The Bisben is a large herding breed native to the Himalaya Mountains of Asia. The breed is said to be both an excellent herder and guard dog. There is substantial dispute as to the breed’s true nature, with some claiming that it is a type of Mastiff and others that it is a more wolf-like animal. In fact, the Bisben is probably best defined not as a breed, but as a landrace or generic type. The Bisben is supposedly popular in India but is essentially unknown elsewhere in the world. The Bisben is a dog of many names and is also known as the Bisben Sheepdog, Bisben Shepherd, Himalayan Bisben, Himalayan Bisben Sheepdog, Himalayan Bisben Shepherd, Himalayan Sheepdog, Himalayan Shepherd, Indian Sheepdog, and Indian Shepherd.
Almost nothing is known for sure about the history of the Bisben. All that is clear is that it was developed in the Himalaya Mountains, probably within Indian national borders, and that it was primarily used to herd and protect livestock. Records seem to indicate that the Bisben was developed no later than the late 1700’s, but it could be many centuries older.
There are many distinct theories regarding the origin of the Bisben, but they tend to fall into three main categories. By far the most commonly held theory is that the breed was developed by repeatedly crossing a variety of Indian and Himalayan Sheepdogs with wolves. Genetic testing would likely be able to confirm this theory, but it does not seemed to have been performed on the breed as of yet. This theory is quite possible. There is a surprisingly large wolf population in both India and the Himalayas, which usually lives in very close contact to both humans and their dogs. Additionally, both the Indian and Tibetan Wolf subspecies are regarded as being considerably smaller, less aggressive, and more comfortable in the presence of humans than wolves found elsewhere in the world. It has also been suggested that the Bisben is actually the result of crossing the Tibetan Mastiff with sheep herding dogs. This could very well explain the breed’s large size and strong protective instincts. Other theorists claim that the Bisben was developed by crossing dogs native to the Indian subcontinent with ones imported into the region by British, French, and Portuguese imperialists. Although there are no records of this practice, the British were known to bring their dogs with them to India, and it is very possible, and extremely likely, that some crossing did take place. It is also quite possible that the truth of the Bisben’s ancestry is a combination of all three theories, and that the breed has the blood of local sheepdogs, European breeds, Tibetan Mastiffs, and wolves.
However the Bisben was developed, it came to be highly respected throughout the Southern Himalayas. The local peoples used the breed to herd their flocks of sheep and goats as they grazed through the remote and often treacherous mountain passes. The Bisben had to develop into one of the toughest of all herding dogs to work in an environment that is considered one of the harshest on Earth. The breed had to be capable of surviving freezing temperatures, extremely high altitudes, and terrain so dangerous that one misstep spells certain death. If the land itself was not harsh enough, it was inhabited by a suite of deadly predators. Although development and poachers have driven most of these animals to near-extinction, at one point the region was home to large populations of Asiatic black bears, Himalayan brown bears, Tibetan and Indian wolves, dholes, snow leopards, tigers, golden eagles, and several species of fox and small cat, all of which will readily attack and kill a sheep if provided the opportunity. Himalayan shepherds only kept those dogs which were large, powerful, courageous, and fierce enough to do battle with these beasts. These shepherds quickly discovered that dogs that would unhesitatingly lay down their lives for a sheep would also do the same for their owners, and the dogs quickly became the treasured guardians of Himalayan families.
Although it is rarely mentioned in Western literature, there is very possibly a connection between the Bisben and the Yeti, sometimes known as the Abominable Snowman, Meh Teh, or Wildman. In the West, the Yeti is commonly regarded as a creature of myth and legend, but native Himalayans consider the beast to be just as real as a bear or dog. Although Yeti traditions vary from region to region, many stories claim that the creature has either an affinity for eating sheep, an intense hatred of dogs, or perhaps both. There are several accounts of Yetis deliberately attacking and killing dogs. Some claim that the Yeti singled out the dog, others that the dog was attacked while defending its flock or master from the giant creature. If these accounts are accurate, the dogs in them are almost certainly Bisbens.
