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Ancient Breeds – Shih Tzu, Tibetan Terrier, and Lhasa Apso

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230 – October, 2014

By Amy Fernandez

It’s truly amazing that some breeds manage to surmount the hurdles along their path to recognition. DNA analysis confirms that the Shih Tzu, Tibetan Terrier, and Lhasa Apso rank among the world’s most ancient breeds. Their histories have been entwined for centuries in the East. Unfortunately, that also became the case when they arrived in the West – thanks to possibly the biggest train wreck in kennel club history.

The Western world was fascinated with Asian breeds long before kennel clubs appeared on the horizon. Exotic breeds from India, Southeast Asia, and the Far East began trickling into Europe by the 16th century. However, accompanying information about them ranged from sketchy to ridiculous.

For instance, the Chow Chow is another ancient breed originated along the border of northern China and Mongolia about 4,000 years ago. It was later introduced into China, where it became known as the Songshi Quan. But it was breaking news when it arrived in Europe in the eighteenth century. The naturalist Gilbert White first encountered the breed when his neighbor, an agent for the East India Company, returned to England with a pair of these curious dogs. Similar random imports accounted for much of the early stock.

When China resumed trading with the West in 1516, the Pug, known as the Lo-sze, had been well-established in China for centuries. When the first specimens arrived in Europe, their rarity inevitably led to crossbreeding with Bulldogs and Pinschers. Within a few decades Pug type deteriorated. It became known as the Dutch Pug due to its association with Holland’s House of Orange. Luckily, the breed was immortalized by a series of major artists. Their portrayals provide an ongoing record of Pug evolution in Europe. When 19th century dog experts began speculating about its origins, it was considered a miniature mastiff. That theory was widely accepted despite a conspicuous lack of historical evidence or the unexplainable differences between Pug and Mastiff skull shape.

The Pug bears a much closer resemblance to the Pekingese and Japanese Chin, which were both labeled as Peking Pugs when they arrived in England in late 19th century. The modern dog world eventually realized that these were different breeds, but the confusion did not end there. The Chin was classified as a spaniel, in spite of its complete lack of spaniel traits. Before that, Lamb and Moss arrived from China in 1860. Registered as Pugs, they were incorporated into foundation breeding programs, even though they were probably Pekingese. Their genetic legacy would explain the long-coated puppies frequently noted by Victorian era Pug breeders.

Contrary to prevailing 19th century views, Western Europeans were not the penultimate authorities on canine evolution. When it came to Asian breeds, they made a complete mess of it. To be fair, Cynology was a relatively new concept at that time. Modeled on the science of Zoology, efforts to classify and define canine types within the context of natural science was meant to standardize a heretofore chaotic process. Historically, canine classification systems reflected personal and national views, and deferred to the only acknowledged expert on subject, Dr. Caius, who had authored his treatise on dog breeds way back in 1570.

Canine classification systems devised in the 19th century can fairly be called rough justice. Although approximately half of them are now extinct, it’s estimated that over 800 breeds have existed since the dog was domesticated. The experimentation that governed breed development since prehistory was suddenly subjected to rigid precepts that rarely meshed with reality. Inevitably, this effort became increasingly problematic as the number of breeds grew and relationships between them became more complex. For instance, primitive breeds were crossed with working breeds and working breeds were miniaturized. Rather inauspiciously, these ancient Asian breeds made their European debut in the midst of this big ball of confusion.

And they all came prepackaged with complex histories. Tibet, founded in the 7th century, represented an amalgamation of cultures from Siberia, Nepal, and Kashmir. Those eclectic influences, combined with one of the world’s most challenging environments, resulted in several amazing breeds. Thanks to its inhospitable climate, rough terrain, and centuries of diplomatic indifference to the outside world, Tibet remained an impenetrable mystery. At its center was the forbidden city of Lhasa, home to its leader, the Dalai Lama or “Ocean of Wisdom”.

Life is strange. Often, our dogs provide a rare haven of predictability and security within its chaos. That fact explains one of the most extraordinary friendships in the history of modern dog breeding. The possibility of such a relationship between the 13th Dalai Lama and Charles Suydam Cutting, who descended from one of New York’s most affluent patrician families, was unlikely to say the least. Born in 1889, he was variously described as a naturalist, explorer, big game hunter, and financier.

