A Glimpse of Yushu
Life -- and heartache -- in the Tibetan Mastiff's native land
Susan M. Smith
For millennia, the aboriginal people of Tibet have treated their indigenous mastiff as a working dog that was central to their culture – a sacred canine who was highly respected because without him, they simply couldn’t survive. The Tibetans historically owned just the clothes on their back and shoes, prayer wheels, tents and livestock, and the Tibetan Mastiff was the very essence of their livelihood. Without their dogs, they and their yak would not be protected. Without their yak, they would not have clothes (shoes, hats, mittens), food (meat, milk, yogurt, cheese, marrow), hides for winter blankets, fur for wool or their winter tents, or bones for trading or tool-making. They would lose animals to predators and have to chase after runaways from the herd.
The Tibetan Mastiff wears a red khekor collar around his neck made by the elders in the nomadic community from yak tails boiled with local herbs. This collar not only protects the dog from predators, but shows his high status in Tibetan society. These aren’t just any dog to the Tibetans; they are a deep-seated part of their culture.
A typical Tibetan Mastiff from Yushu.
My ties to Yushu County, Tibet, in northwest China’s Qinghai Province – renowned for being the biggest breeding center of Tibetan Mastiffs in the world and for producing the most expensive dogs in the world – came to me via a Canadian dignitary’s gift for a decade of medical service with the Canadian branch of Rokpa International. (Rokpa meaning “to serve” in Tibetan.) The gift was a 1-year-old male Tibetan Mastiff named “JaJa” (meaning “black and red”), the best the county could give.
The doctor – Dr. Isaac Sobol, MD, chief medical officer of health for the government of Nunavut’s Department of Health and Social Services in Canada – couldn’t refuse such an honorable gift. What he didn’t realize was that this was no ordinary dog! This was a nomadic dog (washed three times in glacial waters to be “un-stunk”!), a true landrace in every sense of the word. “JaJa” was brilliant beyond words – he could escape anywhere, jump 10-foot fences in one leap like a cat, unlatch every door in every kennel no matter how clever the lock. He was his own master because he had left his in Tibet. Long story short, he flew from British Columbia to Ontario, where he’s been with me ever since.
Hearing how these were dogs were bordering on extinction, Dr. Sobol asked me to send in my dossier for the next Rokpa medical mission to see and study these dogs. An educator who could do pharmacy work, I got approval to do clinic hours during the day and research the Tibetan Mastiff every other waking hour.
My meetings with Dr. Akong Tulku Rinpoche (the last word, meaning “Precious One,” is an honorific used in Tibetan Buddhist), who founded Rokpa International and is in charge of the monasteries in Tibet, were in tents, and monastery and hotel rooms. Talks over the Tibetan Mastiffs were long, and our views were different. The Tibetans explained to me what was considered best in Yushu was from a working, health and mystic perspective: A Tibetan Mastiff had to be able to pull a man off a running horse, or run after a irate yak and hold it by the front lip until the owner could retrieve it. It would be good if the Tibetan Mastiff had a white marking on the chest to show a brave heart, and the rich chestnut dots above the eyes to see two days into the future. A white tail tip was bad luck and often amputated at birth. White toes were frowned upon. Two folds on the forehead were perfect, as was one fold on each side of the face. “Haw” was good for avoiding cataracts and snow blindness, and for sand storms.
I was invited to visit kennels throughout China in March 2007. I had learned that many Chinese were buying or leasing land on the Qinghai Plateau and were enamored by the Tibetan Mastiffs in their homeland, buying them in order to breed them and open their own kennels. I was amazed at the longevity, health and mild temperament of some of their oldest specimens, at 17-plus years old. There were problems with pricing and quality at that time. Promotion had started by then of the “Chinese-type Tibetan Mastiff.” They seemed to have chosen the “rare lion type” as the one to be most promoted throughout China.
The author goes over kennel puppies for evaluations at night — dirty, smelly and locked in.
In Yushu, the Tibetan Mastiffs are chained to a wooden or wrought-iron post in the ground from puppyhood. They are fitted with special moon-shaped double collars (similar to a martingale) so they grow into them and cannot never slip out. The dogs are fed byproducts of whatever livestock is available (yak, sheep, possibly a dead pony), maybe mixed with barley. At night, the Tibetan Mastiff is often let loose to find his own water source from a river, and catch some marmot or other small local game, all the while guarding the territory.
A typical Yushu breeder, with males in pens and females tied to mud walls.
