Lhasa Apso

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
Photo of adult Lhasa Apso

A sturdy, small-breed dog, the Lhasa Apso originated in the sacred Tibetan city of Lhasa, where it was kept both as a companion, and as a surprisingly bold watchdog. Its Tibetan name, which translates directly as ‘Bark Lion Sentinal Dog’, gives a clue to the breed’s suspicious attitude to strangers, and being naturally strong-willed and confident, Lhasas do not always make good pets for young children. However, they are amusing and loyal companions for adults and older children, and are full of ‘big-dog attitude’.

Lhasa Apsos have a tendency to be very assertive, and require firm obedience training from an early age to avoid any confusion as to who the pack leader might be. Despite being quite intelligent, their stubbornness and independent nature mean that they can be moderately difficult to housetrain, and the breed is slow to mature, meaning that prospective owners must be prepared for mischievous behaviour which can persist up to three years of age.

Unless regularly clipped short, the long, thick coat requires daily brushing and regular washing. The breed does not require very much exercise, and is well-suited to indoor living, with short daily walks sufficient to keep them content. Lhasa Apsos are generally very healthy, and many individuals can reach 20 years of age and beyond, although the average life expectancy is 13–15 years.

About & History

DNA studies have proven the Lhasa Apso to be one of the oldest domesticated dog breeds, with its origins stretching back at least 2,500 years. Only a few breeds, such as the Basenji, Shiba Inu, Chow Chow and Saluki, can claim similar roots. While the flowing coat of the Lhasa is now admired for its aesthetic appeal, its development was essential to allow this small dog to survive the harsh climate in the mountains of Tibet.

The breed was kept by the nobility and religious classes in Tibet, and was much-valued for its companionship and strong personality. However, their utility lay in their suspicious and territorial nature, and the Tibetan name for the breed – Abso Seng Kye – translates as ‘Bark Lion Sentinal Dog’. It was the job of these little watchdogs to raise the alarm in response to intruders or unusual activity, while the much larger Tibetan Mastiffs acted as the more intimidating physical deterrent.

The Tibetans believed that the souls of deceased monks inhabited the bodies of Lhasa Apsos, and so for centuries it was illegal to buy or sell the breed; dogs could only be received as gifts, when they were usually given as a pair. Only the Dalai Lama was allowed to gift Lhasas to a person outside of Tibet, and it was via this route that the earliest breeding pairs made their way to the UK and United States in the 1920s, and entered the Kennel Club registers on both sides of the Atlantic shortly thereafter.


Lhasa Apso Large Photo

The Lhasa Apso is a small dog, but is sturdy and well-balanced. The most striking feature (when left unclipped) is the long, heavy coat, which is not silky, but rather retains a certain ‘hardness’ and weather-resistance. The undercoat is softer and dense. The Kennel Clubs recognise many colour variations:

  • Golden
  • Sandy
  • Honey
  • Dark Grizzle
  • Slate
  • Smoke
  • Parti-Colour
  • Black
  • Brown
  • White

All of these colours are viewed as equally desirable, with the only other stipulation being that all dogs must have a black nose.

The breed has a small, slightly rounded skull, with a well-defined ‘stop’ as the forehead slopes to the muzzle. The long hair of the forehead falls over the eyes, but must not obscure vision, nor should it be trimmed too short, as to do so can expose the eyes to injury from sharp hair shafts. The dark eyes should be quite large and dark, and do not protrude as they do in some other small breeds. No white should be visible in the eyes. The ears are small but dropped, with long hairy fringes.

The Lhasa’s body should be longer than it is tall, and the back and loins should be full and well-muscled, as should the upper hindlimbs. The limbs must be straight, both at rest and in motion so as to avoid orthopaedic problems (see below), and the feet are small and rounded, with thick hair growth between the toes and pads. The tail carriage reflects the dog’s attitude, sitting high and jaunty over the back, allowing the breed to clearly express its confident approach to life.

There is little difference in height between the sexes; while males may be slightly taller, both males and females average around 25 cm (10 inches) at the shoulder, and weigh around 7–8 kg (15–18 lb).

Character & Temperament

Lhasas are often described as being comical characters, which relates to their independent and stubborn nature. A reflection of the purpose for which they were originally bred, they are usually not dependent on their owners for stimulation, but rather keep themselves busy while vigilantly checking out every new sound and smell that arises around the home or garden. They can be quite demanding characters, and are known to constantly push the boundaries in an attempt to assert themselves as ‘top dog’, something which owners must guard against.

The breed is naturally wary of strangers, and while this may be a desirable trait in a watchdog, it is necessary to ameliorate this somewhat by socialising puppies from a young age to prevent this manifesting as aggression in adulthood. Lhasa Apso puppies are slow to mature, being giddy and playful for the first 2–3 years, and many will also be slow to house-train for this reason.

Though small, these dogs are anything but shy and retiring, and are quick to object if they are unhappy about something. This can be a problem in homes with children, as a Lhasa Apso will certainly not hesitate to nip in response to rough handling or unpredictable behaviour by a young child. However, they are very loyal to their owners, and can obviously make good pets for older children.


Photo of Lhasa Apso puppy

Following an owner’s commands is not necessarily something which comes naturally to many Lhasas; indeed, they generally feel that they are the ones that should be giving the instructions! However, basic behavioural and obedience training is of course possible, and they are rated as being of ‘fair’ working intelligence, meaning that they are responsive to patient and persistent training. As already discussed, socialisation with strangers and other animals is of prime importance from puppyhood. While the Lhasa Apso was bred to distrust strangers, this trait should not be tolerated to the point of overt aggression when meeting new people, and positive socialisation experiences from a young age will help in this regard.

