The Lhasa Apso originated on the Himalayan plateau in the area of Tibet. They were domesticated and actively bred perhaps as long ago as 800 BC, which makes the Lhasa Apso one of the oldest recognized breeds in the world. Recent research has shown the Lhasa as one of the breeds most closely related to the ancestral wolf. (Others are Akita, Shiba Inu, Shar-Pei, Chow, Basenji, Alaskan Malamute, Siberian Husky, Saluki, Afghan, Pekingese, Shih Tzu, and Samoyed.)
Referred to in Tibet as Apso Seng Kyi, which can be translated as "Bearded Lion Dog", the Lhasa's primary function was that of a household sentinel, guarding the homes of Tibetan nobility and Buddhist monasteries, particularly in or near the sacred city of Lhasa. The large Tibetan Mastiffs guarded the monasteries' entrances, but the keen hearing and sharp bark of the Lhasa Apso served to warn residents by acting like a burglar alarm if an intruder happened to get past the exterior guards.
It was believed that the bodies of the Lhasa Apsos could be entered by souls of deceased lamas while they awaited rebirth into a new body. Lhasas in Tibet were never sold. The only way a person could get one was as a gift.
In the early 1900s, a few of the breed were brought by military men returning from the Indian subcontinent to England, where the breed was referred to as the "Lhasa Terrier". The original American pair of Lhasas was a gift from Thubten Gyatso, 13th Dalai Lama to C. Suydam Cutting, arriving in the United States in 1933. Mr. Cutting had traveled in Tibet and met the Dalai Lama there. At this time, there was only one Lhasa Apso registered in England. The breed was at first called the Lhasa Terrier, later the Lhasa Apso. The American Kennel Club officially accepted the breed in 1935 in the Terrier Group, and in 1959 transferred the breed to the Non-Sporting Group. In the UK, they are placed in the Utility Group.
Certain characteristics which are part of the breed type evolved as a result of geographical and climatic environment — the high altitudes, the dry windy climate, the dusty terrain, the short hot summer and the long bitterly cold winter of the Himalaya region. Among these are head features, the coat, eye-fall, the musculation and body structure, the general hardiness and longevity of the breed. DNA Analysis has identified the Lhasa Apso as one of the 14 most ancient dog breeds, verifying that lap dogs and companion dogs were among the first dogs bred by humans.
Today, in the USA, there exists a unique group of Lhasa Apsos known within the fancy as the Gompa dogs. (Gompa is the Tibetan word for a monastery’s main meditation hall.) These Lhasa Apsos are direct descendants of the Lhasa Apsos from the Drepung monastery in Tibet, where, in 1941, Lama Gyen Yeshe was gifted Preserving the Future, Enlisting the Past his first Lhasa Apso by a High Reincarnate Lama. In the 1980s, nine Lhasa Apsos bred by the late Lama Gyen Yeshe or sired by one of his dogs were brought into Canada. Bred together for a number of years, descendants were eventually registered with the United Kennel Club (UKC). In 2000, the remaining descendants entered the United States as part of a successful rescue. Since then, organized efforts have been made to maintain the dogs and preserve the line. The Gompa Lhasa Apso Preservation Program (GLAPP), a 501(c)3 organization, is a small population genetics management program perpetuating the genetic lineage of the Gompa Lhasa Apso. Not having undergone selection to a written standard, this unique gene pool represents the Lhasa Apso as it developed as a landrace. GLAPP’s internal database contains records of all dogs being used to perpetuate this genetic lineage and includes DNA Profiling, DNA Parentage Verification and microchip identification. Dogs born within the Preservation Program continue to be registered with UKC. In August 2011, seventeen dogs from the Gompa Lhasa Apso Preservation Program entered the American Kennel Club (AKC) studbook. The goal of recording recently imported region-of-origin Lhasa Apsos is to increase genetic diversity while maintaining the integrity of the AKC studbook.