Today, a half-century after that recipe box was assembled, the Tibetan Mastiff is engulfed in one of the most contentious period in its history – its Western history, at least. As fanciers hotly debate just what constitutes authenticity in this ancient land race, perhaps the only thing they can agree on is that inevitably they can’t.
Yet despite their yawning differences, most all American Tibetan Mastiff fanciers can assent to this statement: Without Ann Rohrer, the woman who created that wildly colored recipe box, there might not have been a breed here about which to disagree.
Rohrer and a friend in Nepal.
Six feet tall, with striking red hair, Rohrer was nothing short of the grande dame of Tibetan Mastiffs in America. Laying the groundwork to establish breeding programs outside of Tibet, she ultimately transformed this ancient breed into a documented purebred. Rohrer founded the first club for the breed, the American Tibetan Mastiff Association, and implemented the first formal registry.
“Her house was filled with fascinating artifacts from her years in the foreign service,” says Eichhorn, who met Rohrer in 1978 after seeing the breed in a Life magazine article. “She was very tall and imposing, but very friendly, with a gentle spirit. You could tell that she had wisdom and life experience.”
That meeting also included Eichhorn’s first encounter with a Tibetan Mastiff, Ann’s foundation stud dog, “Kalu” (Jumla’s Kalu of Jumla). “He was already 11, but he had such a majestic presence,” Eichhorn remembers. “I wasn’t exactly terrified, but my heart was racing, and I definitely took a deep breath when he entered the room. He walked toward me, sniffed, stopped, and sort of presented his side for stroking, like a king allowing you to kiss his hand.”
Like Kalu, her well-traveled stud dog, Rohrer’s tremendous contribution to the breed came rather late in her life. “Ann was deeply immersed in Asian art, culture and history long before she became involved with dogs,” remembers her niece, Carol Gordon, though that wide range of interests eventually led her there. Gordon’s sister, Linda Bennett, describes Ann as “absolutely amazing, very independent, physically active and adventurous.”
It was that personality that led her to fall in love with a breed that eventually would become her life’s work.
In high school, Rohrer made up her mind to travel the world. She joined the Women’s Army Corps, or WACs, in 1943, and by war’s end she was a second lieutenant, a certified pilot and quite at home in Southeast Asia. After working in Tokyo, she joined the United States Agency for International Development, where she found her true calling in government work. She spent the next 30 years living and working throughout Asia.
Although she was comfortable in her eastern outposts, running a household required the help of servants to manage chores like cooking and shopping. This personal interaction facilitated her connection with the local community, and fostered her deep appreciation for Asian culture.
“In Burma, she stretched herself more,” Bennett says. “Ann studied Buddhism and accompanied anthropologists expeditions in the jungle. She also began painting and developed a passionate interest in Burmese art.”
Through her diplomatic connections, Rohrer obtained art supplies, which she shared with local artists. She also organized exhibitions to help them promote and sell their work. “That was Ann before Nepal,” says Bennett.
Then, in 1966, the United States Agency for International Development posted Rohrer to Kathmandu. The federal agency “required employees to periodically rotate out, otherwise you would be in danger of ‘going native,’” Bennett explains. “So, most of Ann’s positions were in four-year blocks, and we got to see her for four-month visits in between. During one swing around, she said she wanted us to come and stay with her after high school.”
Rohrer near Namche Bazaar, Nepal, in 1966.
Rohrer was true to her word. A year later, Bennett found herself yanked out of Southern California and taken to Nepal. She not only witnessed Rohrer’s burgeoning interest in Tibetan Mastiffs, but she understood the motivating factors behind it.
Thousands of refugees followed the Dalai Lama into exile when he fled Tibet in 1959, and Bennett emphasizes that this flight has continued. “People are still leaving Tibet and walking over the Himalayas,” she says. “In Nepal there are still big problems with the treatment of Tibetan refugees.” Rohrer’s visits to refugee camps brought her face to face with traditional Tibetan breeds, and the devotion that led refugees to bring their dogs on these arduous flights.
Rohrer may not have started out as a dog person, but she developed a sincere appreciation for the Tibetan Mastiff’s multifaceted role as caravan dog, livestock guardian, hunter and home protector. And her growing dedication to the breed included a respect for its diversity of types.
“In Nepal and Bhutan, you find a more athletic, compact livestock guardian type,” says Bennett. “Today, most fanciers are leaning towards a larger, heavier mastiff type with more coat, the Tsang-Khyi, which is used to guard monasteries.” However, this is far from the only prevalent type.
In Kathmandu, the sisters got acquainted with the “town dog.” “In Ann’s book there is a photograph of me posed next to a beautiful short-coated Tibetan Mastiff,” says Bennett. “All of Kathmandu was his territory, and he moved around the whole town.”
