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.