Tibetan Spaniel, the “Little Lion” Dog Loved by Monks

By Linda Cole

The Tibetan Spaniel is an old breed, dating back at least 2,000 years. Like the Saint Bernard that was raised and bred by Augustine monks living in the Western Alps, the “Tibbie” was developed by Lamaist monks living in the high Himalayan mountains of Tibet. These little dogs were highly prized by their owners. According to legend, the Tibetan Spaniels were used to turn prayer wheels in monasteries, but in reality, they had a more important job.

In the Buddhist religion, Buddha was able to tame the lion, and in doing so, he taught the mighty cats to follow him. Because the Tibetan Spaniel is so loyal, they were in the habit of following the monks everywhere around the monastery, and the breed became known as the “Little Lion Dog.” With thick hair similar to a lion’s mane surrounding their neck, and a confident plumed tail held proudly over their back, this little dog looked like a small lion to the monks. According to Buddhist belief, the lion represented Buddha’s triumphal win over violence and aggression. And since the Tibbie reminded the monks of a lion, it made them a popular breed to have.

The monks treasured the Tibetan Spaniel so much that they were given as gifts to visiting dignitaries and ambassadors from Japan, China and other Buddhist countries. Chinese diplomats presented their own “lion dog,” the Pekingese, to the monks, and there was most likely interbreeding between the Tibetan dogs and the Pekingese. People living in the villages also bred their own dogs, and then gave the smallest ones to the monks, who used them in their breeding program, producing a well balanced and stable breed.

The Tibetan Spaniel was kept primarily as a companion pet, but the monks discovered the dogs were excellent watchdogs, as well. The little lion dogs found the high walls surrounding the monastery to be a good place to sit and watch for approaching strangers or wild animals. When an intruder, human or animal, was seen, an alarm was sounded to alert the monks. Tibbies are known to have a keen sense of hearing, a good nose and eagle sharp eyes, able to see clearly into the far distance.

The dogs were supposedly used by the monks to turn their prayer wheels by walking on little treadmills. A prayer wheel, called Mani wheel by the monks, is a hand held or larger cylinder device on a spindle with rolls of thin paper inside, printed with a specific mantra. The mantra is repeated over and over because Buddhists believe spinning the wheel has the same effect as verbally reciting the mantra.

Tibetan Spaniels are described as being “cat like” because they like to find a high perch where they can keep watch over their surroundings. Like many other breeds, their exact origin is unknown. The Havanese Chin, Pekingese and Shih Tzu are the most likely breeds that contributed to the development of the Tibetan Spaniel. It’s also possible the Pug and Lhasa Apso were used.

The Tibbie is considered to be a rare breed in the United States, with enough of a following to gain recognition by the AKC in 1984. Even though the breed has spaniel in its name, the Tibetan Spaniel is not a true spaniel. It’s thought the spaniel name was given because the dog looked like a smaller version of hunting spaniels.

This very intelligent dog is easy to train, as long as you use positive reinforcement. This can include his favorite CANIDAE treats, praise and play. He can be stubborn, but is sensitive to his owner’s moods and will respond to them. A happy dog that loves to play, he’s independent, loves to snuggle with his owner, is aloof with strangers, and can be very clever. He is a great family pet, good with other animals in the home and older children, primarily because younger kids may accidentally injure them if they don’t handle the 9 to 15 pound dog properly. He can move fast when he wants to, and should not be allowed to run off leash because if he sees or smells something of interest, he can be gone in a flash. He doesn’t like being hovered over by humans, and isn’t likely to make eye contact when being judged.

Tibetan Spaniels are excellent watchdogs; they don’t bark excessively, and only when necessary. This active little dog can excel at agility or other dog sports, but he is also happy with regular walks around the neighborhood. He is a long lived dog, typically living 15 years or more. If you want a devoted and affectionate pet, the “little lion dog” may be the right breed for you. Always do your research and talk with responsible breeders, however, before making up your mind.

Top photo by Daimen.Richards
Bottom photo by Ladykransteer

Read more articles by Linda Cole

The personal opinions and/or use of trade, corporate or brand names, is for information and convenience only. Such use does not constitute an endorsement by CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods.

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3 thoughts on “Tibetan Spaniel, the “Little Lion” Dog Loved by Monks

  1. A lot of the characteristics reminds me of my Pomeranian – “very intelligent dog is easy to train, as long as you use positive reinforcement” “He can move fast when he wants to” “doesn’t like being hovered over by humans” ” excellent watchdogs” – my pom also has the lion’s mane! Except for the “aloof with strangers” this was pretty much spot on description of my pom – he also likes to perch high next to window and watch outside and barks at unfamiliar cars/people and yes, cats!

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