Because of the breed’s slow maturing, house-training is often a frustratingly drawn-out process. Crate training, which involves giving the puppy a small space such as a cage to call his own, can be very helpful in preventing accidents overnight or while the puppy is left unattended for a period of time.


As with any other breed, there are certain health problems to be aware of in the breed.

Atopic Dermatitis

Allergic responses to inhaled allergens are common in the Lhasa Apso. This is often a seasonal disorder, with high pollen levels and increased insect activity in the spring and summer leading to signs of itching and secondary skin infection. Ideal management involves preventing exposure to the allergen, although this is often not feasible.

Corneal Dystrophy

The cornea is the clear surface at the front of the eye, which is normally perfectly smooth. In animals with corneal dystrophy, pits and depressions may develop on this surface, which can cause problems with accumulations of secretions and debris. Treatment, when needed, is difficult, although most dogs with this disorder are not severely affected and may require no special care.


The growth of hairs from abnormally located follicles in or under the eyelids, causing discomfort and irritation. Removal of these follicles by a veterinary surgeon is usually straightforward, although the hairs may be very fine, making them difficult to find initially.


A common developmental disorder in many breeds, in which the eyelids are scrolled inwards, allowing hairs to irritate and damage the delicate surface of one or both eyes. Usually requires surgical correction.

Factor IX Deficiency

The Lhasa Apso is one of the breeds predisposed to this condition, also known as Haemophilia B. Factor IX is one of a number of critically important proteins responsible for normal blood clotting. The ‘clotting cascade’ which is triggered by damage to the walls of blood vessels, fails to proceed normally in affected animals, resulting in prolonged or heavy bleeding after injury.

Inguinal Hernia

This is particularly common in female Lhasa puppies, where the inguinal canal, located in the groin, fails to completely form, allowing fat, intestine, or other abdominal contents to protrude and sit just under the skin. This can be seen or felt as a soft swelling, and when present needs to be corrected surgically to prevent problems, such as intestinal strangulation developing.

Intervertebral Disc Disease

Seen in middle-aged and older dogs, when degeneration of the shock-absorbing intervertebral discs of the back leads to nerve compression, pain or even paraplegia. Responds to conservative treatment with pain relief and rest in most cases, but may sometimes require surgical intervention.

Hip Dysplasia

Malformation of one or both hip joints is a common finding in young dogs. Affected animals should not be used for breeding, as there is a strong genetic basis to the condition.

Keratoconjunctivitis Sicca

Another common disorder of the eyes, this condition is commonly known as ‘dry eye’, and is the result of autoimmune damage to tear-producing glands. This frequently occurs as a reaction to commonly used anaesthetic and antibiotic drugs or as a consequence of atopic dermatitis.

Patellar Luxation

Normal positioning and movement of the patella (kneecap) depends on a straight limb conformation. Individuals that are slightly bowlegged may suffer from this problem, in which the patella slips, usually in in a medial direction, from the groove in which it should sit, causing lameness and varying degrees of discomfort.

Progressive Retinal Atrophy

This common ocular problem can occur in young adult Lhasas, leading to visual impairment, and potentially blindness.

Renal Dysplasia

Inadequate kidney function is seen in some Lhasa Apso puppies as a result of abnormal development of one or both kidneys. This causes difficulties in maintaining fluid and electrolyte balance, causing dogs to drink and urinate excessively from a very young age.

Sebaceous Adenitis

A common cause of hair loss and dermatitis, caused by immune-mediated inflammation within the sebaceous glands of the skin. Affected dogs may require a combination of systemic and topical medications to manage the problem.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Lhasa Apsos are not especially athletic dogs, and do not require much structured exercise, expending most of their energy in routine patrolling of their territory. One or two short walks daily should be sufficient for most dogs. As with any breed, they do benefit from access to a garden for the physical and mental stimulation which this offers, but the breed copes very well with indoor living if necessary.


The coat of the Lhasa Apso requires a great deal of work if kept at its full length, as it is prone to tangling and knotting. If neglected, it is often necessary to tightly shave the entire haircoat, as mats quickly build up, becoming tight to the skin, and are painful or impossible to tease out with brushing or combing. The tough outer coat also tends to attract and cling onto dust and dirt, and frequent bathing is required to keep it in good condition. While a professional groomer can be employed for some of this work, it is likely that most Lhasa owners will have to budget around 2 hours per week to maintain their dog’s coat.

Lhasas are prone to tartar build up and hence may suffer from dental problems later in life, so it is advisable to begin brushing puppy’s teeth early in order to introduce this as a routine part of grooming. In the absence of long walks on paved surfaces, most will also need their nails to be clipped at least once every 8 weeks.

Famous Lhasa Apsos

Likely because of their stubbornness and independent-mindedness not many Lhasas have made it onto stage and screen other than in animated form. However, some well-known celebrities are devotees of the breed:

  • Coco, owned by the singer, Arturo Paz
  • Lamb, belonging to Gwen Stefani
  • Mozart who is a Lhasa belonging to Criss Starr


Lhasa Apsos make very cute puppies, all the more so when mixed with some other breeds to produce the following mixes:

  • Bosapso – Cross between a Lhasa Apso and Boston Terrier
  • Chi-Apso – Cross between a Lhasa Apso and Chihuahua
  • Goldenapso – Cross between a Lhasa Apso and Golden Retriever
  • Hava-Apso – Lhasa Apso crossed with a Havanese
  • La Pom Cross between a Lhasa Apso and a Pomeranian
  • Lhasapoo – Cross between a Lhasa Apso and a Poodle
  • Pughasa – Cross between a Lhasa Apso and a Pug
  • Yorkie-Apso – Cross between a Lhasa Apso and a Yorkshire Terrier

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