Club Ltd.. is incorporated and increasingly active. With
the first litter whelped in January 1991, new dogs are being added. The
Federation of International Canines recognized the breed in the spring of
1991. With this acceptance as a rare breed, these dogs are being shown
across North America. Late in 1991, another female KyiApso was imported,
this time to Canada.
Although only nine KyiApsos exist in North America, the
breed is growing in recognition and gaining friends. As the Tibetan KyiApso
flourishes, it is important to understand the background from which Tibetan
dogs come. In the West we now recognize five distinct breeds of Tibetan
dogs; the Tibetan KyiApso, Lhasa Apso, Tibetan Mastiff, Tibetan Spaniel and
the Tibetan Terrier. Additionally the Tibetan hunting dog, ShaKyi, is
recognized by some as another Tibetan breed, although none have yet been
exported from Tibet.
As we learn more about Tibetan dogs, we understand that
Tibetans traditionally do not view their dogs as we view our dogs here in
the West. There is not the emphasis on line purity; the traditional emphasis
is on behaviour. In the harsh environment that is Tibet, the behaviours of
hunting and guarding have historically been the only functions that justify
care and effort in dog breeding.
Further, because of the enormous change that Tibet and
its people have undergone in the past 40 years, virtually all intentional
breeding has been disrupted for all domestic animals, yaks, sheep and goats.
Dogs have been further neglected.
However, within the past few years, prime interest in
Tibetan dogs has developed among a small group of upper-class dog lovers in
Lhasa who are engaged in a rehabilitation planning for all Tibetan dog
breeds. Further, because of dramatic improvements in recent years amongst
Tibetan nomads (due to imaginative and supportive new government policies),
the select groups of dog lovers are also developing a particular interest in
the guarding and hunting functions of the KyiApso, the Tibetan Mastiff and
Dog interest is growing rapidly. As the mayor of the city
of Lhasa told me in April 1992, “Tibet has made three great exports to the
international world; her religion, her carpets and her dogs. Religion and
carpets are doing well. Now we must take action about our dogs.”
Although some Tibetan families are increasingly
concerned about their dogs, to date there has yet to develop any semblance
of what in the West we consider a dog standard, a yardstick by which dogs of
one type are consistently judged. This standard though, will likely develop
soon, as the above mentioned interest by the small group of dog lovers in
Lhasa has motivated them to take action. Probably their first focus will be
to develop a systematic program for the Tibetan Mastiff, a dog that although
ubiquitous throughout Tibet, is facing increasing risk of being inadequately
bred. Fortunately, early in 1992 a good population of Tibetan Mastiffs was
located in eastern Tibet.
As mentioned, traditionally in Tibet the chief concern
regarding dogs has been behaviour, not conformation. Did the dog perform its
designated function? Some dogs are valued for hunting. These are called
ShaKyi. Other dogs are valued as guards outside the home, in which case they
are called DoKyi or chained dogs. The DoKyi are what we know as Tibetan
Mastiffs. In Tibet, a prime characteristic for a DoKyi is a deep and
sonorous bark. Other guard dogs are used inside the house, reducing the need
for locks on the doors. These dogs we know as Lhasa Apsos and Tibetan
Spaniels; they are watchful to their families and playful with children.
Some Tibetan families have also suggested to me that these smaller breeds
also keep down vermin their homes.
Stray dogs – and there are hundred of thousand of stray
dogs in Tibet – perform two functions. Since these dogs run loose, they are
called “YunKyi”. Free-running dogs in towns keep the streets clean by
scavenging through the garbage thrown out of homes and monasteries. Tibetan
towns are filled with such dogs. At night their barks fill the air; during
the day, they cower against walls, scrapping among themselves. They patrol
the streets, their bodies covered with scabs, their hair falling out and
their rib cages showing. These dogs are important to the towns´systems –
they keep the streets clean.
Nomads value these free-roaming dogs even more highly,
because they perform the vital functions of guarding flocks of sheep and
goats from marauding wolves and snow leopards. The nomads feed them scraps
of food and parts of butchered animals, but the YunKyi also chase down
guinea pigs, like Himalayan pica or the Tibetan hare, to supplement their
diet. A dog´s life in Tibet is as rough as the weather is harsh. With little
food for the people, there is even less for the dogs. Nonetheless, the
Tibetan region of China remains a home to many dogs. Although dogs are not
loved as they are here in the West, Tibetan people do care about their dogs.
In all of Asia, there is probably no country with a greater diversity of
dogs – and very likely no country with a higher ratio of dogs to people.
Among the regions of the world, despite the harshest of environments, Tibet
has certainly done its share to nurture and bring for interesting dogs.
This article has been included in T.B.I.M. with the
permission of the author. It was first published in “Dog World” (A Maclean
Editors Note: The Bailey article to which Dr.Taylor-Ide
refers was first published in the (English) Kennel Gazette in 1934. The
author has been made aware of this and the original article is included on
page 37 of this issue. It is also relevant to mention that just one ShaKyi
was imported to Britain.