Much like the snowy Himalayan Mountain peaks from which they hail, the history of the Tibetan Mastiff is clouded in mystery and allure. Called Do-khyi in their native Tibet, the name meaning “door-guard”, “home-guard”, “dog that may be tied” or "dog which may be kept" depending on the translation, represents adequately the true purpose for which the Tibetan Mastiff was initially bred; to be a large protective dog with a with a fierce bark and an intimidating presence. Instinctively the Tibetan Mastiff is instinctually possessive, making the breed a guardian and protector by nature.
There has been, historically, a differentiation in types for the Tibetan Mastiff. Although sprung from the same litters, these two types of Tibetan Mastiffs differ only in size and build. The types are referred to as “Do-khyi” for the smaller more common Tibetan Mastiff and “Tsang-khyi” for the larger, more thickly boned type. Other names that the Tibetan Mastiff has been known by include: “Bhote Kukur” (Tibetan Dog) in Nepal, “Zang’Ao” (Tibetan big ferocious dog) in Mandarin Chinese, and “Bankhar” (Guard dog) in Mongolian. Regardless of what the breed’s proper name is or should be the Tibetan Mastiff has had a long and glorious history, spanning a great many centuries.
A truly prehistoric breed, the exact genealogy of the Tibetan Mastiff is impossible to know, as its existence predates the keeping of written breeding records and likely the invention of writing. In trying to date this ancient breed, the Agricultural University Laboratory of Animal Reproductive Genetic and Molecular Evolution in Nanjing, China, conducted a study to determine when dog breeds began to split genetically from the wolf. The study found that while the majority of breeds made the divide roughly 42,000 years ago, the Tibetan Mastiff split from the wolf much earlier, around 58,000 years ago, making it one of the first distinguishable dog breeds in existence; developing simultaneously and alongside the wolf for many years before other dog breeds began their own evolutions.
Large bones and skulls found at archaeological sites dating to the Stone and Bronze Ages show evidence of the Tibetan Mastiff type as being present in early prehistoric civilization. Ancient records first mention the breed when it is recorded that an early Tibetan Mastiff type was, in 1121 B.C., given as a hunting dog to the Emperor of China. Due to the treacherous mountain terrain of their home country, the early Tibetan Mastiff was geographically isolated from the outside world, residing for generations in the close knit communities of the nomadic peoples of Tibet. Free from outside influences, the isolation allowed the Tibetan Mastiff to traverse the millennia, from generation to generation in its original form.
Although not all Tibetan Mastiffs would remain secluded; over the centuries some would be gifted away or captured; these escapees would eventually be crossed with other local dogs and become the forefathers of many of the worlds “Mastiff” breeds. The Tibetan Mastiff would also accompany the great armies of the ancient world such as those of Persia, Assyria, Greece, and Rome. Eurasian military expeditions of such leaders as Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan would bring the Tibetan Mastiff type further into the modern European continent. It is legend that each group in Genghis Khan’s army would include two Tibetan Mastiffs to be used as sentries (the definition of which is a soldier who stands guard and prevents the passage of unauthorized persons; especially at a pass, gate, or such).
Though the breed’s true evolutionary course, as with many very old dog breeds, is somewhat debatable, this historical background does lend itself to the theory that the Tibetan Mastiff may have been a precursor to all Molossus or Molosser dog breeds from the ancient world. The term “Molosser” is used generally to describe several large-breed dogs, as is the term “Mastiff”; and although similar, the breeds falling into these two categories evolved into very distinctly separate and unique breeds.
Known well in the Greco-Roman world, the now extinct Molussus breed was so named for the Mollossian mountain dwellers of Ancient Greece, who were known for keeping large, fierce and protective hounds. As the true Molossus breed is no more and few records of them have survived, there is some scholarly debate as to their original appearance and use. They may have been used for fighting in the arena of the ancient world, as hunting companions, or as guard dogs.
