Midtown Manhattan may be an unlikely place to have my first encounter with the Tibetan Mastiff, but there they were— four behemoths charging toward me from the far end of a long hallway at the home of Martha Felsenstein. president of the American Tibetan Mastiff Association (ATMA). The pack was led— naturally— by a little Tibetan Spaniel named TringTring. Having grown up with large dogs, I’m not easily intimidated, but four TMs barreling straight for me was still a bit daunting. With plumed tails flying and kindly expressions animating their impressive heads, however, I knew I was safe. The dogs arrayed themselves around, leaning their hairy bodies up against me. After a burst of affection, they promptly laid down and went to sleep. What’s not to love?
But don’t let this warm and fuzzy bunch fool you: The large guardian dog of Tibet evolved over thousands of years to do one thing — protect home (or tent), family, flock, and herd. While some can be as friendly as the four in Feltenstein’s pack, the breed as a whole is known to be aloof with strangers and highly protective. In fact, the fifth TM in Feltenstein’s home, an impressive male named Pasha, was kept on a leash during my visit. “Not all TMs will be friendly to strangers, and not all will let a stranger into their home,” says Feltenstein.
In 2006, the AKC welcomed this ancient breed to the Working Group. But although the Tibetan Mastiff is a comparatively new breed to the AKC, it is one of the most ancient in the world.
One of the Most Ancient Dogs
Until the early 1800s, Tibet was a mystery to outsiders, with few Westerners allowed access to its remote splendor. Likewise, little was known about the country’s dogs. Accurate records of the genetic heritage of the breed are nonexistent, but they are considered by many to be the basic stock from which most modern large working-breeds developed. The TM is known in Tibet as the Do-Kyi, which translates to “tied dog,” as they were tied at the gates of the homes and temples they guarded.
Early written accounts place a large dog around 1100 B.C. in China. During the ensuing centuries, it’s thought that the isolation of Tibet (and later, because its borders were closed to the Western world) resulted in the TM remaining uninfluenced by Western breeds, and it developed into the animal so highly prized by the people of the high Himalayan Mountains and plains of Central Asia.
Tibetan Mastiffs have been bred by Tibetan nomads since time immemorial and were given to the high lamas to guard the great monasteries of Tibet. Buddhist by faith, Tibetans believe that Tibetan Mastiffs have the souls of monks and nuns who did not make it into Shambhala, the heavenly paradise. Tibetan Mastiffs are believed by many experts to be the basic stock from which most of the modern large working breeds have developed, including all mastiff or Molosser breeds and all mountain dogs.
The Traveling Tibetan Mastiff
They impressed Western travelers to Tibet with their looks and devotion to protecting their family and property and were described by writers such as Marco Polo in the thirteenth century, who wrote that they were as large as a small donkey. The Viceroy of India sent a “large dog from Tibet” called “Siring” (below) to Queen Victoria. In The Kennel Club’s original classification, the “large dog from Tibet” was officially designated the “Tibetan Mastiff” for the first time.
In his essay “The Role of the Dog in Tibetan Nomadic Society,” the missionary and explorer Robert Ekvall wrote of the relationship between TMs and the nomadic pastoralists of centuries past:
“[The dogs] function to create privacy and social distance in a situation where both are a felt need. … There is no tent which does not have at least two [dogs], and chiefs or wealthy men may own twenty or more. The dogs of the Tibetan nomads have a role in creating and maintaining pervasive, shifting zones of danger around the tents and throughout the encampment. Their most distinctive characteristic is an incredibly heavy baying bark-much more like the sound of a foghorn than the outcry of any animal.”
Two more were brought into England in 1874 by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) and were exhibited at the Alexandra Palace Show in December 1875. In 1928. the Hon. Colonel and Mrs. Bailey imported four TMs which they obtained while the colonel served as Political Officer in Nepal and Tibet. In 1931 Mrs. Bailey formed the Tibetan Breeds Association and the Kennel Club adopted the first official standard for the breed. It was also the standard used by the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI).
TMs in the U.S.
No one knows when the first Tibetan Mastiff made its way to the United States, but the first documented importation was in 1958, when a pair was sent as a gift to President Eisenhower from the foreign ministry of Nepal. They must have caused quite a commotion in the White House, as they were supposed to be Tibetan Terriers. Rumor has it that they were shipped off to a farm in the Midwest and never heard from again.
In 1966, Ann Rohrer, founder of the American Tibetan Mastiff Association, was working for the U.S. Government in Katmandu. Nepal. Having a lifelong fascination with the Tibetan breeds, she provided a home to TM Jumla’s Kalu of Jumla. Beginning in 1970, several more TMs were imported from Nepal and India into the USA. These few foundation dogs, along with Kalu, were bred throughout the country by dedicated fanciers. During the 1990s. emphasis was placed on importing new breeding stock and expanding the opportunities to improve breed type without sacrificing health or structure.
Tibetan Mastiffs Today
By nature a guardian dog, the close relationship of the Tibetan Mastiff with man throughout the centuries has given the dog an almost uncanny understanding of people. “They relate to people in ways other breeds don’t,” says Allen. “They have such bonding qualities and are so personable.”
Generations of working as a guardian of yak and sheep, requiring always a protector and not a killer, has produced a disposition of controlled strength, initiative, and fearlessness, tempered with patience, loyalty, and gentleness. “They are not dogs who will chase somebody down,” says Feltenstein. “They just want you to go away. They put up this incredible display, you go away, and they just go back to sleep.”
In Tibet, to this day, the Tibetan Mastiff is used as a guard dog, tied to the gates of a monastery or home, or tied to a stake in the center of a nomad encampment. The Tibetan Mastiff was not used as a livestock guardian in Tibet and is not suited to such employment. Coming from a part of Tibet, the Chang Tang Plateau, with an average altitude of 16,000 feet, Tibetan Mastiffs have developed over millennia to be able to withstand very cold temperatures, high altitudes, and snow. This is not a breed that is happy in hot, humid climates.