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Where We Stand – The Tibetan Mastiff in the West Today!

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258 – June, 2015

by Mary Fischer

No one who is interested in the state of the dog fancy can have missed the fabulous prices that were offered for Tibetan Mastiffs in China only a couple of years ago. Nor can they have missed the recent article about the rescue of a wretched group of abused Tibetan Mastiffs who were destined for the slaughterhouse in the same country. What has brought a noble, intelligent, thoughtful, and valuable animal to such a pass in only a few years? How did it come to this?

No experienced dog person was surprised, it has to be said. Sudden faddish popularity has spelled the doom of many a great breed. Ours was merely the latest and most extreme case of a breed brought to the brink of destruction– first by a political situation that overwhelmed the dogs’ native environment. Then came unexpected popularity that threatened to overtake the efforts of the few responsible breeders who had managed to preserve the breed from extinction. Finally, there was an inevitable collapse of the market for the dogs, that had become merely an unfashionable commodity in a land that was not theirs in the first place. It’s been a wild ride, and it is for those of us who know and truly love this terribly exploited breed to pick up the pieces once again.

I first became seriously interested in the breed more than forty years ago when I read an article in Dog World (the American publication, not the British weekly of the same name.) It was about the almost legendary Tibetan Mastiff, and the famous Ausables Kennel, foundational to the breed on the East Coast of the United States.

Though I fell into the category of “starving student,” then, I grabbed the phone and dialed the number given in the article. In the course of several very costly hours of conversation with Linda Nash, I was forced to conclude that despite extensive experience with both wild and domestic animals, I didn’t have the proper keeping conditions to accommodate a dog of that magnitude. We were both disappointed, but I assured her that I wanted a puppy as quickly as I could address the difficulties. I didn’t know it then, but it would be twenty long years before I had the stability and space to acquire my first TM puppy. By then, the breed picture had changed, as had my life.

I had moved to the West Coast, and was fortunate to be able to consult with Ann Rohrer, author of the first substantial book about the breed in the United States: The Legendary Guardian of the Himalayas. I hoped eventually to acquire a puppy from every significant kennel then breeding the dogs. I haven’t yet been able to realize this ambition. I have, however, lived with and loved dogs from Funquest, Sierra’s, and Drakyi-Timberline Lines, as well as a charming representative of some of the European lines. Because the breed was so rare initially, and the lines so intertwined, this has given me a decent perspective on breedings in the West.

It was, as they say, a sobering experience. Very early in my love affair with the breed, I was forced to the realization that no animal has suffered more from advance publicity than has this one. The Tibetan Mastiff was believed to be fierce, mysterious, almost impossible to train, and huge. It was also classified by some as a Livestock Guardian breed and was thought to be extinct in the native country. None of these assertions has stood up to scrutiny, although the latter may have become uncomfortably close to the truth.

Before we examine these claims, we must first define the dog we are discussing, and give an idea of its history. Here the issue of nomenclature becomes important, and one of the problems the breed has suffered from historically is that most of the Westerners who were interested in the animals spoke neither Tibetan nor Chinese. The most important exception is Robert V. Ekvall, who spoke both languages and several local Tibetan dialects as well. His discussion of the breed has informed our understanding of the position and function of the dogs in their native environment, especially during the years 1923-1941. This is particularly valuable, since it predates the end of the ancient way of life practiced in Tibet.

The dog has been called the Tibetan Mastiff from the days of the very earliest Western explorers and travelers into that region. However, it’s important to realize that the term “Mastiff” (“Mastin” (Fr.) “Mastino” (It.) ) merely referred to a large dog until recently. So the Tibetan Mastiff is the large dog of Tibet. Over the centuries Westerners have picked up puppies or adult dogs they were able to acquire in the Himalayan Region, and brought them back to the West.

