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Making Headway

Breeder-judge Richard Eichhorn gives a mentoring session on the nuances of Tibetan Mastiff head type
When it comes to judging dogs, head type is arguably the most defining of breed characteristics, with silhouette running a close second. Both suggest and often define ability and function, but there is nothing like a simple, beautifully drawn, painted or photographed head study of a purebred dog to reveal the uniqueness of its breed. 
The importance of correct head type is profound in the mastiff breeds, where extremes prevail, and is particularly true of the majestic Tibetan Mastiff, with its noble, solemn yet watchful expression, and its broad skull and impressive, even massive and wrinkled head with a strongly defined occiput connecting to a deep and well-defined stop. Framing the impressive head is a full, thick upstanding mane that becomes more developed in length with age, particularly in males. (Think of lions here!)
Further breed defining is the broad, padded and square muzzle with thick, well-developed upper lips and moderately developed flews with slightly pendulous lower lips; the deeply set, slanting, wide set, expressive almond eyes; the higher-set, medium pendant ears that drop forward and hang closer to the head in repose, and are level with the top skull when the dog is alerted.  To complete the perfect picture, a fully pigmented broad nose with open nostrils; a scissors or level bite that maintains the squareness of the muzzle, and you get the idea.
We can all read and review standards to fine-tune our eye and note preferences, faults and disqualifications, but it is essential to have a strong idea and image in our brains as to what constitutes correct breed type as seen in the Tibetan Mastiff head.
Let’s get started!
Today, let’s all imagine that we are standing ringside for a mentoring session, and as a breeder-judge I am thinking out loud and addressing the group as we go down the lineup. My comments are basic, to the point, stressing strengths, pointing out mediocrity and weaknesses. For the purpose of this article,  I will follow mom’s advice, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” as we don’t need those Letters to the Editor! Besides, most of us have a good idea of what we like and what is not desirable in a mastiff breed (narrow skulls, receding liplines, long and narrow muzzles, etc.).

Dog, 1 year. Beautiful expression with desired deep lip line, rich pigmentation. Moderate width of skull is correct for a young dog, and would like to see more with maturity. Finer, faded puppy coat still visible.




Dog, 4 years. Correct sloping stop, with proper length of muzzle and balancing lip line and padding. Correct pigment. Ears set correctly to accentuate width of skull. Profuse, age-appropriate mane.

Bitch, 3 years. Outstanding head type with desired muzzle padding, with defining, classic Asian eye. Moderate in coat with correct, developing dewlap. 

Dog, 4 years. The sought-after seasoned maturity and conditioning for a “special” in the show ring. Very desirable and correct head with sufficient lip and wrinkling, with markings accentuating the expression. 

Dog, 2 years. Very nice mastiff proportions to skull and muzzle. Moderate summer coat. Nice deep pigment. Wide-set eyes with correct Asian expression.

Classic male and female differences seen in two mature Tibetan Mastiffs. Both the “various shades of gold” with black pigment as detailed in the standard, the male with more sable markings and the characteristic longer mane that comes with maturity. Both showing the wide-set Asian eyes, padded muzzles, characteristic ear sets when alert, giving the impression of even broader back skulls.

Bitch, 3 years. Excellent type and expression. In show condition. Proper muzzle proportions and ear set with rich pigmentation.

Dog, 1 year. Rare quality and development seen in such a young dog. All proportions are correct. More breath to the muzzle will come with age, as will the breed-defining mane.

Bitch, 3 years.  Rare, exceptional type and development for a bitch.  A full mane that would be the envy of most males in the breed. This photo depicts ideal head proportions and type. Sunburning of mane is seasonal.




Dog, 2 years. Exquisite breed type. Exceptional width, depth and padding of muzzle and lip. Masculine proportions to the head, with ear set and size balancing the pleasing symmetry of the head.




Bitch, 4 years. Beautiful rich markings accentuate her correct breed and head type and desirable Asian eye. Correct dark pigment. A well-developed back skull for a bitch with proper head proportions.




Female, 2 years. Correct muzzle to head proportions, ideal stop connecting to well-developed occiput and sagital crest. Standard defining markings found on gold examples of the breed. The beginnings of a nice mane for a bitch.




Male, 20 months. In late-summer coat with some reddish overtones to the juvenile coat still apparent, especially in late afternoon sun. Correct breadth and fill to the head and muzzle, well-developed, breed-defining wrinkling and dewlap already apparent at this age. I look forward to seeing this dog in full coat, mane and maturity.