What is known is that with the migration of the Roman people and their culture into the far corners of the then known world, the Molossus type dog would also spread throughout the ancient continent; and although no longer in true breed form, the Molossus would become a vital link in the development of modern large-breed dogs such as the Great Dane, St. Bernard, Great Pyrenees, Rottweiler, Newfoundland, and mountain dogs such as the Great Swiss and Bernese.
Documented history and legend does show the Tibetan Mastiff, as its name Do-khyi would imply, was used by nomadic Tibetan mountain dwellers to guard their families, livestock, and property. Due to their ferocity they were typically confined during the day, and loosed at night to patrol the villages and camps where they would ward off unwelcomed intruders, and any predatory wildlife looking to fill their bellies. Early records also show that Lamaist monks, deep in the Himalayan Mountains of Tibet, used the Tibetan Mastiff for protection of the monastery. These vicious guardians would work in conjunction with the smaller Tibetan Spaniel to provide security for the temple. The Tibetan Spaniel or “Little Lion” as it was then known, would perch itself atop the monastery walls and astutely observe the perimeter for signs of intruders or new arrivals, at which time it would declaratively bark out their presence; alerting the much larger Tibetan Mastiff, who would then investigate, and if necessary provide an aggressive defense. Teamwork such as this is not uncommon in the dog world, the relationship between the small sheep herding Puli and the much larger Komondor is much the same; not possessing the requisite size and strength, the former would serve to alert the latter (whose job was to defend) of threats to the flock such as wolves or bears.
In the 1300’s, Marco Polo mentioned a dog that may have been an early Tibetan Mastiff, however it is commonly thought that he did not encounter the breed himself, but may only have heard of it through the accounts of other travelers coming from Tibet. There is also mention of the Tibetan Mastiff in the 1600’s when Jesuit missionaries recounted tales of a dog breed in Tibet as being: “uncommon and extraordinary…black with long glossy hair, very big and sturdily built…their bark is most alarming.”
Few western travelers were permitted to enter Tibet prior to the 1800’s; Samuel Turner, in his work "An Account of an Embassy to the Court of Teshoo Lama, in Tibet: Containing a Narrative Journey through Bootan , and Part of Tibet", (very early 1800’s) recounts his experience with the Tibetan Mastiff, writing that:
“The mansion stood upon the right; on the left was a row of wooden cages, containing a number of huge dogs, tremendously fierce, strong and noisy. They were natives of Tibet; and whether savage in nature, or soured by confinement, they were so impetuously furious, that it was unsafe, unless the keepers were near, even to approach their dens.”
In the 1880’s W. Gill, in "The river of golden sand: being a narrative of a journey through China" and eastern Tibet to Burmah, gave a detailed description of the Tibetan Mastiff in his most original form when he noted:
“The chief had a huge dog, kept in a cage on top of the wall at the entrance. It was a very heavily built black-and-tan, the tan of a very good color; his coat was rather long, but smooth; he had a bushy tail, smooth tan legs, and an enormous head that seemed out of proportion to the body, very much like that of a bloodhound in shape with overhanging lips. His bloodshot eyes were very deep-set, and his ears were flat and dropping. He had tan spots over the eyes, and a tan spot on the breast. He measured four feet from the point of the nose to the root of the tail, and two feet ten inches in height at the shoulder…”
Little was known of the Tibetan Mastiff in the Western world outside of the spoken accounts of travelers who had returned from the east. In 1847, Lord Hardinge of India, sent a large Tibetan dog named "Siring" to Queen Victoria; freeing the Tibetan Mastiff of its centuries long isolation from the modern world. With the inception of the Kennel Club (KC) in England, in 1873, the “large dog from Tibet” was titled as a “Mastiff” for the first time in history. The KC’s first official studbook of all known dog breeds included the Tibetan Mastiff in its records.
The Prince of Wales (later to be King Edward VII), brought two Tibetan Mastiffs into England in 1874. These dogs were exhibited at the Alexandra Palace show held in the winter of 1875. Over the next 50 years, only a small number of Tibetan Mastiffs were brought into England and other European countries. The breed was, however, shown at the 1906 Crystal Palace dog show. In 1928, Colonel Bailey of England, and his wife brought four Tibetan Mastiffs into the country that he had acquired while working in Nepal and Tibet as a Political Officer.