In 1847 Lord Hardinge, viceroy of India, sent a “Large Dog from Tibet” called Siring, to Queen Victoria. When The (English) Kennel Club was formed in 1873, with the first stud books, the official classification of the Large Dog from Tibet first became “The Tibetan Mastiff” in English. Two more Tibetan Mastiffs were brought to England by the then Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII). These were exhibited at the Alexandra Palace Show in 1875. There were very few additional imports into England and the Continent until 1928 when The Hon. Col. and Mrs. Bailey imported four Tibetan Mastiffs, obtained during Col. Bailey’s posting as Political Officer in Sikkim, Nepal, and Tibet. The Baileys, especially Mrs.Bailey, were genuinely interested in the cultures they encountered and true dog fanciers. Mrs. Bailey even struck up an acquaintance with the Lama who administered the kennels for the Great Thirteenth Dalai Lama. She became a knowledgeable witness of the ancient regime in Tibet, and of the dogs that were bred there. In 1931 she formed the Tibetan Breeds Association in England. Their standard was adopted by The Kennel Club and thereafter, by the Federation Cynologique International (FCI), the governing body for all dog clubs in the world, other than those in Britain and the America.

There are several routes by which Tibetan Dogs arrived in the United States. In the 1950s, a pair of Tibetan Mastiffs were sent from Lhasa as a diplomatic gift to President Eisenhower. The dogs were sent to the President’s Gettysburg Farm, and largely disappeared from the pages of history. There is also longstanding “lore” in the breed to the effect that “Hippies” who had travelled to Katmandu, Nepal in the 1960s and 1970s found it expedient to send “restricted merchandise” back home in crates that contained Tibetan Mastiffs. In those relatively simpler times, customs officials were loathe to put their hands into the crates to test the veracity of the declarations, and tended to pass the shipments along. During the same period, several Tibetan Mastiffs arrived by more conventional methods from Nepal and India, and these few, early imports became the foundation of the breed here.

During this time, terrible reports about conditions in Tibet were featured in the press almost daily. Under the impression that the breed had been eradicated in the country of origin, dedicated fanciers and breeders worked energetically to perpetuate and stabilize the breed here. The first litter was registered in the U.S. in 1974 by Ausables Kennels in New York. This was the famous “A” Litter, which gave us Apache Anne, who became one of the great dams in the history of the breed. This would have been the litter that was planned when I first talked to Linda Nash. During that same year, despite the vanishingly rare status of the breed here, not one but two breed clubs came into existence in the United States—The American Tibetan Mastiff Association, and the Tibetan Mastiff Club of America. Later, a third was to come into being. Tibetan Mastiffs may not be as stubborn as their reputations would suggest, but the people who fancy them certainly are. At roughly the same time, Ann Rohrer’s Langtang Kennels produced several litters on the West Coast with her foundation sire, Kalu, and dam, Kipu, from Nepal.

Unfortunately, because of the concern to save what was thought to be a terribly endangered animal, a number of dogs picked up at random from the Himalayan region were incorporated into the early breeding stock here. Admittedly, some were not examples of the dog prized by the Tibetan clergy and aristocracy and recalled so fondly by explorers. In fact, the Tibetans have a particular distaste for free-roaming dogs, for which the polite term is “Street Dogs.” The Drukpa Nomads who breed the dogs we are discussing do have a symbiotic relationship with semi-feral dogs near their encampments, but the dogs they prized were actually dogs they bred, with carefully maintained Bone Lines (Paternal) and Flesh Lines (Maternal). This is the dog of song and story which is called the Dokhyi by those who bred and cherished the animal in Tibet. The name refers to a dog for “tying,” mostly at points of entry or vulnerability. [The Tibetan equivalent of the quaint sentry boxes at Buckingham Palace, would be the equally quaint sentry boxes that held chained Dokhyi around the Potala, the Dalai Lama’s palace in Lhasa.]

So the Tibetan Mastiff has been used as a guardian breed, without question. But it is not a classic livestock guardian breed in the Western sense. These are not dogs that bond to the stock, and attempts to get them to do so tend to be unsuccessful. The authentic breed is primarily oriented toward a relationship with people. In Tibet, the dog guarded Nomadic Families—their tents, horses, other dokhyi, children, old folks, etc. In other words, they guarded everything that pertained to their particular families, which included the stock.

