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Breeder Buzzwords – The Tibetan Terrier

Take a look at the Tibetan Terrier and you’re likely seeing one of the world’s oldest breeds of domesticated dog. Recent DNA analysis confirms its ancient roots on “The Roof of the World,” though legend and romance remain a large part of the breed’s biographical record.

In “The Tibetan Terrier Book,” published in 1984 by the Southfarm Press, author Jane Reif theorizes that in central Asia, dogs evolved from wolves into heavier coated animals with longer legs. “Because of its eventual appearance and its geographic background, the Tibetan Terrier probably developed from a northern, Spitz-like, wolf-like prototype dog, one that roamed the far country, west of the Gobi Desert and far north of what is now Tibet.”

The dog that evolved in this region is thought to be the progenitor of a handful of breeds still in existence today. Reif writes, “This canine also grew larger in the North, smaller as it wended its way southward.” The ancestors of the Tibetan Mastiff and the Tibetan Terrier accompanied nomadic peoples along trade routes between Eastern Europe and China where they evolved along different lines over many hundreds of years.

In the Himalaya Mountains, the Tibetan Terrier’s role as companion to the lamas stretches back 2,000 years at least. Isolation in the monasteries afforded protection for the animal the monks called, “Holy Dog.” Its alert and energetic nature earned the breed the role of watchdog, and the religious men considered it unlucky for it to be sold. Consequently, the monks only occasionally presented them as gifts to travelers and herdsmen.

In 1922, a British surgeon working in India near the Nepalese border was introduced to one of the Tibetan dogs. Dr. Agnes R. H. “Nancy” Greig had performed a successful operation on a woman from a Tibetan family, and was given a puppy in gratitude. The gold and white bitch named Bunti would become the foundation of the Tibetan Terrier in the West.

Dr. Greig was from a doggie family, according to Reif, so she undertook a breeding “experiment” to determine if Bunti was purebred. Under the guidance of the Kennel Club of India, Dr. Greig presented three generations at a 1927 show in Delhi where a judging panel, led by club secretary Mr. Medley, determined her dogs to be the same as those kept by the monks. The Kennel Club of India issued a breed standard for the “Tibetan Terrier” in 1930 and, within a year, the Kennel Club (England) began registering the breed under this name.

In 1956, the first “TT,” as its fanciers affectionately call the breed, was imported from the U.K. to the U.S. The Tibetan Terrier Club of America was organized the following year, and recognition by the AKC and inclusion in its Non-Sporting Group took place in 1973.

The Tibetan Terrier came down from the high plateaus of Asia to become a devoted and affectionate companion today. As it journeyed across continents, it likely contributed to the formation of many breeds along the way, including the Puli, the Polish Lowland Sheepdog and, perhaps, the Spanish Water Dog.

In 2011, registrations for the breed placed the Tibetan Terrier at the popularity half-way mark: 86th of the 173 AKC-recognized breeds

The Tibetan Terrier is an ancient dog that likely contributed its DNA to the formation of many breeds from Eastern Europe to China. Photo © Mirco Vacca/Dreamstime.

A Fall of Hair

The General Appearance section of the AKC Breed Standard indicates several breed hallmarks that have evolved in response to the breed’s evolution in an extreme environment.

The Tibetan Terrier’s “protective double coat” may be any color or combination of colors, although chocolate dogs will not have the required black nose. The coat consists of a soft and woolly undercoat and a profuse outer coat that may be “wavy or straight,” according to the standard.

The long coat of an adult TT will present a “natural part” over the back and neck. Though long, the coat should not hang to the ground. The standard’s Coat section states, “When standing on a hard surface, an area of light should be seen under the dog.

“The head is well-furnished with long hair, falling forward over the eyes and foreface,” according to the section on the head. This “fall of hair” protects the dark brown eyes, while long eyelashes allow the dogs to see without impediment. However, as with so many coated breeds, this breed-specific feature is subject to stylized forms of presentation that are contrary to the dictates of the breed standard.

In a 1983 AKC Gazette article titled, “Trends and Fads,” Shirlee Kalstone wrote, “I have specifically observed the preparation and exhibition of Tibetan terriers at as many shows as possible. What I saw, unfortunately, was a lot of overgrooming where, among other practices, handlers and exhibitors were using combs and knitting needles on heads, and showing Tibetan Terriers with facial hair parted from the nose up to the top of the skull, in spite of what is called for in the standard.”

According to the standard’s section on coat, “Sculpting, stripping or shaving are totally contrary to breed type and are serious faults.”