Mrs. Bailey formed the Tibetan Breeds Association in 1931 and established the first breed standard for the Tibetan Mastiff type. This standard would later be incorporated into the breed standards recognized by the Kennel Club and the Federation Cynological International (FCI), a blanket organization for official dog breeds and standards regulating many different breed clubs throughout the world.
Although there are no records of Tibetan Mastiffs being brought into England from World War II until 1976, the Tibetan Mastiff did make its way to America during this time. The Tibetan Mastiff made its first recorded appearance in the United States when two specimens of the breed were by the Dalai Lama sent as gifts to President Eisenhower during the 1950's. The foundation of the American Tibetan Mastiff would however; not come from these presidential dogs, but from imports sent into the United States from India and Nepal in 1969.
The American Tibetan Mastiff Association (ATMA) was formed in 1974, with the first officially recognized member of the breed being a Nepalese import named Jumla’s Kalu of Jumia. The ATMA is the Tibetan Mastiff’s official United States network and registry. At the National Specialty Match in 1979, the Tibetan Mastiff would make his American dog show debut.
Although still commonly bred to perform their ancient guardian duties by the nomadic peoples of the Chang-tang plateau today, pure-bred Tibetan Mastiffs are hard to come by in most parts of their native land. Outside of Tibet however, the Tibetan Mastiff continued to be intermittently bred with the intent of perfecting the breed. In 2006, the Tibetan Mastiff was recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC) and placed in the Working Group. The West Minster Kennel Club Show saw its first Tibetan Mastiff competitor in 2008.
The modern Tibetan Mastiff is considered a rare breed, with 300 estimated to be living in England. The breed is currently ranked 124th out of 167 recognized AKC recognized breed on its list of most popular dogs for 2010; an increase of seven positions from its place in 131st just one year earlier.
In China, the Tibetan Mastiff is highly prized for his rarity and history. Thought to be one of the oldest non-extinct dog breeds still in existence today, it is believed they bring good fortune to the owner. The Tibetan Mastiff is also a pure Asian breed, which further adds to its local appeal. In 2009 a Tibetan Mastiff puppy was sold to a woman from China for 4 million yuan (approximately $600,000) making the dog the most expensive ever purchased up to that time. The trend of exorbitant prices being paid in China, to acquire Tibetan Mastiff pups continues, and in 2010 one sold for 16 million yuan, then again in 2011 a red Mastiff (red thought to be a lucky color in Chinese culture) sold for 10 million yuan.
The Tibetan Mastiff is a strikingly large breed, heavily-boned and solidly built; with males standing 26 or more inches at the withers and the females falling just short of that requirement at 24 inches. The weight for a Tibetan Mastiff is generally between 140 and 180 lbs. There appearance is impressive, one of power and strength, with a commanding presence and somber expression. The Tibetan Mastiff’s frame is tall, but slightly longer than the height at the withers. He has a balanced and determined gait, but has been described as “light-footed” as well.
The Tibetan Mastiff has an enormous head, broad at the back and weighty. The well defined stop is deep. The eyes are medium sized, almond shaped, and set deep into the face with a slight slant to them. They are profoundly expressive and can be varying shades of brown. The wide, square muzzle sports a proportionally broad nose, rich in pigmentation with wide-open nostrils. The thick lower lip hangs somewhat loosely. The Tibetan Mastiff’s teeth should display a tight scissors bite. The pendant ears fall near to the head, but when alert they are raised; set high on the skull. The ear itself is thick and smooth, with shorter glossy hair covering it.
