Tibetan massiff
Many Tibetan cities and villages are filled with stray dogs. The killing of animals, especially dogs, is considered a sin in Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism holds that dogs are the last reincarnation before rebirth as human. Many dogs live in packs around temples, surviving off handouts by monks and tourists.

Pet dogs are greatly valued and pampered. There is a dog sign and “year of the dog” on the Tibetan calendar as there is on the Chinese calendar. Dogs found in the Tibetan countryside can quite fierce. For protection against dogs Tibetans carry a heavy tapered metal rod with a leather chord known as a "goubang."

Tibetan mastiffs used to own the streets of Lhasa at night. Now they are largely gone. One reason for this is a massive culling of dogs that took place in the early 2000s. The culling greatly angered Buddhists. Dog ownership is discouraged by the Chinese and for a while was banned but is now permitted within limits.

There are four primary breeds native to Tibet: the Tibetan terrier, the Tibetan spaniel, the Tibetan mastiff and the Lhasa Apso. All these dogs have two common features: long heavy coats of hair to keep them warm in the Tibetan winters and tails that curl up over their backs. The KyiApos, or bearded sheepdog of Tibet, is a very rare breed.

Tibetan Mastiffs

Tibetan mastiffs are huge, ferocious dogs traditionally kept by Tibetan nomads to watch over their animals and guard their tents while nomads followed their herds of yaks, sheep and goats. The countryside is filled with them. They are generally kept on chains during the day and released at night to protect herds from wolves and snow leopards. One Tibetan breeder told the Times of London: “They are extremely loyal and great guard dogs. They have no fear. They will attack a bear or a tiger to protect the owner’s herd of yaks and sheep.”

Tibetan mastiffs are about the size of a leopard or a jaguar, and some say have a temperament to match. They make cycling and walking alone on the Tibet plateau a dangerous proposition. A number of tourists have been bitten and forced to abandon their trip out of fear of rabies. Some tourist carry thick walking sticks and firecrackers — to toss in a dog's face — for protection.

Tibetan Mastiffs guard monasteries, villages, homes and caravans as well as tents.Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times: “Nomadic families have long used mastiffs as nocturnal sentries against livestock thieves and marauding wolves. A primitive breed with a deep guttural bark, they are inured to harsh winters and the thin oxygen of the high-altitude grasslands; like wolves, females give birth only once a year. “They have the power to fearlessly protect possessions, human beings and livestock from any kind of threat, and people are proud of them,” said Gombo, as a trio of dogs in his yard, tethered to stakes, lunged madly at a group of strangers. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, April 17, 2015]

PBS’s Frontline reported: “ Tibetan nomads used them to guard livestock because of their ability to endure the harsh Tibetan climate and because of their fierce temperament. The dogs were used to fight off wolves and snow leopards, and unscrupulous thieves and poachers. A true mastiff has a big head, nearly twice the size of a human’s, and the males grow what appears to be a full lion’s mane in the winter. Genuine mastiffs also have an extra toe on their hind paws, a feature that time has yet to evolve away. [Source:Frontline, pbs.org, April 18, 2006]

History of Tibetan Mastiffs

Tibetan mastiffs are thought to be one of the oldest dog breeds still in existence. Domesticated at least 6,000 years ago, their genes have found their way into many other breeds and may the source of all mastiffs and livestock breeding breeds. Hailing from the greater Himalayan-Tibetan region, they were given to Alexander the Great, who used them for protection against lions and elephants. Their descendants may have been used in Rome in gladiator contests and in warfare.

There are several different kinds of mastiffs with dogs fitting such descriptions appearing on monuments in ancient Egypt dating back to 3000 B.C. The earliest Chinese reference to mastiffs is in about 1121 B.C. All of these dogs are thought to have originated from dogs in Asia, with the Tibetan mastiff being the most direct descendant of the prototype.