When AKC Gazette editor Arthur Frederick Jones visited the Cuttings at their Somerset, New Jersey home in April, 1925, their Hamilton Farms prefix had a formidable reputation for breeding and showing horses and German Shepherds. Mediocrity pervaded the American German Shepherd at that time thanks to skyrocketing popularity. A few dedicated individuals like the Cuttings attempted to reverse this discouraging trend by importing the cream of Germany’s bloodlines. One of the first arrivals in 1921 was Sieger Erich von Grafenwerth. Extremely prepotent, Erich is acknowledged as one of the breed’s most influential stud dogs. Along with his son, Klodo, also imported that year, they radically influenced breed development in America.

Hamilton Farms was a serious operation in every sense of the word. From that perspective, their next venture in purebred dogs was unconventional to say the least. But it wasn’t completely surprising considering Cutting’s background.

Like many wealthy young men of that era, Cutting sought independence and self-respect as an adventurer. He joined brothers Kermit and Theodore Roosevelt Jr. in 1925 for the Chicago’s Field Museum expedition to the Pamirs, Turkestan and the Tian Shan mountains, following the fabled Silk Road into China. In 1926-27 he traveled to Liberia and the Belgian Congo for the Harvard African Expedition. The next year he led the Indochina division of the Kelley-Roosevelt Eastern Asian Expedition, and became the first Westerner to enter the Forbidden City in Lhasa.

Helen Cutting shared her husband’s passions for dogs and foreign travel. Their fascination with all aspects of Tibetan culture became laser-focused after a 1928 meeting with Col. Eric Bailey and his wife, Irma, in Nepal. That year, the Baileys formally introduced the Lhasa Apso to Britain.

When Cutting returned to Tibet in 1930, he had the advantage of being American, not British. That got him in the door to meet the 13th Dalai Lama. Their mutual love for dogs became the basis of a unique friendship. Cutting became the only westerner to establish an ongoing relationship with the Dalai Lama who loved European breeds as much as native dogs. In 1931 Cutting sent him two Dalmatians. A pair of Harlequin Danes soon followed. Two years later when the Cuttings returned to Tibet he reciprocated by sending them a pair of Lhasas – a male, Taikoo and a bitch, Dinkai.

The Cuttings launched the Lhasa Apso as a modern purebred in America. But it already had a long history in Britain. Tibetan dogs first arrived in 1854. Early imports were generally named to signify their place of origin – Tibetan Poodle, Lhasa Terrier, Lion Dog, Bhutan, Bhutanese, or Bhuteer Dogs – to name a few. This was a very open-ended arrangement. For example, in 1904 Col. Francis Younghusband returned with a small dog he found in Bhutan. Calling it a Butanese and naming it “Lhasa”, he explained that it accompanied him over the mountains from Lhasa to Simla, India. Back in England, the Lhasa was exhibited as a Tibetan Spaniel.

Several breeding programs were established during this era such as Miss Marjorie Wild’s influential Cotesvale Farm kennel founded in 1901. Mrs. McLaren Morrison imported Tibetan Spaniels in the 1880s. Her foundation dog, Yezo, paved the way for Tibbies at Crufts and sired the first documented Tibetan Spaniel litter. She came to be regarded as an authority on all Asian breeds, and was one of the first experts to sound the alarm when these random classifications threatened the integrity of Tibetan breeds. Although defining traits were less obvious and grooming was more primitive, the unmistakable differences in size, proportion, and head type made it apparent that these were different breeds. This debacle began getting airplay in the dog press in 1895 when McLaren Morrison wrote a lengthy overview of Asiatic breeds for Our Dogs. It had no impact on Kennel Club policy. In her 1977 book, Angela Mulliner explained, “the name Lhasa Terrier gradually became the most widely used and was applied to dogs of varying leg length but roughly similar type.”

In 1902, McLaren Morrison’s contemporary Rev. H.W. Bush petitioned the Kennel Club for that name change, which was regarded as a step in the right direction. In reality, it only made matters worse. In 1908 the Kennel Club recognized the Lhasa Terrier as a breed with 10 and 14 inch classifications. It caught on quickly and the Kennel Club soon granted CCs. Imported in 1907, Ch. Rupso became Britain’s first champion in 1910. After his death in 1917, he was donated to Tring where he remains on display today.

Like many rare breeds, World War?I decimated the Lhasa Terrier. Breeding slowed to a trickle and ceased completely by 1925 when the Kennel Club revoked its championship status.

It was a blessing in disguise. By then, the Lhasa Apso, Tibetan Terrier, and Tibetan Spaniel had been hopelessly intermingled in the studbook. But the relative scarcity of imported stock had limited the scope of the resulting mess. That was changing by the 1930s when interest in Tibetan breeds surged to an all-time high in Britain.