Are they fierce? Well, authentic Tibetan Mastiffs are a rustic breed from a vast and dangerous environment. They were intended to make snap decisions: “Friend or foe, who goes there?” and act accordingly. They retain this ability even today, and their extraordinary judgment is probably the dog’s most salient characteristic for anyone who actually knows and understands them. Yes, they are big, showy and impressive in appearance. But it is the dog’s character that genuine fanciers talk about when they discuss their dogs. In this context, it has to be said that no breed is gentler or more kind with children and other baby animals when properly introduced to them. The Tibetan Nomads lived in an unforgiving environment, and there would not have been a single scrap of food available to nourish a dog that was a danger to flock or family. So the dogs were bred to know and defend their own, and be cautious in assessing anyone else who might have constituted a threat to them. It should be remembered that one of the names by which the breed is also known is “Heart Dog,” and no breed is either greater of heart, or better at “reading” the hearts of others.

By contrast, it has to be admitted that some of the most unpleasant humans on the face of the earth were drawn to the breed, whose reputation encouraged them to project their own aggressiveness and hostility onto their exotic charges. This writer has actually seen chat lists, mostly in Chinese, that seriously considered the question: “Who would win in a fight, “ a 300 pound Tibetan Mastiff or a lion?” There were some vain attempts to explain that no 300 pound Tibetan Mastiff ever existed, and that lions weigh 500-700 pounds. The respondents were beyond scathing in their insistence that such a huge dog existed, and was invincible. There was even a truly sick attempt to stage such a fight (with wagering of course) and the last I was able to bear of the pictures showed both animals with their hair standing on end, trying desperately to avoid each other. Large predators try very hard not to confront or even encounter each other, because in nature, even a slight injury can lead to incapacity and death.

Which brings us to the stories of giant Tibetan Mastiffs, known in some current circles as Tsang Khyi. The notion of the giant breed really got its start in a mention by Marco Polo, who described dogs “the size of donkeys.” Many fanciers and breeders, beguiled by tales of these giant dogs, have theorized that the reason we haven’t seen any of them must mean either that there was a secret “stash” of dogs hidden away by the Nomads (perhaps extinct), or that the breeding pool has been diluted (which has a good deal of truth to it, as mentioned.) It has also been noticed that quite small bitches are capable of throwing puppies that grow into very large dogs, and some cling to the hope that they can reconstitute this mythological giant beast from the stock at hand. Indeed, almost every giant breed known to human beings seems to have been sneaked into Tibetan Mastiff lines at some time or other in a vain attempt to accomplish this desire for a larger dog. The age of genetic analysis has done very little to stem this dishonesty, but it has yielded DNA results that suggest that the breed is of recent origin. That is surely not true, but the amalgam of stray DNA that entered the breeding stock in the West (and later in China, too) probably produced that result. There is a great deal of evidence that the Tibetan Mastiff has always been a large and imposing breed, but not a giant one. It is plenty big enough for those who genuinely love the real animal and not a chimera, and everyone who knows the breed can attest that it is “a lot of dog,” whatever its physical size. There is a good deal of question about whether Marco Polo ever saw Tibet but it is certain that the comparative he used was intended for a European audience that would have been familiar with the small Sicilian donkey. A dog that stood (on all fours) to the height of a man’s thigh, would still be substantial, but hardly the giant of legend.

Prior to this era, the term “Tsang Khyi” seems to be known only from one or two rare mentions in Ekvall, published years after his notes were written down in Tibet. There are essentially no other old references for this name. There are two likely explanations for this name: the term may refer to “a dog from Tsang,” and there is a historic district of Tibet called U-Tsang. The other possibility, which I personally have come to believe after many discussions with Tibetans (including Nomads who know the dokhyi), is that the word “Lion” in Tibetan is Senge, which can sound very much like Tsang in certain dialects. It’s possible that especially prized specimens were referred to affectionately as “Lion Dogs,” the way a person might call a lovely, heavily-maned dog “My Little Lion.” I have come to suspect that all the speculation about this name is based on the mishearing of what was, in fact, a “pet” name, but was never a name by which the breed was generally known and discussed.

