Chalk it up to a case of mistaken identity: Tibetan terriers are not actually terriers. But being the amicable dogs that they are, they're probably too shy to raise a stink about it. These ancient watch dogs and companions associated with Buddhist monasteries were erroneously lumped into the terrier breed group because they're similar in size. Between 18–30 pounds, Tibetan terriers, like actual terriers, are on the smaller end of the "medium-sized" dog category.
As for the Tibet origins referenced in their name? That part is absolutely true! "Tibetan terriers trace their roots back over 2,000 years to Tibet, where they were bred by monks in monasteries and were often considered good luck," says Rebecca Greenstein, DVM, Veterinary Medical Advisor for Rover.
Today, these loyal, clever, and affectionate dogs make for popular companions and love spending time (and lots of it!) with their humans. The Tibetan terrier, also called TT for short, wants to be your BFF and is happy to spend time taking his snowshoe-like paws out on a hike or snuggling up on the couch with you.
The first thing you'll probably notice about Tibetan terriers are their coats, which are both fashionable and functional.
"I don't think anybody can meet a Tibetan terrier without commenting on their beautiful, thick coat," says Joanna Woodnutt, BVM, BVS. "The coat of a TT is perfectly adapted to the place they originate from—the cold mountains of Tibet!"
If you keep them in their long, full coats—like the glamorous ones worn by the Tibetan terriers trotting around at prestigious dog shows—you'll need to commit to weekly trips to the groomers. But most Tibetan terrier owners choose to trim their dog's coat short, often giving them a Tibetan terrier puppy cut, which means less upkeep. Coat textures vary by dog, but because they have wooly undercoats that act as built-in, weather-proof insulators perfect for cold temperatures, it's good to give them a quick brush on a daily basis, or at least a few times a week, to prevent matting. Their outer coats, while fine, can be wavy or straight depending on the dog, but are never woolly or silky. While the coats are long, they shouldn't be dragging on the kitchen floor or grass at the dog park.
The Tibetan terrier's coat comes in a wide variety of colors including black, white, brown, and often a combination of colors. Gold Tibetan terriers and black Tibetan terriers are fairly common. Their eyes are large, dark brown, and wide-set, but they may be tough to spot because these dogs often look like they're several weeks overdue for a bang trim.
While no dog is 100-percent hypoallergenic, Tibetan terriers could be an ideal pet for allergy sufferers because they have a coat that—despite all that fur—doesn't shed much and doesn't produce a whole lot of dander. Their seasonal shedding is predictable, so you'll know when to take those allergy pills in advance.
Another hallmark trait is their wide paws that give them plenty of traction. "They have what are referred to as 'snowshoes' for feet—relatively big, flattened paws that harken back to their origins in snowy Tibet," Greenstein says. The pads on their feet are thick and strong, and they have hair between the toes and pads to protect their toe beans from the cold.
Overall, these smaller medium-sized dogs are well-proportioned, weighing between 18–30 pounds and measuring between 14–17 inches tall. "They are fairly square in stance and build, with the shoulder height roughly equal to their length," Greenstein says.
Tibetan terriers make excellent family dogs because they are so sweet-natured, says Jen Jones, a professional dog trainer and behavior specialist who runs Your Dog Advisor. They want to spend a lot of time with their family members, and when you leave them home alone too long or too often, cue the separation anxiety.
Clever and determined, Tibetan terriers are reasonably easy to train, Greenstein says. Positive reinforcement and treats can help because, oftentimes, they have their own agendas.
Tibetan terriers tend to be cautious and reserved. In fact, the only attribute the American Kennel Club notes as a fault in this breed's temperament is "extreme shyness." With proper positive reinforcement training and socialization from a young age, these amiable dogs can get along well with other pets and children. But Greenstein says Tibetan terriers tend to fare best with older children because they can occasionally be a little too timid for curious toddlers.
Tibetan terriers were bred to be companions, not working dogs. Still, there's some evidence that these dogs, in their early days, chipped in around the monastery by doing chores such as herding flocks, retrieving items that tumbled down mountainsides, and serving as watchdogs. So while the breed isn't technically classified as a sporting breed, they're still fairly active and athletic dogs, Greenstein says.
How much you should exercise your Tibetan terrier depends on the individual dog. Some will gladly be a hiking companion, while others are more prone to homebody status. Breeders should be able to match you with a dog that best fits your activity levels. Regardless, Tibetan terrier dogs do need regular exercise, such as walks around the block. If you live in an apartment or don't have access to a yard, you'll want to take your him on daily walks or trips to the park.
"Some Tibetan terriers excel in agility classes, so owners with an active lifestyle would be an ideal fit," Greenstein says.
At home, they'll love a window or door to look out so that they can perform some sentry duties for the household. If it's an overlook (think: stairs), even better.
If you bring a Tibetan terrier puppy into your home, it's important to get him accustomed to brushing and grooming early on so it's not a challenge when he's older. (Plus, grooming is a great way to bond with your pet!)
Tibetan terriers do need daily at-home grooming to take care of their long coats, Woodnutt says. The TLC their coat requires means these dogs might not be suitable for households that don't have enough time to act as a doggy beauty salon. If caring for a TT's profuse double coat intimidates you, know this: Many of the dogs kept as pets in the West have their coats cut considerably to make them easier to manage. That brings us to yet another identity crisis: "Tibetan terriers in this case might look a lot like a Cockapoo or similar poodle-crosses," Woodnutt says. Also, brushing your dog's pearly whites on a daily basis is a good practice as this can reduce bad breath, reduce plaque build-up, and prevent painful tooth infections.
"In truth, training a Tibetan is more like training a young child—you often have to help them see why they should do something, rather than expecting them to do it just because you ask," Woodnutt says.
Great news: Tibetan terriers have long lifespans. These companion dogs can live between 15–16 years and, compared to other breeds, don't inherently face too many major health issues. They are, however, prone to some vision problems such as progressive retinal atrophy (PRA), which is slow vision loss that can lead to blindness. Distichiasis, or extra eyelashes, also commonly affects Tibetan terriers. This condition is often harmless, but if extra eyelashes sprout up on the eyelid margin instead of eyelid skin, it has potential to cause discomfort and require extra plucking or ocular lubricants.
Canine hip dysplasia and hypothyroidism are other health problems that are common among Tibetan terriers. In addition to their vaccinations and regular veterinary appointments, this breed should get regular eye, hip, and thyroid tests.
So, how did these Tibetan dogs associated with the Dalai Lama and Buddhist monasteries make it to the U.S.? We can trace their path here back to Dr. Agnes Greig, a British surgeon, who introduced Tibetan terriers to the Western world. In the 1920s, she was working in Northern India and performed a life-saving operation on a Tibetan woman, according to the Tibetan Terrier Club of Canada. In turn, the woman gifted Greig with a Tibetan terrier. Greig loved the breed so much she went on to establish her own breeding program in England. In the 1950s, two dogs from her program were imported to the U.S. The AKC recognized Tibetan terriers as a breed in 1973.