Although herding and protection are the Bisben’s primary uses, the dog is also employed as a hunter throughout India. The breed hunts prey as large as deer and antelope either singly or in packs. The dog is said to be excellently suited for local conditions and is one of the most commonly used hunting dogs in India. The Bisben is said to be both dedicated and ferocious when on the hunt.
For many centuries, the Himalayas were almost entirely isolated from the outside world. That began to change in the 17th through 19th Centuries when the British began expanding their territorial control to include the entire Indian subcontinent. The Raj connected the people of the tropical lowlands with those of the mountains to an extent never before seen. This contact introduced the majority of the Indian population to the Bisben for the first time. The breed eventually spread throughout all of India. Although some Indian shepherds used the breed for herding and protecting their livestock, it became most popular as a protection animal and companion. India continues to experience massive waves of population growth and immigration. This has resulted in increased crime in some areas, and widespread feelings of insecurity. Many have sought to protect themselves with dogs. The Bisben, renowned for its intense devotion and extreme protectiveness, has greatly increased in popularity as a result. The breed is currently one of the most popular, if not the most popular, guard and personal protection animals in India.
While many Bisbens are exclusively mated with other Bisbens, the breed is not purebred in the modern sense. Few, if any, Bisbens have pedigrees and crossing Bisben to other breeds and even mixed-breed dogs is very commonly practiced. As a result, the Bisben is quite variable in appearance. This variability may account for confusion surrounding the breed’s true nature and the substantially different descriptions of its appearance. It does not appear that Bisben fanciers have the interest to form a more regulated breeding program, nor is it likely that this will occur in the future. Because the Bisben is not pure bred in the modern sense, it has not yet achieved recognition with any major kennel clubs, all of which require that dogs registered with them have pedigrees. In fact, the Bisben probably does not meet the true definition of a breed at all, but rather that of a landrace or type. A breed is a deliberately and carefully selected pure bred animal, which depending on the preferred definition requires a pedigree. A landrace is unique local variety that has been developed either by natural selection or breeding for purpose only. To borrow a well-known example from the horse world, the feral Mustang is a landrace while the Appaloosa is a breed which was developed from it.
The Bisben continues to grow in both popularity and numbers in its homeland. This will probably continue for as long as the Indian population continues to boom. However, the breed remains essentially unknown outside of its homeland. Bisbens are found in several of the countries which neighbor India, but have not achieved anywhere near the popularity they have in India. It is not clear whether or not any Bisbens have been imported to Europe, Japan, or North America. If any have, it has been only a few individual dogs, and the breed has not yet become established in the developed world.
The Bisben is quite variable in appearance, likely the result of it not being kept especially pure bred. As a result, anything said about its appearance is a loose generality and should be taken as such. One of the Bisben’s most defining characteristics is its large size. The dog is one of the largest found in India and usually stands around 26 inches tall at the shoulder, about the same height as a Newfoundland or Bernese Mountain Dog. Reports on the breed’s weight vary greatly. Some say that it is as thick and bulky as a Mastiff and often exceeds 100 pounds, while others claim that it is lithe and athletic and weighs as little as 40 to 55. Most sources seem to think that the Bisben is leaner and more athletic than most Mastiff-type dogs but somewhat more sturdily built than an average breed. In truth individual adult Bisbens probably range from 40 to 120 pounds depending on height and build.
There is substantial debate as to the correct head and face of the Bisben. It is commonly said that the breed is mistaken for a type of Tibetan Mastiff, and sometimes even classified as a Mastiff. If so, this would mean that the breed has a massive squarely shaped head, with a short, wide muzzle. However, it is also commonly said that the breed’s defining feature is its long, wolf-like head and face which are nothing like those of a Mastiff. The reason behind this confusion is probably two-fold. The long hair of the Bisben probably partially obscures the breed’s structure, and possibly makes it appear more mastiff-like. It is also quite possible that the Mastiff-like Bisbens are actually Mastiff/Bisben crosses or Tibetan Mastiff’s mistaken for Bisbens.
The coat of the Bisben is said to be medium to long in length and harsh or coarse in texture. Some claim that the coat is wiry like that of a Terrier, but not all agree. This coat protects the breed from the harsh elements and dangerous predators of the Himalayas. The Bisben supposedly comes in a wide variety of colors. The most common is apparently jet black, either solidly or with white markings on the feet and chest. Other commonly seen colors are tan, tricolor, and “wolf-color,” which probably means grey, brown, black, and/or various shades of sable.
