The Great Tibetan Dog

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The Tibetan Mastiff has been a world wide staple of Tibetan culture that has recently spread through the western world and the Americas. During my first trip to China, specifically to the northwest corner of Yunnan Province in Shangri-la County, I had my first close up encounter with a traditional Tibetan Mastiff. I was on a volunteer trip through my University to work with local children on environmental sustainability, English skills, and sports, working with the China Exploration and Research Society or CERS. CERS’s founder Wong How Man created a purebred mastiff kennel in Deqen County in China, to preserve the declining gene pool that had been threatened by crossbreeding with other dogs. The program was recently halted after breeding mastiffs became a lucrative national craze, and a last remaining mastiff was re-located to the CERS Zhongdian Center in Shangri-La. This 10-year-old male mastiff wears the traditional black coat with brown marking under its neck and above his eyes.
Talking with staff and locals about the Tibetan mastiff, the importance of the breed to Tibetan nomadic and local culture really started to materialize for me. After looking through the library at the CERS Center, I found several books on the Tibetan mastiff and their importance to the Tibetan plateau.
The Tibetan mastiff breed is thought to be 5,000 years old, first originating from the eastern Himalayan mountains of Bhutan, Sikkim, and Tibet. One source described the Tibetan mastiff as the “Adam” of many of the large dog breeds, such as the Great Pyrenees, Burmese Mountain Dog, Rottweiler, and Saint Bernard. The oldest reports of the Tibetan mastiff go back as far as 1100 B.C.E. Tibetan mastiffs were described by both Greek and Roman historians as hunting dogs, and some were so furious they were put in Gladiator rings as fighters. The first pictures of Tibetan mastiffs were found in artifacts in Assyria and Babylonia around 700 B.C.E. While tutoring Alexander the Great, the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, documented his encounter with the “Great Dog of India” as the dogs were being brought back to Greece. These are believed to have been the Tibetan mastiff. He described the dog as a superior hunter that could even take out a full grown lion. There was a famous story told during those times of a great hunt for a large lion with four Dogs of India. Once the dogs got a hold of their targeted lion they would not unclench their jaws even when the hunter pulled at them to the point where their limbs were being ripped off.

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Their furiousness, loyalty, and size were reasons why they were also associated with some of the largest and most powerful nations such as the Persian Empire in the 6th century B.C.E., the Han Dynasty in 142 B.C.E., as well as with conquerors such as Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan. The famous Italian explorer Marco Polo heard of dogs from Tibet that were being sent by rulers to China. These large dogs, that were the size of a donkey and could kill a lion, were called “Liu Ngao” in China. Marco Polo had to see such an animal himself, and he not only found these dogs but started to study them around 1307. He described the Tibetan dogs, “...as strong, powerful, noble dogs, which are valuable servants on catching and hunting the musk-deer.” He also confirmed the stories he heard, describing the Tibetan mastiffs as being “tall as a donkey with a voice as powerful as that of a lion.” Tibetan Mastiffs have also been used throughout history as gifts to people of important status and power. One of the oldest documentations of the Tibetan Mastiff was found in western China, when the Liu people sent a Tibetan Mastiff named “Ngao” to Wou- Wang, Emperor of China. In 1847, the Viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge, sent “Siring,” a Tibetan Mastiff, to Queen Victoria. The breed didn’t take hold in the kingdom due to their health, ferocity, and the hardship endured during the trip from the Himalayas to the British Isle. The United States received two Tibetan Mastiffs from Nepal in 1958, as a gift to President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Despite its name, the Tibetan Mastiff is not actually a true mastiff. The English, at the time it was introduced, called every new big dog breed mastiffs. They are more a mountain dog and are considered to be in the “Large Molossus Type” dog breed group along with the Saint Bernard. Historians have recorded Tibetan mastiffs weighing well over 215lbs, but now males are more commonly found weighing around 100-160 lbs. (75-120 for females). Tibetan Mastiffs usually live a relatively healthy 10 to 15 years. This breed matures late in their age, compared to other breeds, with males and females maturing around 3 to 5 years after birth. Their birthing season normally sits around December/January.

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Tibetan Mastiffs have a distinct body type and color that has helped historians identify them in ancient text and stories. They have a well-portioned body with a large head with ears set high in a V shape. Their bushy tail sits high and hangs over the dog’s back. They are known to commonly have double dewclaws on their hind legs and a 5th toe may even be found on their forelegs at times. The coat of the Tibetan Mastiff has a soft, wooly undercoat that can have the texture of anything from silky to coarse. This coat can handle some of the harshest of weathers. Most common Tibetan Mastiff coat colors are black with rust brown markings, and the marking may also be yellowish to dark mahogany, solid red, red with dark saddle, solid black-brown and brown/tan. White can also appear on the chest or toes. Tibetans believe when a mastiff has markings over their eye it is good luck because it gives the mastiff an extra pair of eyes to guard with.
Pure bred Tibetan mastiffs can be seen wearing a red yak hair collar called the kekhor. This collar is a sign of the dog’s status. It also makes the dog look larger while adding extra neck protection from snow leopards and wolves who will try to bite at the neck in the event of an attack. The red dye also allows their owners and other travelers to identify them at farther distances.
There are two true types of Tibetan Mastiffs surrounding the Himalayans: the “Do-Khyi” and “Tsang-Khyi”. The Do-Khyi live in villages or travel with their nomadic caretakers. Their main purpose is to guard the flock of sheep and yak from predators. The Tsang- Khyi is considered to be larger in nature than the Do-Khyi and were often given to lamaseries to serve as protectors for the Tibetan Buddhist monks and lamas. For centuries, the Tibetan mastiff’s natural instinct was to deter unwanted guest that threatened homes and livestock. Their bark is warm and loud like that of a lion’s roar, making even the biggest of predators think twice before coming near.

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Historians and people today all agree that the Tibetan Mastiff shows great strength, courage, independence, and loyalty. But Tibetan Mastiffs can be very stubborn. When training, they quickly ignore physical or forced punishment and are best taught with consistency and persistence given in a gentle and loving manner. That being said they are still extremely good-natured, intelligent, curious, and bold.

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The Tibetan Mastiff is growing in popularity around the world and you can see why from all their great history and their impressive physical characteristics. In 2011, a Tibetan Mastiff in northern China was sold for 10 million Yuan and became the most expensive dog ever sold. Unfortunately, their numbers are no longer high in their homelands surrounding the Himalayans, despite the high prices. In the early 1900s, a large portion of the Tibetan Mastiffs first came from Bhutan, but now numbers have fallen. They are needed again to scare off Snow leopards, which are now illegal to kill. CERS plans again to save a cultural icon by sending young Tibetan mastiffs back to Bhutan, in hopes that their numbers will grow and they will once again become the protectors of the Himalayas.