In a 1984 breed column titled “The Hair War” in the same publication, Jane Reif laments “the exasperating struggle against over-glamorization of the coat in this country.”

Snowshoe Feet

Developed for a rugged life in the Himalayas, the Tibetan Terrier is uniquely equipped with feet that tread easily over snow-covered terrain.

The breed’s feet are “large, flat and round in shape, producing a snowshoe effect that provides traction,” as described in the standard’s section on forequarters. The rear feet are likewise flat, and dewclaws may be removed from both front and rear legs.

Tibetan Terriers should stand “well down” on pads that are “thick and strong.” Both front and rear feet are “heavily furnished” with hair between the pads and toes, although the hair may be trimmed “level with the underside of the pads for health reasons,” according to the standard.

The unusual construction of the breed’s feet gives it dexterity uncommon among dog breeds. Fanciers describe the TT’s ability to use its feet much like hands, and some claim that individuals are even capable of opening a variety of containers.

A Kink in the Tail

“Medium length, heavily furnished, set on fairly high and falls forward over the back, may curl to either side” is how the standard describes the Tibetan Terrier’s well-feathered tail. An undeniably beautiful plume, the tail of the TT must surely provide additional protection on those cold Himalayan nights.

The standard also mentions a tail kink “near the tip” that may be present. In her breed column titled, “A Kink in the Tail,” published in the AKC Gazette in June 1981, Jane Reif notes that the presence of this “minor but interesting facet of the TT” can be traced back to Dr. Greig’s old Lamleh line, begun in the 1930s. Reif indicates that this line had all but died out in England, however it continued in America where it is expressed, she theorized, in a kinked tail.

Profusely coated, with flat feet and the occasionally crooked tail, the Tibetan Terrier is an authentic original that, despite it’s often glamorous appearance for the show ring, predates most breeds we know today.


Written by

Dan Sayers started “in dogs” through a chance encounter with a Springer Spaniel in 1980. A student of dogs ever since, he’s shown Spaniels and Hounds in the conformation ring and breeds Irish Water Spaniels under the Quiet Storm prefix. A dog lover with a passion for the creative arts, Dan has worked as a freelance writer, photographer and illustrator for many years. His feature articles and columns have appeared in Dogs in Review, Dog World and the AKC Gazette, and his design work has appeared in dozens of publications in North America and abroad. An interest in all things “dog” brought Dan to Best In Show Daily, where he gets to work with the most dynamic group of fanciers every day. He lives in Merchantville, New Jersey, with his partner, Rudy Raya, Irish Water Spaniel, Kurre, and the memory of Oscar, a once-in-a-lifetime Sussex Spaniel.
  • Jo Hannam October 14, 2012 at 10:14 AM

    Thank you very much for this excellent informative article. I really enjoyed it,

    • Tom D October 17, 2012 at 7:51 PM

      You’re welcome, Jo. So good to hear from you.

  • Cindy Douglass October 14, 2012 at 12:21 PM

    Great job, Dan, describing our wonderful breed. There is a saying in the TT world. They are like potato chips – you can’t have just one. These “little people” become addictive. Thanks for letting others know about this great breed.

    • Dan Sayers October 18, 2012 at 10:52 AM

      Hi Cindy,
      Thanks for writing. It was a real pleasure to profile your uniquely “addictive” breed. I hope I’ve been able to spread the word about their many fine qualities.

  • Kate Stanuch October 14, 2012 at 2:14 PM

    Mr. Sayers,
    Thank you for your informative article about an enchanting breed I have been associated with since 1995. They remain wonderfully independant creatures that are delightful to live with and many maintain their distinguishing characteristic flat feet and kinked tails.. Unfortunately the fight about coat and presentation continues on in the showring.

    • Dan Sayers October 18, 2012 at 10:49 AM

      You’re welcome, Kate. Keep up the good work of protecting your wonderful and ancient breed!

  • Joyce Mortimer May 22, 2013 at 8:19 PM

    I am editor of a newsletter the Tibetan Terrier Association (NSW) in Australia. We send out approximately 50 newsletters monthly.
    I was wondering would I be able to put your article on TT’s in it please. Looking forward to hearing from you..

    • kayla
      kayla May 25, 2013 at 5:58 AM

      Hello Joyce, thank you for being part of the Best In Show Daily community and thank you for writing us. Yes, we encourage reprints of our articles, asking only that you maintain our marks, authorship and copyright. Let us know if you need a pdf.

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