From the 1930s, a classic photo of the famous Tibetan exports to England, golden Tonya and her son, Bru, both with the slightly longer ears and skin folds documented and described by centuries of Tibetan trekkers as “the bloodhound type.” At this angle, a full, draping lip line and dewlap can be seen, complimented by the wrinkling below the eye. They appear to be in summer coat, with Bru yet to develop his mature mane. If bred today, Bru would need a bitch with a darker eye, and both would benefit from mates with more coat and fully developed underjaws.




Male, 3 years. Classic, watchful, solemn expression. All things are working harmoniously with the head. Beautiful, rich pigment and markings. Ideal padding and depth of upper lip may come with more age.




Female, 2 years. In the rare chocolate/liver dilute color with matching pigment, a fully developed broad back skull and padded muzzle with a very nice drop to the lips. Ears nicely sized and set correctly, and slightly folded forward in a relaxed position. Correct mane development for age and sex.




Male. Fully mature. Asian bloodline with maximum lip and dewlap. Slight haw showing, desired when judging in China.




Male, 5 years. This Tibetan-export male sold for $600,000 US in 2008 in China. His rich tan markings are highly prized, with the long lion-like mane accentuated very successfully by years of matted coat and the tight red kekhor Tibetan yak-hair collar cinched up behind his dewlap. Think big teased hair at a Miss Texas pageant! If you ever judge in China ...




Male, 15 months. Very special head type found in the rare, dilute blue/gray and tan coloration. Ideal broad foreskull and beautifully padded muzzling. Correct ear set and almond  eyes with the desired breed-defining mane.




Male, 3 years. A very desirable head with correct ear set and length, broad back skull, Asian expression, fully developed upper and lower jaw and lip line with a tightly covered flew, nicely maturing mane, just “oozing type,” as they say.




Female, 3 years. A lovely profile showing the muzzle well filled, square, with a correct drop to the lip line, the sloping stop with muzzle length shorter than from stop to occiput. Perfectly shaped ears laying close to the head, at rest. A nicely developing mane with beautiful shading to the coloration and complete pigmentation.




Male. Ideal, breed-defining type straight out of Tibet, with fully developed lip line and dewlap accentuated by traditional “kekhor” collar. Highly desired markings based on Tibetan folklore tale of the tan eyespots being the eyes to the spirit world.




Female, 2 years. Beautiful feminine expression on a lovely red bitch, with correct width of skull, ear set, muzzle and cheek fill. Rare single blue eye (doubles are also seen), desired and prized in native standards, faulted in Western standards. Exceptional mane for a bitch.




Male, 6 years. Correct dimensions, type and expression on this beautiful, mature golden Tibetan Mastiff male.




Dog, 3 years.  A most handsome dog with coveted type and serious expression. In a fully matured show coat. Classic type and markings.




Male, 3 years. As good judges, we are always challenged to be colorblind, especially in a breed like the Tibetan Mastiff where so many colors are correct. This is where I look away and let my hands do the judging.  In the black/tan version, the muzzle looks broader, and foreskull narrower, due to the illusion of color.  How did you do?


End Note

When judging the Tibetan Mastiff, keep in mind that the dog would much prefer being at home guarding the property while the owner and handler go to the dog show.  So the only expression you are likely to get in the ring is one of indifference, or perhaps a glimmer of a single raised eyebrow as a white dove descends from the heavens on a lone ray of sunshine through the darkest of clouds. Get the picture? So, no premiums on showiness, please! And let the owner show the bite, as the Tibetan Mastiff is a territorial guardian breed, and while he or she should be off guard duty while at the shows, you may just be perceived as intruding.
As for the complaints I often hear about inconsistencies in breed type, I feel your pain! Bear with us ... This is a breed that has several documented varieties within the breed, all under the “Tibetan Mastiff” banner. Some argue that the breed should be shown as more than one breed, and certainly with separate Open classes, to say the least.  But here we all are in one ring with one BOB ribbon!
What was consistent about the breed in native lands was the function, with each geographically isolated village known for a particular type, defined by size, type and/or color. For centuries in native lands, there has been a massive, more stationary guardian and its high-plateau, more agile and fierce counterpart, both known as the Tsang Khyi, and also a more moderate, mountain dog version known as the Dokhyi, all seen in medium to longer coats that are influenced by climate, the time of year, reproductive cycles and maturity.
But that is all a subject for our next mentoring session on breed type. Stay tuned, and go put up some outstanding dogs.



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