Of all the questions I’m asked by newcomers to the breed, the most common concerns differences between the early generations of dogs that came out of Tibet, and the dogs we see in both East and West nowadays. I usually protest that I’m not that old. The dogs of Tibet, after all, have been described by adventurers, merchants and missionaries from very early times. But I do believe that preserving the authenticity of the Great Dog of Tibet is the most significant challenge for our breed.
However, I always feel pressed to define what we mean when we say “Tibetan Mastiff.” I think it’s important to realize that the word “Mastiff” merely indicated “a big dog” to the European travelers of earlier times. Under this rubric, therefore, Europeans described meeting feral and semi-feral dogs, curs living in the streets and packs of wild dogs on the fringes of nomadic encampments, as well as the dogs that were bred with pride by the same nomads to guard palaces and temples.
It is hardly surprising, then, that strangers often fell back on descriptions of the packs of feral dogs that menaced anyone attempting to travel on the Tibetan Plateau, which left an impression of viciousness that still haunts the breed. I would never suggest that anyone rush up to an unknown dog, whether Tibetan Mastiff or Cocker Spaniel. All dogs have teeth, and should be approached with respect. The larger the dog, the more damage it is capable of inflicting. But it is also true that many of the old stories tell of encounters with packs of wild, not bred, dogs, and I think it is important to bear this in mind.
In fact, what mainly fascinates me about Tibetan Mastiffs is how greatly their understanding of their enormous power, and their extreme prudence in its use, sets them apart from most of the other large or “guardian” breeds I have known. I want to be very specific, therefore, in defining the dog I’m talking about as the dog bred by the nomads with great care, and called by them “Dokhyi.”
Swedish geographer Sven Hedin took photos of Tibetan dogs he encountered, including these.
My own interest in the breed began about 45 years ago, when I read a description of a Dokhyi encountered by Sven Hedin on his travels, whose character was “rough,” but who was completely won over by kindness. This puts me in an unusual position, because although most people are initially attracted to a breed by its “look,” I wasn’t. But that may be fortunate, because, as I discovered, the most salient feature of our breed is not, in fact, its appearance. I will admit that the beauty of a sweet Tibetan Mastiff expression on one of those huge, powerful heads is irresistible. The Tibetan Mastiff has always been called a “head” breed, and nothing could be truer – but mostly because it is what is behind those huge eyes and between those velvety ears that is most significant about them.
Dokhyi translates as “a dog who may be tied.” That is an important thing to bear in mind, too. One of the easiest and fastest ways to ruin a dog’s temperament (from the Western standpoint) is to chain it, which renders it helpless in the face of any threat. That’s why we observe that the descendants of the same chained dogs who roared terrifyingly in Tibet are extremely tractable when handled and socialized from puppyhood, and kept in fenced yards like any other dogs.
It should also be said that people in subsistence cultures rarely breed animals who can be of use to them in only one way. The Tibetan Mastiff is not merely a guardian. In pursuit of its duties, which it takes very seriously, it is possessed of a remarkable degree of intelligence, which enables it to make “snap” decisions and to act on them instantly. It’s not just a matter of “Friend or foe, who goes there?” The dogs must discriminate between “My people and their flocks and possessions” and “People who are welcome to my people” and “Everyone and everything else.” They are intended to serve as an extra “hand” in the vast, empty spaces of the grazing lands, and to alter their understanding of territory to encompass both fixed abodes and also seasonal encampments, when their people move to new pasturage.
This is an unusual kind of intelligence, which may be why Ann Rohrer, one of the first fanciers of the breed in the United States, described the dogs as “adaptable.” I’ve often puzzled over this statement with other Tibetan Mastiff people, because of all breeds, they seem the most stubborn and the least adaptable in many ways. No British butler was ever more adamant about “the way we do things here” than a Tibetan Mastiff who has been raised in a particular home. But their ability to expand their understanding to encompass new areas of responsibility and new circumstances, and to perform their new duties faithfully, is truly remarkable. In fact, it’s necessary to be very aware of what is going on behind those eyes, because the dogs may decide that something is within their purview, even if a human would disagree.