Now we come to the nexus of breed lore—the Mystical dog of Noble Character. I’m pleased to be able to say, after a lifetime of association with this breed, that it is no myth. The Tibetan Mastiff always was, and remains, a dog of somewhat reserved nature, dignified but playful—gentle and affectionate with those he or she loves. One of the things that first drew me to the breed was a remark by Sven Hedin, the explorer, who described the profound nature of the dogs, which he valued more than superficial appearance. I found this to be true. A Tibetan Mastiff will love with the full resources of its great heart. It will in fact, be willing to give its life to defend its people, which imposes a great responsibility on them to prevent this from becoming necessary. It is not true that they are difficult to train. They are, in fact, enormously cooperative, taking pride in being a working member of the family. It is true that they require different techniques than dogs who function best under human guidance, like German Shepherd Dogs, for instance. The TM/Dokhyi is possessed of great prudence and something that can only be described as “wisdom.” Conventional training methods that rely on rote obedience bore this breed to tears. They quickly master most of the behaviors that are asked of them, and take great pleasure in performing them if it pleases their people. But their real task is guarding the home, and to that end, they tend to be restless if not given territory to patrol. They are also night barkers, a problem easily cured by taking the dogs indoors at night. I personally derive great comfort from my dogs, who pace our home at intervals during the night (and snore loudly the rest of the time.)

Attempts to train this breed to do Schutzhund work tend to be disastrous, as the thing that most greatly characterizes the breed is personal initiative and extreme inhibition in the use of power. One doesn’t wish to override these faculties lightly. They don’t normally attack just because a human orders them to, if they do not perceive actual danger. Attempts to make them do this have sometimes yielded confused and dangerous animals, but they are usually unsuccessful. My own dogs “started” at the “scary” person who leaped at them during their companion dog tests, and concluded that he wasn’t a real threat. Then they sat down again. That is typical. There are even stories of profoundly disturbed human beings who have starved and beaten Tibetan Mastiffs in an attempt to make them vicious. They failed, and two acquaintances who took in such a dog described him as a wonderful creature, but deeply disappointed in life. They said that despite their attempts to provide him with a secure and loving home, which he clearly appreciated, he just sort of “went away,” one day. That is to say, he faded away and died, although there was nothing obviously wrong with him. That is a trait Tibetan Mastiffs share with wild creatures that find themselves in circumstances they don’t understand. People often speak of wild animals as “savage,” but the truth is, many of them simply die of despair rather than adapting to the much more savage environments (as they see it) to which humans sometimes subject them.

Which brings me to what Ann Rohrer told me, more than twenty years ago, when I was agonizing about whether to get my first TM. She finally said, “Don’t worry so much about getting one of these puppies, Mary. The Tibetans believe that these dogs have a guardian spirit. They will find their true homes.” Despite my distress at what has happened to our breed at the hands of profiteers and myth makers, I have come to believe that she was right. The dogs that are being so shamefully exploited will do what their relatives have done for centuries. In trying to breed some bizarre animal that never was, and never will be, the unscrupulous people who have managed to acquire temporary custody of some of our dogs, will have lost the most important thing—the essence of the breed—the indomitable spirit of the dogs that stood guard in the highest mountains on earth. They will create an appearance, but lose the real thing. The authentic Dokhyi cannot survive under such conditions. Like my friends’ dog, they will simply “go away.”

In the end, it will remain for those who first knew and loved the dogs, some of whom are still left, to restore what is being lost, and return the breed to the one we all loved when we first encountered it. This has become a sad necessity and our responsibility to the dogs we love, who trust us. We have to hope that they will educate the breeders of the future about the most important aspect of the authentic Dokhyi–its noble character. I am glad I first made their acquaintance so long ago, because I have acquired a “feel” for an authentic Dokhyi when I see one. It was and is a wonderful animal. Even with all the myths stripped away, the authentic Tibetan Mastiff is quite marvelous enough for anyone with “eyes to see and ears to hear.”

Rather than making this article any longer, I’d like to suggest some sources for those who would like to know more about this fascinating breed:

The Tibetan Mastiff, Legendary Guardian of the Himalayas, by Ann Rohrer and Kathy Flamholtz, 1989

Fields on the Hoof, by Robert V. Ekvall, 1968

Role of the Dog in Tibetan Nomadic Society, by Robert V. Ekvall, Central Asiatic Journal, Vol. III, No. 3, September 1963

The Venerable Tibetan Mastiff, by Max Siber (Classic Dog Book Series), 1995

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Posted by on Jun 21 2015. Filed under Current Articles, Editorial, Featured. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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