Meet the rare

mountain dog of Tibet

The Tibetan KyiApso is prized as a flock guardian in its native land, yet displays a playful and peaceful approach to life

By Dr. Daniel Taylor-Ide

The following article first appeared in the November 1993 issue of Dog World Magazine and is reproduced here with the permission of the author and Dog World Magazine. The cover photo was taken by Isabelle Francais. Other photos in the article are courtesy of Dr. Daniel Taylor-Ide.

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 (pronounced Kee-Op-So) 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 inches 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.

Saralouise 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 each of 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 the Tibetan Mastiffs.

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 traditional variation.

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 homeland.

The KyiApso history is a saga of evolving understanding. The first Western knowledge of the breed came from the 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 Westerner 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 1970s. 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 walked 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 airplane 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 this 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 labeled 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 origin further. By then, I had traveled 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 of Tibetan Mastiffs were equally hard to find.) Evidence seemed to suggest that the KyiApso came from Mount Kailash, the alleged Center of the Universe for Hindus and Buddhists.

I assembled an expedition for the 2,000-kilometer (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 center of origin, too?

The expedition traveled 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 a dozen puppies were eventually tracked down, the finest three of which (two females and one male) were brought back to the United States.

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 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 behavior. In the harsh environment that is Tibet, the behaviors 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 even 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 among 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 the ShaKyi.

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 behavior, 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 doors. These dogs we know as Lhasa Apsos and Tibetan Spaniels; they are watchful, loyal to their families and playful with children. Some Tibetan families have also suggested to me that these small breeds also keep down vermin in their homes.

Stray dogs––and there are hundreds of thousands of stray dogs in Tibet––perform two functions. Since these dogs run loose, they are called "YunKyi." Free-running dogs in town 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 ribcages showing. These dogs are important to the town's 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 forth interesting dogs.

The Tibetan KyiApso Club is happy to provide information to individuals interested in this very rare breed. For those interested in seeing various Tibetan dogs in their homeland, the club is planning a special dog trip to Tibet in May 1994. It will be an expedition into the heartland of Tibet in search of dogs:  the expedition may even find the elusive ShaKyi, or hunting hound, which had never before been exported from Tibet. For further information, contact:  Tibetan KyiApso Registry Information, email Diana Quinn.

Daniel Taylor-Ide grew up in the Himalayas and has spent much of his professional career there. Recently he led an international partnership that stimulated the creation of two new large national parks around Mount Everest. He is employed by a non-profit organization, Future Generations, and is a past President and founder of the Tibetan KyiApso Club. Dr. Taylor-Ide has also written a book titled Something Hidden behind the Ranges: A Himalayan Quest. ISBN#1562790730 Courtesy of the author, an added picture:

Note: There are now 30 known Tibetan KyiApsos currently living outside of Tibet. At present, there have been 11 litters born to the breed by the end of 1997. For more information on litters, contact
Diana Quinn at Karma Ken Kennel
1203 E. Capital St., SE
Washington DC 20003
(202) 544-7011
Saralouise and Judd Anderson at Kailash Mountain Kennel

Article recreated by Saralouise Anderson—This website updated 1/21/06

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