However, acquiring Tibetan stock via direct means had become tricky because diplomatic relations with the British had drastically deteriorated. In 1904 troops led by Col. Francis Younghusband invaded Tibet and forced a trade agreement despite the absence of significant international trade commodities at stake. It ended any prospect of cordial relations in the region. Back in Britain, it was condemned as a pointless, deliberate massacre and the cause of political repercussions that culminated in communist China’s takeover of Tibet.

Lieut. Col. Eric Bailey had been part of Younghusband’s disastrous incursion into Tibet. The experience made a permanent impression, which shaped his subsequent career in the region. He served as Tibet’s British political officer from 1921-28. The Baileys acquired their first Apsos from a fellow officer, Col. Kennedy who received them from a grateful patient several years earlier. When he returned to Britain the Baileys inherited this pair and established a breeding program. But they had problems getting additional purebred stock. When they returned to England seven years later they brought six Lhasas to continue their bloodline and formally introduced the breed to Britain. By then, several other breeding programs had been founded with Tibetan stock.

The first, and most influential, was established in the late 1920s by Mrs. A. Renton Greig and her daughter, Dr. A. R. H. Greig, who spent 12 years in India as a member of the Women’s Medical Service. They had started in Cockers and Pekes and also showed horses. Over the years, they bred and exhibited Tibetan Spaniels and Lhasas, but made the biggest contribution to establishing the Tibetan Terrier. Dr. Greig’s extensive writing on Tibetan breeds became a major factor in their eventual separation.

Soon after the Baileys returned to Britain, they joined forces with other fanciers to seek recognition for Tibetan breeds. Around that time on August 19, 1929, the Daily Mail introduced the word Apso to the lexicon of western fanciers. It immediately became an accepted catchall definition for all small/medium-sized shaggy dogs of purported Tibetan ancestry. For decades, knowledgeable breeders had attempted to clarify the distinctions between Tibetan breeds. Unfortunately their insights were dismissed or overlooked, and once again these breeds faced the prospect of collective classification. Then as now, the Kennel Club operated within a self-contained universe that was often oblivious to the realities of the dog world.

Will Hally’s Foreign Fanciers column for Our Dogs became the main platform to protest ill-advised policies. In 1930 he quoted a letter from Dr. Greig who unequivocally stated, “There are two distinct breeds now classified under heading of Lhasa Terrier, my mother, Mrs. A.R. Greig, having one and the Hon. Mrs. McLaren Morrison the other. I am hoping the Kennel Club will ultimately separate them, calling ours, the larger one, Tibetan Terrier, and the smaller one Lhasa Terrier.” Not long afterwards Hally reported, “Mrs. Greig has re-registered her Lhasa Terriers as Tibetan Terriers,” adding that Terrier was a misleading label for the breed.

Things didn’t improve. On October 3, 1930, Hally wrote, “Dr. Greig agrees with me that anything which would affect the purity of Eastern breeds would be a calamity, but she adds that such a calamity has already occurred in the cases of the Tibetan Terrier and the Lhasa Terrier.” He reiterated that separately classifying these breeds, “would help to undo the harm.”

His journalistic harassment of the Kennel Club continued as things got worse. On January 23, 1931, he reported on the January 6 Kennel Club General Committee meeting. They discussed a request to exhibit an Apso in the Lhasa Terrier Class. Apsos were then slotted to the Mixed Foreign Division For any Other Variety Not Otherwise Scheduled. In retrospect, it was an unprecedented episode in the bumpy history of Kennel Club legislation. They inexplicably created two separate designations for the Lhasa Apso without actually acknowledging its existence as a breed. Their newly-minted Apso class put it in the unique position of being simultaneously registered under two different names. And that wasn’t the end of it.

Admitting that he was accustomed to the Kennel Club’s “frequent bewildering legislation” regarding foreign dogs, Hally wasn’t prepared for their recommendation to re-register the Apso as a Lhasa Terrier in order to exhibit it in that class. Unable to grasp the rationale for this suggestion, he sarcastically noted, “there can be only one meaning, if anyone cares to register a dog as a Lhasa Terrier, it can have open sesame to those classes even if it is a totally different breed.” Adding that it wasn’t an isolated incident, he cited a 1930 petition to the General Committee to register an Apso under the novel classification of Tibetan Lion Dogs. “Apparently the Kennel Club was equally in the dark so suggested that it be registered as a Tibetan Spaniel.”

He couldn’t conceal his frustration with the sheer insanity of the situation. Emphasizing that Tibetan Spaniels had been well-established in Britain for decades, “there should been no difficulty knowing at first glance if these Lion Dogs were Tibetan Spaniels …but apparently there is no first glance where Foreign Dogs are concerned…Had those Lion Dogs been seen by anyone who knows a Tibetan Spaniel, the suggestion to register them as Tibetan Spaniels would never have been made for good and sufficient reason that those Lion Dogs were not Tibetan Spaniels.”

