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Tibetan spaniels have long been a favorite pet of the monks, lamas, and other spiritual leaders who live in the towering Himalayan Mountains of Tibet—and now, they're starting to gain more traction as family pets in the United States, too. These cuddly, spunky little dogs with signature curled tails are still relatively rare, but make no mistake: The breed is winning over more and more pet parents with its easy-going personality, cheerful disposition, and loyal, unwavering companionship.
"The Tibetan spaniel is an uncommon breed of pedigree dog with a lot to offer," says Linda Simon, MVB, MRCVS, consulting veterinarian at FiveBarks. "While they hail from the same part of the world as the shih tzu and Lhasa apso, these small dogs are not as popular as their close relatives."
Tibetan spaniels are, in a word, cute. These petite dogs weigh between nine and 15 pounds and typically stand 10 inches tall. Their silky, medium-length coats come in a range of colors and shades, including black, black and tan, cream, gold, red, sable, white, and silver sable. Some Tibetan spaniels also have white or parti-color markings. Though tan is one of the most popular coat colors for this breed, it's not uncommon to see gorgeous black Tibetan spaniels and white Tibetan spaniels strutting their stuff, too.
One of the breed's most distinctive features is the plumed tail, which curves down toward the dog's back in a whimsical curlicue. Their triangular ears are medium in size and tend to point downward, framing their faces with wispy, feathered hair.
Tibetan spaniels have short noses, though they're not quite as flat as other brachycephalic breeds like pugs or bulldogs, and they have expressive dark brown, oval-shaped eyes.
There's a reason Tibetan monks and lamas have long kept Tibetan spaniels as pets. These beloved "Tibbies" are highly affectionate, playful, adaptable, and happy dogs, which makes them a great fit for growing families, retirees, single professionals, and first-time dog owners.
Originally developed to help guard monasteries in ancient Tibet, these pups have sharp senses and are always watching and listening, ready to alert their humans to someone walking by on the sidewalk or approaching the front door.
"They are loyal and sociable, traits that make them an excellent family pet," Simon says.
Tibetan spaniel dogs can thrive just about anywhere, from high-rise apartments in the city center to sprawling acreages out in the 'burbs. They're ideal for remote workers, stay-at-home parents, or people with flexible schedules, as Tibetan spaniels really prefer to be around their people whenever possible.
"They can live in apartments and houses but do best with someone who is home quite a bit," says Nicole Ellis, CPDT-KA, pet lifestyle expert with Rover. "This is a breed that doesn't enjoy being alone or spending a lot of time alone."
This happy-go-lucky, affectionate breed gets along well with kids. But because of their small stature, Tibetan spaniels may be a better fit for households with older children or super-vigilant parents who can supervise interactions between little ones and dogs, Ellis says.
"Due to their small size—under 15 pounds—they may need to be careful with young kids so that they don't get stepped on," she says.
Eager to please and very intelligent, Tibetan spaniels are a great choice for first-time pet parents, but they also thrive with more experienced owners. They benefit from daily walks and playtime in a fenced-in backyard, but their exercise needs aren't quite as demanding as other, higher-energy dogs. They're always happy to accompany their human parents on jogs, and some Tibetan spaniels may enjoy participating in events like agility, rally, or scent work.
It's important to socialize Tibetan spaniel puppies from a young age as their watchful and loyal tendencies can make them a bit standoff-ish with strangers at first. They also benefit from puppy training classes and will quickly learn new cues and behaviors with plenty of praise, treats, pets, and other positive reinforcement techniques.
"They are a smart breed and are generally easy to train, especially if training is started at a young age," Ellis says. "They want to please their family and generally learn new things quickly."
One of the hallmarks of a Tibetan spaniel is his shiny, silky coat. Luckily, these luscious locks aren't too difficult for owners to maintain.
Tibetan spaniels tend to be relatively low-maintenance; they do not need regular haircuts or grooming appointments, but owners should periodically trim the hair on the bottom of their paws and regularly brush their coat to prevent matting. It's a good idea to pay special attention to combing the hair behind his ears and around his neck, as these areas are more likely to become matted and tangled.
Regular baths can help keep Tibetan spaniels looking and smelling their best. They also need regular nail trims, whether with a clipper or a grinder. It's ideal to start trimming a Tibetan spaniel's nails—or at least getting them used to having their paws and toes touched—when they are puppies so the process feels totally normal (and maybe even soothing!) when they become adults.
RELATED: How to Trim Your Dog's Nails at Home
Be sure to brush his teeth regularly to prevent plaque buildup and other dental problems from arising. Also, periodically clean your Tibetan spaniel's ears to keep them free from excess dirt and debris.
Tibetan spaniels do shed a moderate amount all year long, so arm yourself with a lint roller and a vacuum. But they're not very likely to drool all over your pillow, which makes these dogs relatively clean and easy to have around the house.
Owners can count on their beloved Tibetan spaniels to stick with them through thick and thin—and for many years to come. Like other small breeds, Tibetan spaniels typically lead long, happy lives, with lifespans ranging from 12–15 years.
These spunky pups may suffer from certain genetic conditions, however, which is why reputable Tibetan spaniel breeders always screen for eye conditions (like progressive retinal atrophy, a slow-moving disease that can eventually lead to blindness) and patellar luxation, a condition that causes the dog's kneecaps to shift out of place.
Because of their tiny builds, Tibetan spaniels can become overweight fairly easily. To keep your pup at a sustainable, healthy weight so he can live his best life, seek out a high-quality dog food with the right nutrients and ingredients for each life stage (puppy, adult, or senior).
A veterinarian can also offer insights into how much food is appropriate for a Tibetan spaniel, based on the individual dog's frame, exercise and activity level, and other factors. Remember that even small treats can add up over time, so be sure to account for those extra calories when considering the best diet for your dog.
Tibetan spaniels date back more than 2,000 years to the Himalayas of Tibet, where Buddhist monks developed and protected this native breed, according to the Tibetan Spaniel Club of America (TSCA). Tibetan spaniels hung around with the much-larger Tibetan mastiffs, serving out a joint mission to protect the monastery and alert the monks when anything suspicious approached. With their sharp sense, the smaller Tibetan spaniels kept their eyes and ears open, then barked to alert their human and Tibetan mastiff companions.
After a long day's work guarding the monastery, Tibetan spaniels snuggled down with the monks in their beds, helping to keep them warm on the cold Himalayan nights.
The monks never sold their beloved "Tibbies," according to the TSCA, but instead gave them as gifts to dear friends. Eventually, the Tibetan spaniel made his way to England in 1898, but the first and second World Wars slowed their popularity. After World War II, though, breeding rebounded and the dogs made their way to the U.S. in 1966.
- Tibetan spaniels aren't technically spaniels, and they don't share any genetic links to other spaniel breeds. (Simon says Tibbies are "much more laid-back and less intense than your typical spaniel.") This case of mistaken identity likely arose during the Middle Ages, when the French word epagneul was used to describe these loving companions.
- The American Kennel Club first recognized Tibetan spaniels in 1984.
- What's the difference between a Tibetan spaniel and a Pekingese? These two adorable pups are (understandably) often mistaken for each other. Though they may share common ancestry (both breeds are also confused with Lhasa apsos), these two dogs have some subtle differences—Tibetan spaniels tend to be friendlier and more affectionate. They also tend to have longer snouts and shorter coats.