The Tibetan Mastiff has a straight topline; with a neck that is slightly arched, thick and muscular. The neck is sheathed in a thick mane of hair that is more substantial in males than females. The deep chest gives way to a solidly built shoulder. The forequarters are strong and straight, with slightly sloped pasterns; the front feet are cat-like and may have a dewclaw. Somewhat angular, the Tibetan Mastiff’s hindquarters are extremely powerful and well-muscled. Double dewclaws may be seen in the rear feet of the breed. The tail of the Tibetan Mastiff is moderate in length and set-high; when engaged in activity, the dog will often carry the tail in a curl over the back.
The Tibetan Mastiff’s coat is striking. Fuller in males than in females of the breed, the Tibetan Mastiff has a thick double-coat of long coarse hair on the outer layer, but abundant and soft under layer. This heavy under-coat protected the breed in the bitter cold winter conditions of their native Tibet, and during warmer seasons, the coat may become rather light. The Tibetan Mastiff’s coat is never soft and silky like many dog breeds. The coat is woolly, straight, long, and rough with a thick mane of hair around their neck and shoulders.
The Tibetan Mastiff displays multiple color schemes in his coat. The breed may show black, brown, or blue/grey coats; these all may or may not include tan markings around the eyes, sides of the muzzle, on the throat and legs, and on the toes. White markings may occasionally been seen on the breast and feet. The coat of the Tibetan Mastiff may be any variation of gold as well. In the dog show circuit, the Tibetan Mastiff is untrimmed and presented in the natural state for judging.
Although one of the oldest living dog breeds remaining in pure form, the Tibetan Mastiff is still considered to be an archaic breed. The primal instincts that once governed this massive breed are still very apparent in the Tibetan Mastiff’s temperament and personality today. Bred to be a fierce guardian of persons and property, the Tibetan Mastiff retains many of those natural protective instincts. In ancient times, the ferocity of the Tibetan Mastiff was highly prized and puppies were trained to have an aggressive nature; taught to be territorial in order to guard the home.
Training habits of the native Tibetan breeders of today have not changed much, and while there are only moderate numbers of purebred Tibetan Mastiffs left in their home country, those that do remain are still bred in the old way, to be much like those large, ferocious, and fearless Tibetan Mastiff’s of the primitive world. Those bred in the West (Europe and America) are generally handled more gently than their native cousins. The Tibetan Mastiff is still trained to be a guard dog, but harsh treatment is no longer the prescription for such training. The Western bred Tibetan Mastiff is less aggressive in his temperament, while still maintaining his guardian instincts.
The Tibetan Mastiff is and always will be primitive, so some care should be taken so as not to forget that as a general rule they are less aggressive than in days past, however not all dogs will behave the same. Proper socialization, training, and the establishment of “pack order” early in the dog’s life are absolutely essential to prevent a Tibetan Mastiff from becoming more ferocious than is necessary for modern times and a modern society.
The Tibetan Mastiff is an intelligent breed, however he can be willful and training can be complicated and extremely involved. Stanley Coren, in The Intelligence of Dogs, does not specifically list the Tibetan Mastiff, but lists “Mastiffs” as a whole as being of the “Lowest Degree of Working/Obedience Intelligence” meaning that the Tibetan Mastiff will understand new commands with 80-100 repetitions and will obey a first command about 25% of the time or worse.
This should not be however, taken to mean that the Tibetan Mastiff is stupid, or dumb; it should be understood to mean that although the breed is smart, the dog will have a mind of his own and be a free-thinker; able to problem solve and come up with creative solutions independently of their owner. Unsupervised, the Tibetan Mastiffs of old would be let out in the evenings to patrol the nomadic camps and to guard villages and monasteries. They are not inclined to try to please their masters, but only interested in performing their intended tasks and remain very much of that same mind-set today.
The duties of the Tibetan Mastiff in ancient times created a nocturnal breed. Often, the Tibetan Mastiff will sleep during the day to save energy in anticipation of a long evening of patrols. Although mostly quiet and calm during day-light hours, the Tibetan Mastiff is extremely vocal in the evenings; active, engaged, and alert in his guardian duties, often investigating the slightest sounds and movement that seem to the dog to be out of place or unfamiliar. The Tibetan Mastiff will bark often to alert of his investigations, which in ancient times would’ve been acceptable. More modern conditions often do not allow for such consistent night barking and if living within range of neighbors, the Tibetan Mastiff owner should be aware of the possibility of nuisance and keep the dog indoors during the evenings.
It is very important that the Tibetan Mastiff be kept in a well-fenced yard. The dog will require time outside and for its own safety and that of others the yard should be securely fenced. This will not only keep the Tibetan Mastiff contained, as the breed is known to roam, but it will also help to establish territorial boundaries of ownership for the dog. Because of their possessiveness and guardian nature, the Tibetan Mastiff is quick to take ownership of people, places, and things. To prevent this becoming a problem, the Tibetan Mastiff should learn early on what it is appropriate to protect and what is not its territory.
This extreme guardian nature can be troublesome if not kept in proper check, however this sincere characteristic is meant for good. One way in which the usefulness of this trait is displayed, is the known relationship Tibetan Mastiffs have with children. They are shown to be very protective of children in particular and are extremely patient with them. Caution should be taken when including a Tibetan Mastiff into a house with very young children however, as his sheer size and primitive nature can be a safety concern. Also, unknown friends of young children should be kept separate from the Tibetan Mastiff, as children’s’ play and level of noise can be misinterpreted as being threatening by the dog.
The Tibetan Mastiff is a loyal companion and a good member of the family. Once ownership of the family is established, the Tibetan Mastiff is fiercely loyal and will protect what is his against any and all types of peril. With their family, the Tibetan Mastiff can be a joy; ready to play at a moment’s notice.
The Tibetan Mastiff is often suspicious of strangers, however. Aggression may be shown by the breed if an unknown person approaches the Tibetan Mastiff’s perceived territory. When accompanied by its master, the Tibetan Mastiff may not show signs of aggression towards strangers, but may be distant and reserved. The Tibetan Mastiff is often defensive of its “pack” and territory until a stranger becomes known to him and trust is developed.
Being such a large breed, the dog can be dominant with other animals and some aggression may be shown if the unfamiliar animal appears to be a threat. Proper socialization will help prevent unnecessary displays of dominance. It is important to keep in mind that the Tibetan Mastiff behaves the best with other pets he has grown-up with since puppyhood. It is not recommended that an owner attempt to introduce a new pet into the Tibetan Mastiff’s life after maturity.
Being self-governed throughout their ancient breeding, the Tibetan Mastiff developed an independent nature which makes him a challenge to train. The Tibetan Mastiff is also slow to mature both physically and emotionally, so training the Tibetan Mastiff is a time-consuming task. The breed will require the utmost patience and sensitivity while it slowly adapts to life and learns his surroundings. Intensive training of the Tibetan Mastiff can take two years and should be done by the owner to correctly establish leadership within the family unit.
Having an “alpha-dog” mentality was necessary for safety in his ancient past. Therefore, the Tibetan Mastiff needs strongly established boundaries as to what is appropriate, acceptable behavior and what is not. A professional trainer of large breeds may be consulted to assist in the training of the young Tibetan Mastiff however actual training exercises should be performed by the owner.
The breed will assume its dominance unless properly taught the pack order within the family unit. The training should begin when the Tibetan Mastiff is very young. The dog should be socialized at every opportunity. The Tibetan Mastiff’s socialization is of the utmost importance. He should be taken out into the world to meet other dogs, other types of pets, and new people; he should be exposed to as many different types of experiences and things as is possible. This will help the puppy to understand its place in the world, its place among others that it encounters, and will assist it to know what is truly its pack and territory, and what is not.
Being that the Tibetan Mastiff is so large, it is important to keep the dog on a leash when walking to ensure its safety and the safety of others. It has been suggested that varying the walking route when the dog is young helps to make the pup aware that it does not “own” the entire neighborhood and may make it less aggressive towards others encountered on these walks.