Every 14 years, the Yushu Horse Festival is celebrated. “The Best Tibetan Mastiffs in the World” promotion was part of it, in which two clubs presented their Tibetan Mastiffs. The Tibetan Mastiffs were from kennels, nomads and people who just had Tibetan Mastiffs to sell. There was predominantly one type – large, historic Tsang Khyi – about 90 percent jet black and deep rust tan markings. Others were mostly pure golds or reds; there were browns, blacks and whites, though these were all of a different type than what was seen locally. No Westerners were there – mostly Tibetans and a few Chinese.
Above and below: Scenes from the Yushu Horse Festival, which features Tibetan Mastiffs.
This Tibetan Mastiff at the Yushu Horse Festival was not from a local area; white dogs seemed to be from different localities all their own.
As a side note, there was only one vet in town when I was there in 2007, and his practice was extremely limited: non-surgical, no anesthetic, just traditional Tibetan healing. Dogs that got hit by vehicles (often by Chinese drivers who had no respect for the livestock or dogs) were left to die. Poor Tibetans couldn’t afford vet care – only the wealthy could. The vet told many a story of being bit by Tibetan Mastiffs being held by their owners for care. With so many Tibetan Mastiffs in the area, I only saw one cat, and it was on top of a tall wall among shards of glass implanted into the concrete.
In his native land, the Tibetan Mastiff is treated with respect and dignity. The children of Yushu were always surrounded by Tibetan Mastiffs that were loose everywhere. They passed dozens of them just on their walk to school – at shrines, at the monastery, at every tent and store, under vehicles and in holes, literally everywhere, sometimes walking in and out of stores. You never saw a child go up to a dog and pet or cuddle it, or ask an owner walking through town with one on a lead if they can pet it. They just act as if the Tibetan Mastiff doesn’t exist –no fear, no reaction. But they know to give a wide berth if the dog is just sleeping in the road or sidewalk. If the dog decides to sleep next to them, they let it. There hasn’t been a case of rabies in over 25 years, so no issues there, and at that altitude ringworm, fleas and ticks aren’t a problem, either. Each child is taught, for his or her safety – not out of cruelty – to be a good shot with a handful of rocks. But I suspect that’s not just for protection from a Tibetan Mastiff who may want your lunch, but a crazed marmot, goat and ornery sheep. The dogs and people – children included – co-exist naturally.
Tibetan Mastiffs are part of the landscape in Yushu.
Stuffed Tibetan Mastiff in Mahakala Shrine in Yushu.
While on that visit to Tibet in 2007, I was invited during one of their high festivals to climb to the very top of the monastery where there was a Mahakala shrine. In it were monks praying for a better afterlife for the animals hanging from the ceiling – mostly Tibetan Mastiffs, one yak and one goat. Stuffed with straw and covered in prayer flags and religious ornaments, all had died untimely deaths.
By contrast, the Chinese promotion and culture of the Tibetan Mastiff is that of a ferocious beast lunging, snapping and snarling. This is highly prized in China. They start puppies out by throwing rocks at them, hitting them with sticks and making them “angry.” The dogs are fed everything from deer meat to noodles to dog kibble, in order to intimidate others. In China, you would often see Tibetan Mastiffs in high-end car lots that were gated at night to keep thieves out. Wealthy buyers from the city would have parades of Mercedes-Benzes and the “red carpet” treatment for the arrival of their new expensive Tibetan Mastiff. In China, the dogs are an item of luxury and status.
In Yushu, the nomads would never sell their females – only males. It took over three months of negotiations and trust to finally get a female from a trusted kennel through the approval of the Rinpoche. When I asked if a breeding program in the monastery was a possibility, his first response was: “I can’t feed monks – how dogs?” I replied that in another county, 300 Buddhist nuns fed 300 dogs! (True … all Tibetan Mastiffs.) I remarked to the Rinpoche that the Chinese can’t take everything from you – the land, language and clothes, yes, but not dogs. The dogs are now in vogue, and Communism is now a market of rich and poor.
A major consideration was bringing a Tibetan Mastiff out of inner Tibet. In Tibet’s high altitude, canines weighing 200 pounds and even more can live comfortably, and their weight can benefit them due to the large amount of body heat constantly generated by their excess body mass. But just as humans can get altitude sickness, taking a Tibetan Mastiff that has lived at 16,000 feet down to near sea level has to be done slowly, in stages, and the dog has to be chosen from stock that will not grow to an excessive size. (This may be what happened to many historic specimens that died of “heat prostration” within months of their arrival in England or the Continent.) It takes approximately 18 months for a canine to acclimate to sea level once brought down from high altitudes, which I experienced at my kennel with the first two that had some difficulty during their first summer in Canada.
