Tibetan Mastiff

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult Tibetan Mastiff

The Tibetan Mastiff is a very large breed of dog, traditionally found in the Himalayan region, although it is now more likely to be encountered in the West. For thousands of years, it has worked as a guard dog, protecting both flocks of sheep and its human owners. Over the course of this time, it has become rather good at these protective duties, and although this is an admirable quality, it also presents some significant challenges for any Tibetan Mastiff owner. Fiercely loyal, the breed is also stubborn and independent-minded, with a tendency to act on instinct rather than under instruction. Although its owners will be ably protected from all manner of threats, visitors to the dog’s territory, whether welcomed or not by the homeowners, had better tread carefully so as not to rile this fearsome guardian.

Clearly, this is a dog that needs to be well socialised when young, and while it is often listed as a child-friendly breed, this trait, too, needs to be fostered in puppyhood. Tibetan Mastiffs will show the same strong protective instinct with their family’s children, but this can lead to trouble should squabbles due to sibling rivalry or scuffles with friends erupt. As the breed was used in Tibet to roam freely around villages and monasteries at night, it is after dark when many Tibetan Mastiffs are most active, and also most vocal. For this reason, they must be allowed to sleep indoors, otherwise the entire neighbourhood will be forced to hear about every suspicious movement or noise that occurs on their territory. During the day, they are not high-energy dogs, and need relatively little exercise, but it is essential that they have access to a large, very securely fenced garden. There is a reasonably high incidence of breed-associated illness, and so puppies should be sourced only from the most scrupulous and transparent breeders. Despite these health issues, and its large size, the Tibetan Mastiff has a life expectancy of about 12 to 13 years.

About & History

Several large-scale genetic studies over the past number of years have confirmed that the Tibetan Mastiff is one of the oldest breeds still in existence. In fact, it may have diverged from the grey wolf tens of thousands of years ago, and it is believed that it may represent the foundation of all the many molosser breeds seen today. These include the Bernese Mountain Dog, Rottweiler, and Pyrenean Mountain Dog, among many others. Despite this incredibly long history, little was known about the breed in the Western world until the nineteenth century, when it was encountered by explorers to the Himalayan region.

Traditionally, the Tibetan Mastiff was used in one of two roles, with slight variations in the physical and behavioural characteristics of the dogs involved. One was a pastoral dog, which lived in the field with its owner and his flocks of sheep, providing protection from predators. The other was required to protect people and property, in villages or monasteries, and was kept tied up during daylight hours (lending the breed one of its several Tibetan names – Drog-Khyi – meaning 'tied dog'), being allowed to patrol freely at night, when it would either sound the alarm or attack should it spy an intruder.

King George IV was instrumental in introducing the Tibetan Mastiff to the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century, although it was not until the 1980s that it garnered much interest from the general dog-owning public. During this period, wanton over-breeding resulted in some loss of genetic and behavioural consistency, and the breed subsequently lost some of its appeal, meaning it is relatively uncommon in much of the world today, including in its native Tibet.

Appearance

Tibetan Mastiff Large Photo

The Tibetan Mastiff is a powerful, well-built dog, with an air of solemnity and earnestness. Its impressive head is broad and heavy, with a large skull and a well-defined stop. The muzzle is deep and reasonably broad, while the jaws are strong, rectangular, and contain large teeth in a scissor bite. The brown eyes are set well apart, a dark brown in colour, and have an aloof, dignified expression, and the medium-sized triangular ears droop forward close to the side of the head.

The leonine neck is strongly muscled, with a hairy mane that is much more pronounced in males. It has a dewlap, though it is not exaggerated. The back is broad, straight, and flat, while the deep chest is well-sprung and moderately broad, reaching to below the elbows. The well-feathered tail is set high, in line with the back, and carried in a loose curl over the rump. The Tibetan Mastiff’s surprisingly light, springing gait comes from its well-angulated and strongly boned limbs, which have very large and heavily haired paws.

