The Lhasa Apso is one of the more distinctive dog breeds in the world today, not only because of it's unique look but also because of its unusual history.
All existing dog breeds originated from wolves well over 100,000 years ago. All modern dog breeds retain 99% of the wolves' genetic structure. That's when the domestication of lost or abandoned wolves began, and as the population of grew, ancient peoples started rudiment interbreeding to select the traits they most valued.
A recent study published in the journal "Science" titled "Genetic Structure of the Purebred Domestic Dog" (Science, Volume 304, May 21, 2004) compared the DNA from 85 American Kennel Club registered breeds, and found that the Lhasa Apso is one of oldest dog breeds -- of the 400 known dog breeds, the Lhasa Apso ranks as one of the 14th most ancient breeds still in existence.
The Lhasa Apso is unusual also because while most dog breeds have evolved from human directed intervention, i.e., selective breeding, the genetic structure of the Lhasa Apso has remained pretty much the same since they were first domesticated in Tibet tens of thousands of years ago. This is because the Lhasa Apso is still uniquically adapted for the harsh, cold, high elevation environment of the ancient Himalayas. Unusually alert and intelligent, their guardian instincts and calm watchful demeanor made them the perfect companions and watchdogs for Tibet's Dali Lamas. Indeed, the Dali Lamas believed their intense loyalty and fearless protectiveness coupled with their circumspect calm aloft natures was due to the spiritual properties of the dog, e.g., perhaps serving an earthly vessel for the sprits of past Dali Lamas.
Today, prized Lhasa Apso show dogs remarkably resemble their ancient spiritual owners - their heavy floor-length cloak of hair, hooded watchful eyes, and aristocratic bearing are reminiscent of the ancient monks who first kept and prized this unique breed. Breeders consider the Lhasa Apso one of the strongest willed and strongest minded breeds of its size.
The Tibetans also believed that the Lhasa Apso was a good luck talisman bringing health, peace, and prosperity to their owners. This belief, coupled with the belief that they carried the reincarnated souls of the Dali Lamas and other Tibetan holy men, made them almost impossible to buy before the 20th century. They made their way around the world starting only as gifts from the Dali Lamas to foreign dignitaries and diplomats.
Partially due to relatively little interbreeding and partially due to its small size, the Lhasa Apso is one of the longest-lived breeds, up to 14 or 15 years. It also tends to have an unusually sonorous bark (this helped make it a great watchdog), and it was their barks that led to its native Tibetan name: "Abso Seng Kye" which translates to "Bark Lion Sentinel Dog."