Found throughout Tibet and Nepal, town dogs function as local security patrols for towns and villages, scouting, scrounging and keeping an eye on their territory. “At the refugee camps we heard that these good dogs were being slaughtered because they were so protective and intimidating,” Bennett says. “Chinese soldiers couldn’t get close to homes or monasteries.” Refugees expressed their fears that they would be totally eliminated.
Rohrer took matters into her own hands. She located top-quality specimens and arranged to export them to the U.S. She had already sent Tibetan Terriers out of the country, but they were far more portable. Exporting Tibetan Mastiffs posed major logistical transport problems. This was just one of many challenges that succumbed to Rohrer’s energy, resourcefulness and determination.
Rohrer’s niece, Linda Bennett, with a “town dog” named Rusty near Kathmandu In 1968.
Rohrer was not the only one who was bringing the Tibetan Mastiff into the United States, albeit for more altruistic reasons. “Drug smuggling also had a big impact on Tibetan Mastiff development in the 1960s,” Bennett says. “Many of the imports that that were not brought in by Ann or her friends were horrible specimens.” Drug smugglers intentionally selected poorly socialized, temperamentally unstable dogs, because customs inspectors were understandably reluctant to put their hands in the crate of a huge, snarling dog to check for contraband.
This wasn’t the only issue that complicated efforts to establish the breed in America. Although the Tibetan Mastiff survived in Asia, Bennett notes that selective breeding never played a big role in its development. “Tibetans have a real dedication to natural breeding,” she says, noting that this laissez-faire approach derives from cultural beliefs about karma, strongly influenced by Buddhist philosophy. “As a rule they do not intentionally put one dog to another to create something.”
In 1972, Rohrer retired to Antelope Valley in Southern California, and Tibetan Mastiffs became an overriding focus for the rest of her life. “She became the face of the breed on the West Coast in the 1970s and early ’80s, championing the breed,” says Charles Radcliffe of Timberline Tibetan Mastiffs in Denver, Colo., who first met Rohrer in 1987 at the national specialty in California.
In 1976, Rohrer acquired Jumla’s Kalu of Jumla, who became the first dog recorded in her studbook.
“Pictures of Jumla’s Kalu of Jumla reveal him to be a very creditable Tibetan Mastiff with nice bone, good head and size,” says Radcliffe. He recalls Rohrer admitting that Kalu was “extremely difficult, but intelligent, loyal, and protective. He won Ann’s heart.” Kalu became the foundation sire of her Langtang line, siring seven litters before his death in 1981.
Rohrer imported two bitches from Nepal to breed to Kalu. Two daughters from these outcross matings provided the second generation of the Langtang line and were bred back to their sire. Inbreeding not only set type – very often, it was the only option. “China was closed, Tibet had been taken over, and there were very few imports,” explains Eichhorn.
However, Radcliffe emphasizes that Rohrer’s major impact on Tibetan Mastiff development in America was not through the dogs she bred. According to Radcliffe, the females that Rohrer imported from Nepal lacked Kalu’s type and quality. “Based on pictures I have seen, they were clearly trail dogs,” which he describes as small in stature, and refined in bone and facial structure. “These two traits haunted the Kalu line until they were finally diluted by outcrossing to more mastiff-like dogs imported by others.”
Rohrer with Jumla’s Kalu of Jumla and St. Mary’s Kipu of Langtang. The two were fountain dogs in her breeding program.
Rohrer and porters on a trek near Annapurna Sanctuary Base Camp.
Rohrer was arguably more interested in history and culture than breeding and certainly showing, but she nonetheless spent her fair share of time in the whelping box. Like many primitive breeds, Tibetan Mastiffs come into season annually, usually in late fall, and her niece Carol Gordon remembers the December holidays being synonymous with puppies. “If we wanted Ann to be part of our celebrations, we had to go to her place, because she was expecting puppies, or had a new litter on the ground.”
As far as the show ring, some of Rohrer’s proteges readily took up the reins. At their first meeting in 1978, Rohrer recognized that Eichhorn was clearly enthralled by the breed, and offered to work out a deal if he wanted a puppy from one of her upcoming litters: Eichhorn got Kutra, which means “nobility,” an inbred Kalu daughter who became the foundation for 15 generations of Drakyi breeding. In exchange, Ann got $200, Eichhorn’s promise to serve as registrar to the American Tibetan Mastiff Association, which Rohrer had founded, and a toaster oven that he had planned to return after visiting her. “She said, ‘Don’t return that, I’ll take it.”
That toaster oven, Eichhorn says, became symbolic of their relationship. “She would call and say that she had picked up ‘some of that Banquet chicken that you like,’” and then would heat the frozen dinner up in the ever-present toaster oven, “with a Nepali relish or some other delicacy she whipped up to go with it.”