One of the breed’s adaptations to the cold of its mountainous homeland is its thick, harsh coat with a dense network of softer secondary hairs. Males are more heavily haired than females, not just around the neck, but in all areas. Feathering is evident on the hindlimbs, as well as on the tail. The colours seen in the breed are

  • Black
  • Black and tan
  • Blue
  • Blue and tan
  • Gold
  • Sable

Males measure 64 to 68 cm in height, and weigh 48 to 65 kg, while females measure 59 to 63 cm, and generally weigh 40 to 55 kg.

Character & Temperament

Though it is rarely an overtly affectionate dog, the Tibetan Mastiff shows its love for its family in its untiring vigilance and willingness to tackle any threat to them. It is a fearsome dog when aroused, and is not one for giving strangers the benefit of the doubt. This is often problematic, as neither the postman, charity worker, nor less familiar extended family members are likely to be allowed on the property without being escorted by the owner.

Even in its master’s presence, the Tibetan Mastiff is quick to take charge, often entering the fray inappropriately if it misinterprets cues from body language or tone of voice. It is therefore not the breed for everyone, and needs a dog owner with plenty of experience with other similar dogs. While it willingly extends its protective services to children, as well as other pets, it needs to be introduced to both when young, and should never be left unattended with the more vulnerable. In addition, inter-dog aggression is not uncommon, particularly with dogs of the same gender.

Trainability

Photo of Tibetan Mastiff puppy

Training a Tibetan Mastiff is no simple task. The breed does not excel in the obedience stakes, and as mentioned above, has a sometimes troublesome habit of thinking for itself. Nonetheless, training is vital to provide owners with some handle on the dog’s protective instincts. A firm, but kind, approach is needed, and socialisation with people outside the family circle is vital from puppyhood.

Health

The great increase in Tibetan Mastiff breeding in the 1980s unfortunately attracted many breeders who were more interested in making money than in ensuring their dogs’ health. The impact of this fact is still being felt, with quite a high incidence of a number of inherited health problems:

  • Behavioural abnormalities – As outlined above, the breed’s protective instincts can create aggressive tendencies if not handled properly.
  • Elbow dysplasia – An inherited condition that results in poorly conforming elbows, causing lameness and osteoarthritic change from a few months of age.
  • Hip dysplasia – An extremely common problem in large breed dogs, this is an inherited developmental abnormality that causes hindlimb lameness in young dogs. It is vital that all breeding adults be screened for signs of both this and elbow dysplasia
  • Hypertrophic osteodystrophy – Inflammatory condition that causes a transient period of severe lameness in affected giant breed puppies from around four-months of age.
  • Hypertrophic neuropathy – A rare cause of progressive weakness and paralysis in young Tibetan Mastiff pups between seven and ten weeks of age.
  • Hypothyroidism – Reduced levels of thyroid hormone, leading to lethargy, weight gain, and behavioural changes.
  • Persistent pupillary membrane – Congenital deformity (present from birth) within the eye due to the persistence of embryonic fibres. Often causes visible changes to the shape of the pupil.
  • von Willebrand’s disease – Relatively common, hereditary clotting disorder that results in prolonged and/or heavy bleeding after minor injuries.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Tibetan Mastiffs have reasonably light exercise requirements, but should be given at least half an hour of lead walking in addition to access to a large, very securely fenced garden. As a Tibetan Mastiff will, in its own mind, assume ownership of any area that it regularly patrols, its walking route should be varied as much as possible to avoid it developing aggressive territorial behaviours towards other walkers.

Grooming

The hard-wearing weatherproof coat does not shed heavily, being intended to protect the Tibetan Mastiff from extremely inclement weather. It should be brushed two or three times each week to keep in in top condition, and may need washing once every six or eight weeks, but professional grooming is generally unnecessary.

The breed has very strong nails that can be difficult to clip because of their thickness and dark colour, meaning some owners may prefer to have clipping done by a groomer or veterinary professional. Note that many Tibetan Mastiffs also have well-developed rear dew claws that do not wear on the ground – must be monitored to ensure they do not grow so long as to pierce the surrounding skin.

Famous Tibetan Mastiffs

The breed has provided the stars for several well-known movies:

  • Man’s Best Friend
  • The Tibetan Dog
  • Rock Dog

Cross-Breeds

The only Tibetan Mastiff cross-breed that I am aware of at the moment is the Tibetan Wolfhound, a cross with an Irish Wolfhound.

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