He called the committee’s present policy a, “ free dumping ground for any and every kind of foreign dog. …I cannot find any excuse for our governing body….unless some system of checking is inaugurated, our rapidly growing foreign dog community is in grave danger of ending up in absolute chaos.” He was right because as it turned out, the Lion Dogs didn’t belong in any of those categories. They were Shih Tzu.

The decision to dub them Tibetan Lion Dogs was even more puzzling since the breed’s Chinese origin was well-documented. Among others, Vero Shaw had noted this in The Book of the Dog in 1881, “The Shih Tzu is a relative newcomer to the British dog fancy and is not at all well-known. The few people who have heard of it (apart from canine enthusiasts) seldom fail to confuse it with the Lhasa Apso, a Tibetan breed. … However, the Shih Tzu is a Sino-Tibetan creation with the Chinese influence particularly strong: so strong, in fact that the breed is found in China, not in Tibet.”

Nevertheless, the lunacy continued. The Kennel Club had approved the newly founded Apso and Lion Dog Club and granted their petition for Apso classes in 1929. Col. Bailey judged the Apso’s fateful debut in formal competition. This public showcase graphically highlighted the scope of a problem that had been brewing for years. When the dogs entered his ring he was stunned by the pronounced differences in type. In part, his subsequent critique declared that, “stock derived from ‘Pekin” imports had to be a different breed.” It unleashed a firestorm. The volatile debate in the dog press that ensued was comically dubbed The War of the Noses.

“It was only in the 1930s that the careful reclassification of all the smaller breeds from Tibet was achieved,” said Angela Mulliner in The Tibetan Terrier. That long overdue resolution was achieved by the Tibetan Breeds Association, founded in 1934 to grapple with this mess. Subsequently, the Kennel Club officially recognized the Tibetan Mastiff, Lhasa Apso, Tibetan Terrier, and Tibetan Spaniel. And in June 1934 the Kennel Gazette reported that descendants of three dogs that had been initially registered as Apsos were reclassified as Shih Tzu. It was a bit late in the game to repair that faux pas. Back then, where England went, America followed. Shih Tzu imports continued to be AKC registered as Apso until 1952 when the Shih Tzu Club managed to stop the madness. Unfortunately, that mistake derailed Shih Tzu recognition for years to come.

The Cuttings were aware of this ongoing horror show when they decided to found an American breeding program. But they had a crucial advantage. They had been through it before. Albeit, only one breed was involved in the German Shepherd catastrophe a decade earlier, but the damage done by inferior imported stock that had flooded the American market lingered on for decades. Hamilton Farms had made significant contributions to reverse that trend. But like many of their dedicated contemporaries, they eventually became discouraged with the overwhelming magnitude of the problem and simply gave up. Undoubtedly, they deliberated long and hard before venturing back into the dog game.

A lucrative foreign market existed for Tibetan dogs by 1933 when the Cuttings began gathering foundation stock for their breeding program. Commercial breeding had become a lucrative sideline for many traders who offered every canine make and model to eager foreign buyers.

The type and purity of these Tibetan imports was contingent on a crucial detail that Western breeders wouldn’t grasp for decades – Eastern breeds must be evaluated in context. Trusted sources represented the only quality control in this tricky market, which James Watson documented back in 1906. “The latest European introduction in toy dogs, the Lhasa terrier and Tibet spaniel, neither of which has yet reached America. As they will undoubtedly be brought to this country where long a few words about them are advisable. And for the following we thank the Hon. Mrs. McLaren Morrison, the acknowledged authority in England on Central Asiatic dogs.” In part she said, “One of these little Asiatics which has the honor to be called the standard by experts was purchased out of a Bhuteer’s market cart, unkempt, unwashed, uninviting, and loath to be civilized till he was made reluctantly to understand that he was born for higher things and a show career beyond the waters awaited him….Another was brought down from the very interior of Tibet accompanied by an attendant wreathed in turquoise. Yet another was carried in the saddle for many miles….Although up to recently rarely bred in this country, they are valued and fetch long prices in the East. For the wily Asiatic is fully aware of their value …for they have now (1906) found many admirers in England.”