That fateful meeting, says Eichhorn, “set a course for my life that continues today.” Rohrer’s co-breeder, Linda Larsen, subsequently became Eichhorn’s mentor, and the two eventually amalgamated their kennel names into Drakyi, which Eichhorn continues today, with great success.
Rohrer was concerned that black might disappear altogether from the Tibetan Mastiff.
By the early 1980s, the Tibetan Mastiff was represented by two American parent clubs. Breeders Steven and Linda Nash of the Ausables Kennels in upstate New York had established an East Coast club and registry, and Eichhorn clearly recalls the heated rivalry that existed between these groups. “In 1983, both clubs decided that it would be to everyone’s advantage to draw in their talons and merge into one national, unified club.”
After the transition, Rohrer continued as ATMA historian and refocused her energy on her true interests. In 1981 she and Linda Larsen co-authored The Tibetan Mastiff Book, subtitled “A short comprehensive study of the Tibetan Mastiff in the United States.” In 1989, Rohrer co-authored The Tibetan Mastiff: Legendary Guardian of the Himalayas with Cathy Flamholtz. Both books are highly regarded by fanciers today.
Although Rohrer supported the merger of the East and West coast clubs, she was less enthusiastic about combining their bloodlines. Eichhorn admits that he “committed the unpardonable sin of breeding dogs together from the two registries.” At that point, the American breed population had expanded from 47 registered dogs in 1979, but the gene pool was still extremely small.
Consolidating these bloodlines to create a strong gene pool at that juncture of Tibetan Mastiff history proved to be a critical step, ensuring that breeders had access to high-quality stock to offset the drag of poor-quality imports, especially those brought in through the drug trade.
By contrast, Chinese breeders began intensively selecting for size, coat and color in the 1980s. After decades of neglect, a flourishing Chinese economy triggered explosive interest in purebred dogs, and the Tibetan Mastiff became a major focus. With limitless access to breeding stock, Chinese breeders established the Tibetan Mastiff Research Center and massive breeding kennels sprang up throughout the country.
Despite this, Bennett emphasizes that quality has lagged because “there is no accepted breed standard, and the Chinese are not paying attention to good structure. It’s become even more important for the quality to stay high in other countries because it is not high there.”
Rohrer’s hope of creating a solid foundation for the breed outside of its homeland included a commitment to preserving its varied types and colors. Her unique perspective on Tibetan culture made it easy for her to accept that it has never been a standardized breed. She also had a realistic approach to her mission.
“During her time in Nepal, Rohrer had a vision to save these dogs,” says Eichhorn. “We bred whatever we could get out of there, and they are all now under one broad Tibetan Mastiff umbrella. Our efforts were noble and we have dogs that are every bit as authentic, but there are variations.” However, he admits that it’s difficult to reconcile these concepts of functional diversity and uniformity of type, calling it “a sort of a culture clash where east meets west.” Rohrer’s most important legacy may have been her ability to instill the next generation of breeders with this complex appreciation for the breed.
Thanks to Rohrer, Carol Gordon and Linda Bennett grew up around Tibetan Mastiffs, with Gordon acquiring her first Tibetan Mastiff in 1992. Five years later, she became involved in showing and breeding. “Our kennel name has been Kachar Village, because Ann described it as a village where these dogs could live and thrive,” she says. “In Ann’s memory we have also taken over her kennel name, and we are starting to focus on black Tibetan Mastiffs. Ann was concerned that black would disappear. We want to make sure that her concerns don’t become a reality.”
Rohrer and puppy.
Ann Rohrer died in 2001 at age 85. Unfortunately, she never saw her goal of American Kennel Club recognition for the breed. In honor of her incalculable contribution to the breed, ATMA offers the Ann Rohrer Founder’s Trophy to each year’s national-specialty winner.
“I have often wondered if I would have maintained my keen interest and devotion to the Tibetan Mastiff, had I know the pitfalls encountered in introducing a new breed to the Unted States,” Rohrer wrote in the first chapter of The Tibetan Mastiff: Legendary Guardian of the Himalayas. “I have no doubts, however, when I look at these beautiful animals. It has been my good fortune to know, first hand, their intelligent and unique personalities.”
Shortly after her death, Rohrer’s friends gathered for a memorial service at the home of fellow breeder Betty Macy. A professional singer, Eichhorn closed the service with an a capella version of the Lord’s Prayer.
“As I was singing, all of Betty’s Malamutes and Tibetan Mastiffs started howling,” Eichhorn remembers. A seasoned performer, he stopped cold, and then struggled to continue, struck with the eerie feeling that the dogs “were paying their homage to Ann.”