The Bisben’s temperament is probably the breed’s most important characteristic and is the reason for its popularity in India. The Bisben is said to be extremely loyal, unfailingly courageous, and extremely protective of its territory and family. The Bisben is known to become incredibly devoted to its family, with which it forms close bonds. Those individuals that are raised with children are usually good with them, but some breed members may consider them a potential threat. A dedicated protector, the Bisben is known to be extremely suspicious of all strangers. Socialization is of the utmost importance for this breed, because without it this natural suspicion frequently becomes exaggerated into aggression. The alert and extremely territorial Bisben makes an excellent watchdog that will not allow anyone to approach unchallenged. However, it truly excels as a guard dog and flock guardian. This breed will ferociously face down any foe, human or animal, that it sees as a threat to its territory or “pack.” A Bisben will go to any length to defend against what it perceives to be a threat, and this is not a dog to be messed with.
The Bisben has a mixed reputation with other animals. Unless they have been carefully trained and socialized from a young age to work with them, most breed members are highly dog aggressive. This breed exhibits most forms of dog aggression including territorial, dominance, possessiveness, same-sex, and prey driven, and most breed members do best as either a single dog or with one member of the opposite sex. When raised with livestock, the Bisben comes to see them as members of its “pack” and will give them little trouble. However, this breed has a very high prey drive. Most breed members will attempt to pursue and attack strange animals, and many Bisbens will kill them if provided the opportunity. While most breed members can be socialized with individual animals if raised alongside them, some are never entirely trustworthy with them.
The Bisben is considered a very challenging breed to train. While this breed is considered to be highly intelligent and an excellent problem solver, it is also considered extremely stubborn and dominant. If a Bisben decides that is not willing to learn/do something that is essentially the end of that. Bisben’s will absolutely not respond to the commands of someone that they do not respect, and this breed should only be kept by those who are able to maintain a constant position of dominance. This does not mean that the Bisben is not trainable, quite the opposite as these dogs are capable of learning a great deal. It does mean that a Bisben will take much longer to train that most breeds, and that their training ceiling is probably significantly lower than that exhibited by most herding breeds.
The Bisben was bred to work for long hours in some of the most trying conditions on Earth. As a result, this is an immensely physically capable breed with exercise requirements to match. A Bisben should get at least an hour of vigorous physical activity every day, and preferably more. Bisbens that are not properly exercised usually develop severe behavioral problems such as destructiveness, excessive barking, aggression, fearfulness, hyper activity, and over excitability. Although this breed enjoys going for walks and jogs, it greatly prefers the opportunity to roam freely in a safely enclosed area. This dog is known to adapt very poorly to urban life and is much happier in a country environment.
The Bisben has very low grooming requirements. This dog should never require professional grooming, only a regular brushing. There does not seem to be any information as to the Bisben’s shedding. Presumably the breed does shed although its coat type may indicate that it is only a light to average shedder.
There have apparently not been any health surveys of the Bisben breed, and based on current conditions in India it is highly unlikely that any will be conducted for the foreseeable future. As a result it is impossible to make any definitive statements on the breed’s health. Since the breed is bred primarily for working ability and temperament rather than appearance, it is likely that the Bisben is in relatively good health. However, poor breeding practices and lack of proper testing may have compromised the health of certain lines.
Because skeletal and visual problems may occur in this breed, it is highly advisable for owners to have their pets tested by both the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF). The OFA and CERF perform genetic and other tests to identify potential health defects before they show up. This is especially valuable in the detection of conditions that do not show up until the dog has reached an advanced age, making it especially important for anyone considering breeding their dog to have them tested to prevent the spread of potential genetic conditions to its offspring. It is highly advisable to request that breeders show any OFA and CERF documentation that they have on a puppy or its parents, which essentially all reputable breeders will have.
Although it is unclear what conditions are predominant in the Bisben, some of the most common concerns among dogs of similar size, usage, and coat type include: