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Tibetan Mastiffs: The Tibetans’ Best Friends

June,19 2017 BY Kham Sang 0 COMMENTS

The Tibetan Mastiff is a large breed of dog that can be found on the Tibetan Plateau, and now all around the world. The dogs have been popular in western cultures for many years for their unconditional loyalty and the way in which it will always protect its family. Western-bred Mastiffs are generally more easy-going than their plateau cousins, and make great family dogs.

Tibetan MastiffTibetan Mastiff

In Tibetan, the dogs are known as Drog-Khyi, which means "nomad dog", or "dog which may be tied/kept". The English name is a misnomer, however, as the breed of dog is not actually a mastiff. It got the name from western travelers to Tibet, who named it a Tibetan Mastiff only for its sheer size and ferocity in protecting the herds.

History of the Tibetan Mastiff: a unique breed

The Tibetan Mastiff has been the loyal herd dog of the nomadic Tibetan herdsmen for thousands of years. It has also been used by herdsmen in India, Mongolia, and Nepal, to protect the herds and flocks from attack by predators such as wolves, leopards, bears, and tigers.

Tibetan MastiffTibetan mastiff oil painting

Many of the large dog breeds originate from the gray wolf, and the divergence into the more recent form occurred around 42,000 years ago. However, a recent 2008 study has shown that the Tibetan Mastiff diverged from the gray wolf breed over 58,000 years ago, and a genetic relationship means that some of the large European breeds, such as the Great Pyrenees, the Bernese mountain dog, the Rottweiler, and the Saint Bernard, are partially descended from the Tibetan Mastiff.

The Tibetan Mastiff is a very primitive breed of dog, and it retains the hardiness and stamina that was required for it to survive in the high altitude and arid, dangerous conditions of the Tibetan Plateau. The dog's ability to avoid hypoxia or insufficient levels of oxygen available to the lungs, in the high altitudes of Tibet has been attributed to the mastiffs having lower hemoglobin levels, in comparison to low-altitude breeds. This is because the mastiff was interbred with Tibetan wolves in the early days of its development

Appearance and Temperament

The Tibetan Mastiff is a very unique dog, and has actually split into two distinct types in Tibet, although around the world both are still known only as the Tibetan Mastiff.

While the nomadic version, the Drog-Khyi, is traditionally allowed to roam free to protect the herds, another version of the breed is used to protect the monasteries and the monks within. Known as the Tsang-Khyi, which literally means "dog from Tsang", these dogs are normally referred to as the "monastery" type, and are often larger and heavier than the nomadic type, with a larger "haw" and more facial wrinkling.

Tibetan MastiffTibetan Mastiff

Both types of dogs can be found in the same litter from one mother, and the larger, heavier puppies were placed in the more "stationary" jobs in the monasteries and temples, while the better structured and well-muscled pups would be used for the active work of guarding the herds.

Tibetan MastiffTibetan Mastiff

A full grown male dog can reach up to 33 inches in height, and can weigh between 45-70 kilograms. The breed only mates once a year, in the late fall, and pups are normally born from December to January. They normally have a double coat that is long and come in a wide variety of colors, including full black, black and tan, different shades of reddish-brown ranging from a pale gold to a deep red, and a bluish-gray, often with white markings. The coat contains natural oils that shed dirt and odors, and the dogs tend to molt in late winter to early spring.

Tibetan Mastiffs make very good family pets, when treated right, and can live happily in an environment with a large yard or garden. Typically, the breed is better as a domesticated dog if it has a canine companion, not necessarily of the same breed, as they are very social animals. And while they are easy-going with the owning family, and will remain aloof to strangers invited into the home, they are not suited to apartment living, as they need to be able to roam naturally.

The mastiff is watchful, imposing, and intimidating, and they are the supreme guard dog. Highly protective of their owning family, they are strong-willed and independent, with patience, intelligence, and a profound sense of devotion. And they can be particularly protective of the children in their "family".

Home Training a Tibetan Mastiff

A very impressive dog, with a noble bearing, the Tibetan mastiff is a flock-guardian breed, with an aloof attitude. However, as both guardian dogs and pets, they can be trained, despite being very stubborn when it comes to obedience.

One of the problems of training a Tibetan Mastiff as a pet is their tendency to rebel against something they do not like. The main reason for this is they are being forced to give up some control over their own environment. One of the best ways to train a mastiff to get used to a leash is to train them attached to an adult dog that is already leash trained. Get them used to wearing a collar first, for an increasing amount of time each day, until he is used to wearing it, and no longer tries to chew it off. Then attach the leash and get them used to it indoors, before trying it outside.

Tibetan MastiffTake photos with Tibetan Mastiff

To house train them, take them outside into the yard or garden on the leash until they have done their business, and then congratulate them before taking them inside again. Doing this will get the dog used to going outside by rewarding the good behavior.

A major fact of training the mastiffs is to become the "Alpha" in their family "pack". As the dog's owner, you will need to be prepared to assume the responsibility of the primary leadership position. Discipline should be rational and consistent, and definitely not harsh. In order to properly assert yourself you need to be alert to their behavior and plan the training and assumption of authority properly.

Natural Mastiff Training

In their natural environment in Tibet, the mastiffs are rarely trained in the same way as western households train their dogs. The pups are kept inside the family or nomadic unit as they grow, allowing them to get used to the various members of the group.

As they mature, their natural instincts to protect come to the fore, and they are introduced to the herds or flocks they will protect. Once they reach full size, they are already used to the people and animals in their family group, and will be fiercely protective of both, even taking on animals larger than themselves to protect their charges.

Tibetan MastiffTibetan Mastiff

In Tibet, the mastiffs are fiercely loyal to their family groups, although they are not naturally obedient. They will follow commands, as long as it coincides with what they want to do, and are aloof when strangers come within the confines of their group.

Being a large breed of dog is one of the attributes that makes the animal look menacing to strangers, as well as the mean, fierce-looking gaze, and the extremely large teeth, that they bare when challenged. Their bark is very deep, and loud, normally enough to scare off any smaller predators that come along.

The bond between the Tibetan Mastiff and their owners

In Tibet, there exists a strong bond between the nomads and their hugely protective dogs. As pups, the dogs live together with the family, and as time passes a friendship takes root between the mastiff and the family members. Friendship and alliance is automatically understood by the mastiffs, as part of their natural instincts, and the bond that is forged between the dog and its family is unbreakable. While they are primarily a working dog, bred specifically to protect the herds and the family, Tibetan nomads take extremely good care of the animals, and they are well fed and well looked after by their families.

Tibetan MastiffTibetan Mastiff

One of the legends of the Tibetan Mastiff is that they are the reincarnations of people who have not reached the next level of enlightenment, and come back as dogs to protect the Tibetan people and animals. In another legend, the land was covered in snow and ice, and a plague was rampant throughout the land. The legend says that a heavenly god came down from the heavens riding a Tibetan Mastiff, and thawed the ice and snow, bringing the land back to life and saving the people.

The legends truly reflect the attention that Tibetans have placed on their mastiffs, and they have become a breed of sacred dogs, both in legend and in reality. Tibetan people treat their mastiffs as part of the family, and it is often said that a Tibetan nomad has three major treasures: Tibetan mastiffs, excellent horses, and sharp knives.

Where to see the Tibetan Mastiff

While touring Tibet, you will often see the Tibetan Mastiffs alongside the nomadic herders, protecting the yaks and sheep from the predators that still abound in the desolate, Tibetan countryside. The areas around Lake Yamdrok, Lake Namtso, and Lake Manasarovar are grazing lands for many nomadic herdsmen through the seasons from spring to fall, and the dogs can be seen wandering around the edges of the herds, or sitting on rocky outcroppings overlooking their charges.

Tibetan MastiffTibetan Mastiff

When meeting a Tibetan Mastiff for the first time, especially in a nomadic camp, it is best not to get too close, as they can be dangerous, especially if they perceive you as a threat to their family or the herd. Even if the dog is chained, you are best advised not to walk up to it to pet it. These are working dogs whose job is to protect their family and herds. However, the nomads will allow you to see the dogs close up, with their help, and you will be amazed at the size and ferocious look of these unique animals.

In Lhasa, you will find the local pet market sells Tibetan mastiffs for around $2,000, however, you will have some trouble taking the dog back to your own country. Cross-border restrictions mean that transporting the animals is very hard, and requires a lot of paperwork and vaccinations, as well as import permissions and vets fees. However, it is a good place to see the mastiffs as pups.

Kham Sang

About the Author - Kham Sang

Kham Sang is responsible and honest with more than six years of guide experience in Tibet.She has strong interpersonal skills and can communicate effectively with tourists.

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