A year after my trip to Tibet, the province experienced its own unsettling difficulties. The Beijing Olympics in 2008 precipitated a clash between the Chinese and the Dalai Llama. Conflict in Llasa was what we heard about first in the news, but most of Llasa is now Han Chinese. The retaliation was harder in Yushu, where the army went in, people were harmed, even killed, and curfews set. Historically, Yushu has been largely left alone by the Chinese because the Kham are warriors and definitely the largest, tallest, strongest people I have ever seen. That year, the medical team was told it was too unsafe to come. The best dogs were hidden in caves in the countryside.
Eventually, the political landscape settled down, and relations between the Chinese and Tibetans had started to mend. Yushu, once a county of dirt roads and a municipal tax base of less than $500, now had an airport, paved streets, solar street lights and new buildings. It was doing so unbelievably well, in fact, the Rokpa teams were not needed, as Yushu had a new hospital!
Then, with a cruel suddenness, Mother Nature delivered her own crushing blow: On April 14, 2009, Yushu County experienced a 7.1 magnitude earthquake.
Thousands of aboriginal Kham were left dead and injured – and so were their Tibetan Mastiffs. The Kham who were lucky to be alive had to endure high winds, sleet and nighttime temperatures well below freezing, all the while looking for lost or buried relatives as priority over their dogs. Yushu is approximately 16,000 feet above sea level – frost is seen in even in the middle of summer nights.
The most dismal part of the earthquake, besides the loss to humans, livestock and the town itself, is the loss of mutual respect that was starting to flourish among the Chinese and the Tibetans.
A typical nomad's Tibetan Mastiff staked on a hillside, with a dug hole for shelter and a sheep carcass for food.
It is estimated that more than 2,000 Tibetan Mastiffs died in the earthquake. Because most Tibetan Mastiffs in the town’s kennels are staked and chained to either a wall or the ground, and live in either concrete kennels or mud shanties, or naturally dug-out underground pits, the chances of being caved in and trapped were tremendous. These kennels often kept females chained to walls, and males in what looked like old-fashioned “lion cages” made from steel bars. The puppies and young were kept in low flats together with mud/concrete tops and steel fronts. Because the walls toppled like dominoes, they lost most of the females. The mud and concrete roofs collapsed on the young puppies, and crushed them, too.
The males were big, strong and the most protected. It was these males that were starved without their masters, injured or ran for the hills. I am told that many were captured by the Chinese army in hopes of making quick money. My greatest disgust was seeing Chinese, Westerners and European breeders going in to try to get their hands on these dogs – for free. To me this is not just pillaging, but the greatest dishonor you can give the Kham aboriginal people and their culture, as it disrespects their Buddhist religion in which the Tibetan Mastiff is sacred to them. It also ruins any hope of trying to put back any pieces of the puzzle of any bloodlines that may still exist that only they would know. I am sure these pillagers also didn’t realize that the stolen Tibetan Mastiffs will be known as reproductions at best and will bring only ordinary prices because they cannot guarantee their lineage nor health. The high prices only come from excellent quality and known lineages.
What these pillagers also don’t know is that nomads and breeders of Tibetan Mastiffs in the area cull the lines of any known inheritable disease or illness by releasing defective dogs into the wild; being Buddhist they will not kill them, but instead let Mother Nature take care of them. These unhealthy dogs are often found wandering the streets or rivers.
A relocation camp for nomads, where no dogs are allowed. Tibetan Mastiffs are often seen circling the camps, trying to get in.
What are the prospects for the future? China does own and will promote the breed as a super-power country. Yes, there will continue to be problems of bringing the Tibetan Mastiff into cities, where the rich can best afford them, but regulations are already in place; penalties for breaking the rules are stiff for owners, and death usually results for the dog.
One of the Tibetan Mastiffs belonging to the former royal family of Yushu. When the author visited in 2007, the palace on the hill beside the monastery was mostly in ruins and the family impoverished.
The Kham people are strong warriors. It will take a long time for the survivors to tell their stories, especially as relationships are challenged again. I do believe reconciliation for a fair trade of the excellent pure Yushu Tibetan Mastiffs will rise again, in time, from the determination of the Kham peoples. And they will again be respected for their culture, religion and what is rightfully theirs – their indigenous landrace canine, the historic Yushu Tibetan Mastiff.
I have been asked by the Rinpoche to help replenish their stock with the ones Dr. Sobol and I have brought back and have started our first generation with. We have also broached the possibility of starting breeding programs in the monasteries.
There are other varieties of indigenous Tibetan Mastiff in other parts of inner Tibet that are still pure and need preservation. Together, we are already working on another mission of peace through these marvelous canines to bring good health, promote peace, fair trade, and pride and sustainability of the historical culture – a win-win situation for the Tibetans, China and the West.
© Modern Molosser Magazine. This article may not be reposted, reprinted, rewritten, excerpted or otherwise duplicated in any medium without the express written permission of the publisher.
Wed, 03/14/2018 - 11:30pm