The Tibetan mastiff, lore says, was organized by Genghis Khan into a 30,000-dog K-9 corps Early explorers to Tibet often commented on the dog’s deep, blood-curdling bark. Marco Polo wrote they are “as tall as a donkey with a voice like a lion.” Under the Communists, the dogs had a rough time. During the Cultural Revolution, monks were ordered to beat their own dogs to death with sticks. If they didn’t obey the orders, the monks themselves were beaten. The breed managed to stay alive in remote areas.

The Dalai Lama used eight Tibetan Mastiffs to guard his summer home, in Norbulinka. Two of the dogs were posted at each of the four entrances to the estate. Many of the Tibetan Mastiffs found in the United States are descendants of dogs given in the 1950s by the Dalai Lama to U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, who in turn gave them to a Senator, who raised them and gave one puppy to the famous explorer Lowell Thomas. Others came from drug smugglers who used to hide drugs in the crates of the meanest, nastiest dogs the could find.

Tibetan Mastiff Characteristics

Tibetan mastiffs have deep chests and well muscled bodies. Their walk has been described as “a stalking, determined gait.” They have a large, distinctive head, harsh outer coat, soft wooly undercoat. They come in variety of colors. Some are white. Some are wolf-like in color. Others are black with yellow brows.

Despite their fierceness they have been raised as pets in the United States and other places around the world. One owner, quoted in “A Celebration of Rare Breeds”, described them as “aloof and independent yet affectionate and playful...there’s a touch of wolf in their body language and everyday living habits...He is an alert dog of impressive size, courage and stamina...and can size up a situation and decide on a course of action before acting.”

Another owner, quoted in “A Celebration of Rare Breeds”, said, “They are natural guardians of territory and property. The Tibetan mastiff was not bred to be an aggressive dog who kill, but rather as a protector who, if challenged, would not back down. First they warn by barking ferociously. If the intruder persists, they will attack. Usually their bark is enough to frighten intruders or strangers.”

Bringing Back the Tibetan Mastiff

PBS’s Frontline reported: “Fewer than 100 purebred mastiffs remain in the world today, according to a recent story in the People's Daily Online, over the years, breeders have mixed the dogs with other breeds to create a more docile mastiff. Purists feel this has ruined the mastiff’s unique traits. Wong How Man, from CERS, is trying to reverse this trend. The dogs have been brought to the center from high plateaus across Tibet. How Man wanted only the best mastiffs the region had to offer.[Source: Frontline, pbs.org, April 18, 2006 ^^^]

“How Man hopes to breed enough mastiffs to replenish the population in Gujiu. He will give one purebred mastiff to each family in the village. But they are not allowed to sell them to a breeder.” Renruo “was given to CERS by Zum Kang Tashe, a direct descendant of the seventh Dalai Lama. Most people just call him the Rinpoche, (“Living Buddha”) for short. He’s a rebellious soul and is protected by his status as a high-ranking religious figure. He is also a devoted animal lover and activist who likes to visit and pet every mastiff, even the vicious ones. ^^^

High Prices for Tibetan Mastiff


In the mid 2000s, Tibetan mastiffs were all the rage among the Chinese elite, with some perfect specimens selling for $500,000, up from $200 in the 1990s. Pure bred Tibetan mastiffs are very rare. Only around 100 are thought to exist, which also explains why ones with good pedigree are so expensive.

Tibetan owners display and sell mastiffs during the summer at the Yushu horse racing festival on the border between Qinghai and Tibet. At a fair visited by the Times of London in 2007, a puppy with fine pedigree was selling for $4,000; a grown “iron and gold” male with a glossy black coat and black and yellow-brown paws and underbelly was going with for $20,000 to $40,000. Those with the best bloodlines had price tags of between $130,00 and $400,000.

Some dogs are regarded as so valuable they are deemed priceless and their owners are forbidden by breeding organizations from selling them. Their owners of males still make out okay. They can earn $5,000 in stud fees each time their dog mates. By 2007 prices were starting to decline. It was not clear whether this was because the fad was over or because of an over supply of dogs.