All training of the Tibetan Mastiff should be done with care. No harsh actions or words should be used with the breed to prevent the dog becoming difficult and improperly prepared for adulthood. The Tibetan Mastiff is capable of learning obedience training, but it is not its strong point and formal obedience training is not generally recommended for the breed.
When puppies, the Tibetan Mastiff will be full of energy, spunky, lively, and ready to play and learn; making this an ideal time for it to be taught to live in the world. This enthusiasm changes some as the dog ages. As adults, the Tibetan Mastiff is calmer and more independent in nature, true to his duties as guard dog and watchful of his pack.
The Tibetan Mastiff is considered to be a good housemate; loving and protective of his family, easy to house-break, and an all around clean breed. The Tibetan Mastiff does have a tendency to chew and dig as is its nature, but especially when bored. The Tibetan Mastiff is a breed used to having a job and can become bored easily. A yard where the dog can exercise and toys enough to chew will prevent any damage to property caused by the Tibetan Mastiff.
Although not generally susceptible to sensitivity as a breed, the Tibetan Mastiff can be sensitive to change. The Tibetan Mastiff, being a large breed that requires much attention will need both physical and emotional support throughout its early development and training. The Tibetan Mastiff was originally bred to be an outside dog and the breed will require time spent outside often. If this requirement is not satisfied, the Tibetan Mastiff may become depressed and destructive.
Apartment living is not recommended for the Tibetan Mastiff due to the size of the breed, however if an active lifestyle is ever present, the possibility for the Tibetan Mastiff to be a successful apartment dweller is there. A further commitment by the owner would, however, be required in order to maintain the Tibetan Mastiff’s physical and emotional health in such a situation. The Tibetan Mastiff will require an adequate amount of space; in the owner’s life and in their home, in order to be well-adjusted.
Despite any difficulty that may arise in the Tibetan Mastiff breed, their personality is generally well received and highly valued by their families once properly developed. When handled correctly and consistently supervised by a loving and dedicated owner, the Tibetan Mastiff can grow into a trustworthy and devoted companion and a successful member of the family.
The Tibetan Mastiff is a dog bred in the harsh conditions of the Himalayan Mountains of Tibet. The climate there can be extremely cold and cruel. To protect it from the frigid elements of nature, the Tibetan Mastiff sports a thick double-coat. Because of the thickness and length of the coat, the Tibetan Mastiff should be brushed weekly to keep his coat free of dead hairs, mats, and dirt.
The double-coat is kept throughout the year, with an annual shedding usually in the Spring and Summer months; lasting roughly six to eight weeks. Once the shedding months begin, the Tibetan Mastiff will shed heavily. Often large clumps of the under-coat will be shed at once during this time, and the Tibetan Mastiff will require more regular brushing to control the shedding. Once daily is ideal, however several times a week should suffice. The coat sheds dirt and odor, therefore the Tibetan Mastiff usually lacks the intrusive scent that big dogs are often known for.
The female Tibetan Mastiff is unique as far as dog breeds go, in that she will have only one session being in heat per year, at this time she will “blow” out her under-coat. Other than these heavy shedding months, the Tibetan Mastiff is considered to be a generally clean breed, with hypoallergenic qualities. The ears of the Tibetan Mastiff should be checked regularly and kept clean to prevent ear infection. The claws should be properly groomed as well, in order to prevent injury to the dog.
Because the Tibetan Mastiff is, as a breed, slow to mature not only emotionally, but also physically, it has a longer life expectancy than many of the other larger breeds, averaging between 10 and 14 years old. They are relatively healthy dogs but all breeds have health issues that are specific to their type, and the Tibetan Mastiff is no different. The breed is large and powerful, Canine Hip Dysplasia (CHD) is a common concern in larger-type breeds and many of the working/sporting dog breeds. CHD is an inheritable condition, but some of the affected individual’s environmental factors may play a role in the conditions development as well. CHD causes some pain but is overall, a treatable condition.
Other conditions that have been reported in this breed include:
Canine Inherited Demyelinative Neuropathy (CIDN)