Tibetan Mastiffs are in their fullest glory guarding a home with children. Photo: Angelique Claes
This brings up another aspect of the dogs’ way of thinking about the world. They perceive things in terms of “ours” and “not ours.” Anything “ours” is to be watched and protected. However, the dogs also make decisions about what is “not ours,” and they act on those decisions. I’ve heard of Dokhyi who daintily removed visitors’ luggage, carefully depositing it outside the home. The same may occur when a home is redecorated. The dogs may decide they don’t particularly approve of the new things, and remove them. When they do that, they tend not to be unpleasant about it. They don’t necessarily destroy things the way they might have when they were playful puppies. They may simply pick them up and put them out on the driveway, as has been reported.
So what we have in this breed is an animal who is extremely oriented toward home and family. They are emphatically not the sort of flock guardians who will bond to the stock. Their interest is in their people, and in what pertains to their people. Everyone else need not apply for admission, which brings up another very interesting aspect of the way the dogs exercise their guarding duties. If they don’t wish someone to enter, they will make a huge commotion, but if their warning is respected, they will generally not pursue. They neither wish to leave their own property unguarded, nor to waste a single calorie on unnecessary confrontation. They are utterly uninterested in fighting for fighting’s sake.
No British butler was ever more adamant about 'the way we do things here' than a Tibetan Mastiff who has been raised in a particular home.
It must also be said that they are entirely unlike the sorts of dogs who respond positively to Schutzhund-type training, who are bred to work entirely under human direction. The glory of this breed lies in the extraordinary wisdom with which it utilizes force only when necessary. To cause the Dokhyi to override that faculty may create a truly dangerous and unstable animal. I cannot overemphasize this point.
Still, I differ from many people who have described Tibetan Mastiffs as difficult to train. They are utterly devoted to their people, and from this springs a deep cooperativeness that enables them to easily learn what is wanted of them. However, rote techniques tend to bore them into sullenness. Rather, they genuinely wish to work with their people to secure what they proudly regard as “their” home. They are in their fullest glory guarding a home with children, to whom they are slavishly devoted (but with whom they must be supervised). This brings up another important aspect of Tibetan Mastiff character, and to a person living in modern society, without pasturage and flocks, this may be the most important thing about them. The Tibetan Mastiff/Dokhyi is referred to as a “heart dog,” which refers not merely to the dogs’ courage in the face of danger, but to their ability to “read the heart.” There is a saying in our breed: “Never, never, never, trust anyone your dog doesn’t trust.” Anyone who has lived with the Dokhyi quickly learns to rely upon this remarkable – almost magical – ability of the dogs to assess the intent of other people and animals. For some of us, it has proved a lifesaver.
To sum up, however impressive the Tibetan Mastiff of the classical type may be physically, what really distinguishes these dogs is their profound intelligence, their thoughtfulness and their awareness of their world. This is “sentience” of a high order. No wonder they are regarded as just slightly below humans, according to the Tibetan Buddhist incarnational world view. From this springs the great nobility that is mentioned, sooner or later, by anyone who writes about the breed, and this is the quality I would most like to safeguard in the breed as we move into an uncertain future. A dog that looks like a Tibetan Mastiff, but lacks this complexity and depth of character, is not a true Dokhyi, and we should recognize this as we make the decisions that will shape the breed. They are rustic, yes, because they come from a rustic environment, halfway between the wild world we once inhabited, and the one we live in now. In that sense, they are transitional animals, retaining many wild traits, only slightly modified.
They hearken to things we cannot sense, and know things we have forgotten. They will re-introduce you to your own heritage if you permit them to, because they still understand a world that we don’t even consciously recall. In return, it is our responsibility to properly safeguard them in a setting they were never intended to inhabit. It’s a fair deal. Theirs is a special gift that comes to us from time immemorial. If you pay attention to what they are trying to tell you, they will reacquaint you with something very precious that you did not even know you had lost, and that knowledge will make you deeply, profoundly, whole.
About the Author
Mary Fischer was trained professionally as an Egyptologist, but her interest in Tibet and Tibetan animals has been a lifelong passion. Her love for the Tibetan Mastiff dates back more than 40 years, and she currently lives in Silicon Valley with her cryptographer husband and three beloved dogs.