The Tibetan mastiff has become the pinnacle of pretension. One woman from Xi’an, a city west of Beijing, was widely reported last year to have paid four million renminbi — roughly $600,000 — for a single dog that was escorted to its new home in a 30-Mercedes motorcade. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, October 2010]

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times: In 2011, “a reddish-brown purebred named Big Splash sold for $1.6 million, according to news reports, though cynics said the price was probably exaggerated for marketing purposes. No reasonable buyer, self-anointed experts said at the time, would pay more than $250,000 for a premium specimen. At the peak of the mastiff mania, some breeders pumped their studs with silicone to make them look more powerful; in early 2013, the owner of one promising moneymaker sued a Beijing animal clinic for $140,000 after his dog died on the operating table during face-lift surgery. “If my dog looks better, female dog owners will pay a higher price when they want to mate their dog with mine,” the owner told the state-run Global Times newspaper, explaining why he had asked surgeons to alter the dog’s saggy mien.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, April 17, 2015 /=]

Chinese Pays $2 Million for Tibetan Mastiff, Gets Second for Half Price

In March 2014, it was reported that a Chinese property developer has paid a dog breeder 12 million yuan ($2 million) for a Tibetan mastiff. According to Associated Press: “The large, slobbery dog with massive amounts of hair best known for herding sheep in Tibet has become a status symbol for China's rich. The sales took place at a luxury dog fair in wealthy Zhejiang province on the east coast. Breeder Zhang Gengyun said that the buyer from east China paid for 1-year-old twin dogs on his credit card. The second was half the price of the first. Zhang denied the sale was a ploy by breeders to hype the price of Tibetan mastiffs and said he was reluctant to sell them. [Source: Associated Press, March 20, 2014]

Time via AFP via the Qianjiang Evening News reported: “The buyer, an aspiring dog breeder, is said to have purchased the pup at a luxury pet expo. The dog’s breeder Zhang Gengyun reportedly said another red mastiff sold for 6 million yuan (approximately $968,000). The dogs, known for their protective, loyal qualities, and “stranger danger” instincts, have been considered a status symbol for millionaires. According to the AFP, one named “Red Splash” sold for 10 million yuan ($1.5 million) in 2011, and a 2010 TODAY Show segment said one named “Yangtze River Number Two” sold for $600,000 and was escorted home by a fleet of Mercedes sedans. [Source: Olivia B. Waxman, Time, March 19, 2014]

Bubble Bursts on Tibetan Mastiffs

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times: “ There once was a time, during the frenzied heights of China’s Tibetan mastiff craze, when a droopy-eyed slobbering giant like Nibble might have fetched $200,000 and ended up roaming the landscaped grounds of some coal tycoon’s suburban villa. But Tibetan mastiffs are so 2013. Instead, earlier this year Nibble and 20 more unlucky mastiffs found themselves stuffed into metal chicken crates and packed onto a truck with 150 other dogs. If not for a band of Beijing animal rights activists who literally threw themselves in front of the truck, Nibble and the rest would have ended up at a slaughterhouse in northeast China where, at roughly $5 a head, they would have been rendered into hot pot ingredients, imitation leather and the lining for winter gloves. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, April 17, 2015 /=]

“China’s boom-to-bust luxury landscape is strewn with devalued commodities like black Audis, Omega watches, top-shelf sorghum liquor and high-rise apartments in third-tier cities. Some are the victims of a slowing economy, while others are casualties of an official austerity campaign that has made ostentatious consumption a red flag for anticorruption investigators. Then there is the Tibetan mastiff, a lumbering shepherding dog native to the Himalayan highlands that was once the must-have accouterment for status-conscious Chinese. /=\