The dog world hadn’t heeded this valuable advice, so Margaret Hayes reprised this warning in Our Dogs on June 3, 1932. “When buying a dog in Lhasa it is essential to buy only from a few well to do men who breed the dogs. Any dog bought haphazardly from a caravan …has quite probably been picked up en route and may not be purebred…there are a lot of half caste dogs in Bhutan…if not personally acquainted with a Tibetan of repute great care should be taken.” Acknowledging that Tibetans were devoted to their dogs, she also noted that they maintain 5-6 different breeds. “Though many dogs are not perfect in type…the blood is pure but the Tibetans’ ideas do not go beyond like to like.”

Unfortunately, the 13th Dalai Lama died months after the Cuttings received their first pair of Lhasas from him. They managed to initiate correspondence with Rimpochi, Tibet’s Interim Regent, who sent them a second pair of dogs. They returned to Tibet in 1935 and ‘37 and obtained their last pair of Lhasas, Le and Phema, from the 14th Dalai Lama in 1949 shortly before the Chinese Invasion of Tibet precluded opportunities for additional indigenous stock. Both became champions. Phema was never bred but lived to 15. Le lived to 18. Prized for his ability to stamp his progeny with his straight foreface and strong underjaw, he sired several influential dogs.

Altogether seven Tibetan imports formed the basis of the Hamilton Farms Lhasa Apso breeding program, which became internationally famed for its type and consistency. Their stock was found in pedigrees throughout the world and attracted celebrity fans who brought valuable public attention to the breed in the 1940s and ‘50s. Hamilton Farms kennel managers, Fred Huyler and James Anderson, originally came onboard as German Shepherd experts. We can only speculate on their thoughts when they contemplated the transition to a breed that was literally its polar opposite. But it was a resounding success. In 1959, Huyler became the first president of the American Lhasa Apso Club.

In 1935, the Lhasa Apso became the first small Tibetan breed admitted to the AKC. Then designated as Lhasa Terrier, the first AKC standard was approved in April that year, and the breed was unfortunately assigned to the Terrier Group. Throughout its history, the breed’s name has remained a source of confusion. AKC revised the name to Lhasa Apso in January, 1945. In 1959 it was changed from Lhasa Apso to Tibetan Apso. Ironically, in the midst of this irrational, illogical process, that change was rationalized as an effort to establish consistency because all other Tibetan breeds carried the country’s name. Despite that, it was again revised to Lhasa Apso in 1970. AKC transferred the breed from the Terrier to Non-Sporting Group in 1956.

That year, Ch. Hamilton Farms Torma earned the breed’s first Westminster group placement. On October 26, 1957 she also became the first Lhasa Best In Show winner. After Helen Cutting’s death in 1961, the Hamilton Farms Lhasas were sold to Dorothy Cohen’s Karma Kennel in Las Vegas. Cohen bred actively until 1974 producing 71 champions and leaving the breed a legacy of notable improvements in head type, bite and topline.

The Lhasa’s road to success was far rockier in Britain. The Tibetan Breeds Association issued the first Lhasa Apso Standard in 1934. The following year, only 12 were exhibited at Crufts, and only 10 were registered with The Kennel Club. The breed made scant progress when World War II dealt it another near-fatal blow. Numbers plummeted and once again the Kennel Club revoked its championship status.

New stock was imported from Tibet before that became impossible. Additional imports from India and America were also used to rebuild the breed. In 1955, a dedicated band of fanciers led by Irma Bailey broke away from the Tibetan Breeds Association and formed an independent specialty club which was Kennel Club-approved in December 1956. The breed was known as the Tibetan Apso in 1965 when the Kennel Club again offered CCs for the breed. Of the nine sets offered that year, five were won by the breed’s first post-war champion, Brackenbury Gunga Din of Verles. He picked up his sixth and final ticket at Crufts in 1967.

Gunga Din’s grandson, Ch. Verles Tom-Tru, became Britain’s first Best In Show Lhasa, winning an open show in 1967. In 1973 the first Championship BIS win, at the Ladies Kennel Association, went to Ch. Cheska Alexander of Sternroc bred by Frances Sefton and handled by Pamela Cross Stern. Winning a total of 36 CCs, he was also the breed’s first Crufts group winner. Finally, after more than a century of dodgy treatment as a British purebred, the Lhasa Apso got its payback with a win that would have been unimaginable 50 years earlier. In 1984, Jean Blyth’s Ch. Saxonsprings Hackensack handled by Geoff Corish and sired by Am./Eng. Ch. Orlanes Intrepid won Best in Show at Crufts.

Seeking recognition for a breed is never a simple process. It involves multiple challenges, which demand enormous financial and physical resources, creativity, steely perseverance, and incredible patience. Those responsible for establishing the Shih Tzu, Tibetan Terrier, and Lhasa Apso required extra helpings of these qualities to overcome the truly bizarre obstacles they confronted along the way.

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