“These days, those mastiff breeders left in the business are suffering from overcapacity, as it were. Buyers have largely disappeared, and prices have fallen to a small fraction of their peak. The average asking price for desirable dogs — those with lionlike manes and thick limbs — is hovering around $2,000, though many desperate breeders are willing to go far lower. “If I had other opportunities, I’d quit this business,” said Gombo, a veteran breeder in China’s northwestern province of Qinghai, who like many Tibetans uses just one name. He said keeping one of his 160-pound carnivores properly fed cost $50 to $60 a day. “The pressure we’re under is huge,” he said. /=\ “In some ways, the cooling passion for Tibetan mastiffs reflects the fickleness of a consuming class that adopts and discards new products with abandon. Since 2013, about half the 95 breeders in Tibet have gone under, according to the Tibetan Mastiff Association, and the once-flourishing Pure Breed Mastiff Fair in Chengdu, in the southwestern province of Sichuan, has been turned into a pet and aquarium expo.” /=\

Reasons for Tibetan Mastiff Bust

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times: “Famed for their ferocity and traditionally associated with free-spirited Tibetan nomads, mastiffs offered their ethnic Han Chinese owners a dose of Himalayan street creed, according to Liz Flora, editor in chief of Jing Daily, a marketing research company in Beijing. “Fads are a huge driving force in China’s luxury market,” she said, adding that “Han Chinese consumers have been willing to pay a premium for anything associated with the romanticism of Tibet.”[Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, April 17, 2015]

“ Li Qun, a professor at Nanjing Agricultural University and an expert on Tibetan mastiffs, said speculators were partly to blame for sabotaging what had been a healthy market. But also, as prices spiraled upward, unscrupulous breeders began mating pure Tibetan mastiffs with other dogs, diluting the perceived value of the breed and turning off would-be customers. “By 2013, the market was saturated with crossbreeds,” Professor Li said./=\

“News stories about mastiffs attacking people, some fatally, also dampened ardor for the breed. Although not inherently vicious, Tibetan mastiffs are loyal to a fault, increasing the likelihood of attacks on strangers, experts say. In recent years, a number of Chinese cities have banned the breed, further denting demand and perhaps contributing to the surge in abandonments. /=\

During her 25 years in China, Mary Peng, the founder and chief executive of the International Center for Veterinary Services, has seen successive waves of dog fads, which invariably begin with speculative breeding and end in mass abandonment. “Ten years ago, it was German shepherds, then golden retrievers, then Dalmatians and then huskies.” /=\

Neglected Tibetan Mastiffs

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times: “ The rescuers who saved Nibble and the others from an ignominious fate said the conditions of the transport were appalling. Several of the mastiffs had broken limbs, and they had not been given food or water for three days. By the time the dogs were released from their cages — the volunteers eventually paid the driver for their freedom — more than a third of them were dead. “It makes you feel so hopeless because not even the police will help, even though what these people are doing is illegal,” said Anna Li, who runs a hedge fund when she is not organizing guerrilla operations to stop dog-packed trucks on Chinese highways.[Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, April 17, 2015 /=]

“Animal rights activists say many of the dogs are stolen by gangs who grab pets off the street, while some have been sold off by breeders eager to unload imperfect specimens. Judging from their swollen teats, several of the rescued female mastiffs had been nursing when they were cast off, said Mary Peng, the founder and chief executive of the International Center for Veterinary Services, the Beijing animal hospital that has been treating them. She said. “But given the crazy prices we were seeing a few years ago, I never thought I’d see a Tibetan mastiff on the back of a meat truck.”

Vicious Tibetan Mastiffs

PBS’s Frontline reported: “It took a superhuman effort to transport these huge and unruly animals on a weeklong drive from Tibet to the center here in Gujiu Village. During the journey, the dogs bit several Tibetan handlers, and many became ill, as they were not accustomed to riding in bumpy vehicles at lower altitudes. Today, an enormous and vicious mastiff lunged for my throat. The animal had choked himself violently pulling at his metal leash until it snapped in two. With that, he shot at me like a bat out of Hell, clearly after blood. His jaw was a mere 12 inches from my neck. [Source: Frontline, pbs.org, April 18, 2006 ^^^]

“The foaming beast, named Renruo, had already bitten Bainiu, his caretaker, three times. Bainiu finally grabbed the beast by the fur, but was bitten again on the hand and had to let go. In that split second, the dog went for Xiaoli and me. We ran for our lives and barricaded ourselves behind the door of our lodging. For some reason, we brought out the fury in Renruo. I must say I have to respect a dog that wants to kill me.” ^^^

Tibetan Mastiff Attacks

In June 2013, a Tibetan mastiff kills six-year-old girl on the northeast Chinese city of Dalian. Vicky Feng wrote in the South China Morning Post, “When the six-year-old was on her way to a grocery store on a street in Dalian, the dog knocked her down and bit her neck. The girl was rushed to hospital, but died from severe injuries to her trachea and arteries, leaving her mother deeply distraught, the Bandao Daily reported. Some weeks ago, an eight-year-old girl was also attacked by a Tibetan mastiff in a village in China’s Shanxi province. Fortunately, she was saved by a villager and has been recovering in hospital, Taiyuan Evening News reported. [Source: Vicky Feng, South China Morning Post, June 28, 2013 ++]

“The Tibetan mastiff is a large dog, which can be as tall as 32 inches and weigh up to 180 pounds. They can be aggressive. In recent years, because it is quite rare and expensive to buy, Tibetan mastiffs have become a popular pet for many rich Chinese. The dogs have also been smuggled into Hong Kong for wealthy buyers. ++

“Cases of ferocious attacks by large dogs have been frequently reported in China, although raising these sorts of dogs are banned in many cities. Commenting on the issue, one Weibo user said: “It is not the dogs’ fault, but the owners’. They should always keep an eye on their dogs." “When we fight for animal rights, we should also ask for stricter dog regulations,” commented another.” ++

Lhasa Apso

Lhasa apsos

The Lhasa Apso is a small, long-haired dog from Tibet, where its known as "Abso Seng Kye" (“the Bark Lion Sentinel Dog”). Raised in lamaseries and villages around Lhasa, they were bred to be guard dogs on the inside of houses while Tibetan mastiffs guarded outside. For this duty, the Lhasa Apso was bred for intelligence, sensitive hearing and a sense for distinguishing friends from intruders. In the West there are sometimes called Tibet lion dogs, because of the long manes and lion-like coloring.

Lhasa apsos are keen and alert, easy to train, responsive to affection but hostile to strangers. They generally stand no more than 11 inches at the shoulder and come in variety of colors. Golden and lion-like colors are most preferred

Tibetan Spaniels

Tibetan spaniels are small dogs that look like furry Pekingese and stand about 10 inches at the shoulder They are regarded as great house pets. They are loving, comfortable hanging out on sofas and are sensitive to their owners moods. In Tibet and Nepal they are often referred to as “bedroom dogs” and are valued as family members and bearers of good luck. They also serve as watchdogs. They have very sensitive hearing and are valued for sensing intruders first and alerting Tibetan mastiffs with their barking.

Tibetan spaniels have traditionally been bred in monasteries and by wealthy families and lamas. They have been bred to be companions and taught al kinds of tricks, including the turning of Tibetan prayer wheels. The smallest dogs were often the most highly valued. There are stories about the 13th Dalai Lama’s fondness for a pair of Tibetan spaniels.

The origin of Tibetan spaniels is murky. Some believe they are the ancestors of Pekingese and Japanese and English toy spaniels. They were often given as gifts to dignitaries. The dogs arrived n England in the late 1800s but didn’t appear in the United States until the 1960s.

Image Sources: 1) Julie Chao; 2) University of Washington; bulldog.com, Wikipedia, Amercican Tibetan Mastiff Association

Text Sources: 1) “ Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China “, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *\; 4) Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org | New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2022

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