How to raise a well-adjusted Tibetan Mastiff puppy
Dan Nechemias and Louis Claus
Ask anyone who has known or owned Tibetan Mastiffs about their character, and you will hear words such as “aloof,” “wary of strangers,” “discerning.” They are as common descriptions of the breed as “loyal,” “protective,” “majestic” and “regal.”
We regularly remind ourselves, and people that are interested in the breed, that these dogs have been bred for thousands of years to work around people, not with them. They were specifically bred as solitary dogs working to protect family and property. One of the most candid descriptions of the breed’s demeanor we have ever heard was from a dear friend from China. Having known the dogs of Tibet all her life, she described the Tibetan Mastiff in their homeland as “half wild.”
While we would argue that most Tibetan Mastiffs in Western countries are far from half wild, they do possess several characteristics that can be encapsulated in the word “primitive” when compared to the behavior of many modern breeds. It is because of these primitive traits that we work diligently with our puppies to socialize them through the first few years of their lives and find these practices to be essential for anyone who plans to own this breed.
Socializing consists of more than taking puppy to the park or shopping center; it is a process that builds trust through controlled activities and environments, creating positive experiences. At this time, the handler establishes trust with the puppy, who in turn develops confidence in his surroundings. Imagine a young man only knows his home on a quiet rural farm. Suddenly, you take him to New York City. Would you expect him to be relaxed and confident in such a wildly different environment? Most likely, he would be very uneasy. Certainly, if you replaced the person with a Tibetan Mastiff, the answer is no.
We do not offer any magic tricks to make a shy dog outgoing or an aggressive dog kind. Nor do we claim to be behavioralists or veterinarians. But we hope to share with you some of the techniques we use to socialize our Tibetan Mastiffs so they tolerate what we ask of them and, most important, become trustworthy companions suited to modern Western society.
Socializing a puppy begins at birth, the moment it has its first human contact with its breeder. But our focus here is on socializing the puppy from about eight weeks to two years. We emphasize the first two years of their lives, because in our experience, Tibetan Mastiffs go through very distinct, differentiated phases of physical and mental maturation. Because of these dual maturation processes, we strive to reinforce confidence and trust through consistency and repetition as the core of their training.
Tibetan Mastiffs are creatures of habit. We often joke that the dogs are a bit obsessive compulsive and notice the slightest changes to their environment. But if you make “change” a routine part of the dogs’ environment and imprint this on them at a young age, they tend to adapt well to new places, people and other stimuli as adults. Our Tibetan Mastiffs should perform at home on our farm as well as in a city. While we expect our dogs to maintain their guardian instincts, which include a heightened awareness of their surroundings, we also need them to tolerate strange people while they are with us and not obsess over new stimuli in an environment away from home.
After the first round of vaccinations at about eight weeks of age, we get our puppies off our property, away from the quiet routine of our rural home. As breeders, we also make sure to take our homebred puppies on the 45-minute drive to our veterinarian for their wellness check and first vaccinations. What better place for a positive first experience than at our very skilled and nurturing vet practice? We tend to linger with the puppies on this visit, letting them take in the new place and be doted on by a building full of animal lovers. This is the first of many excursions for puppy that become part of a weekly routine for the next several months. Although there is some risk taking a puppy into a foreign environment before all vaccinations are complete, we only take the puppy out to controlled environments and feel the rewards outweigh the risks.
One of the best controlled environments that we have taken full advantage of is basic puppy manners and socializing class. These days, a multitude of facilities offer puppy classes to pups over eight weeks old that have received their first round of vaccinations. We find that these types of classes lay a solid foundation for our puppies. The instructors introduce them to new people and stimuli, and they have an opportunity to play with different puppies of all shapes, sizes and temperaments. Most of the classes that we attend use everyday stimuli that encompass visual, auditory and tactile senses to build confidence in the young dogs.
Some of the exercises in these classes include getting the puppy to walk through a modified agility tunnel, walk up a ramp and go through hula hoops. To work on auditory senses, instructors conduct exercises like running a vacuum cleaner while puppies are playing or dropping pots and pans on the ground. For tactile exercises, we walk the puppy on new surfaces: concrete, carpet, dirt, asphalt, grass and mats. We have had classes where we dressed in costumes, or had a strange person join the class the following week. For one class, we all wore hats and sunglasses. All these exercises expose the puppy to new situations and help to build trust and confidence. Again, Tibetan Mastiffs are notable for being aloof and wary of strangers. So one of the greatest benefits of class is that our puppies get to meet new people and build trust in strangers in a positive, controlled environment with the hope that these positive encounters will be imprinted for a lifetime.
While we are in puppy class, we also continue socializing at home. Typically, this includes repeating many of the same exercises from class with a slight variation. So maybe in addition to running the vacuum cleaner, we mow the lawn with the tractor. If you live in a very quiet area, as we do, it is even possible to purchase audiotapes of different background noises so that the puppy can continue his exposure to different sounds that he would encounter in a new environment. At this time in the puppy’s socialization, we also continue to bring visitors to our place, which is also a critical part of their socializing. Tibetan Mastiffs are naturally protective dogs, and especially so on their home turf. It is essential that they learn to accept welcome strangers.
As the puppy grows and completes his vaccination protocols, we broaden his social experiences and continue to do this until maturity, albeit a little less frequently as he gets older and we feel he has reached a level of competency. One practice that has produced great success for us is sending puppies to dog daycare centers that take large breeds. In our experience, dog daycare facilities reinforce behaviors the puppy learned in class, as he gets to play with other dogs during the day and is exposed to lots of new people and stimuli. Separation from us at this time can be a good experience for puppy as he gains confidence in his own ability to trust new situations. Admittedly, we have the good fortune of having a few excellent daycare places in our area with very skilled and well trained staff. A good daycare will require an “interview” and trial run for the puppy. And we would not recommend sending your Tibetan Mastiff to just any daycare; get some referrals or interview staff before leaving your dog.
This is also a great time to let the neighborhood see how cute puppy is! We spend a good amount of time walking puppy near busy streets to get used to the sound of traffic, and we typically take a trip into the city for exposure to a totally new environment. One place that we have made a habit of taking puppies to is big box stores that welcome well-behaved dogs, like Home Depot. Our puppies are always treated kindly there and are often greeted by store clerks with a friendly hello, a pet and a treat. Now, that is a positive experience!
Our greatest successes with our puppies have come with patience, consistency, repetition and positive reinforcement. We do not ever expect a Tibetan Mastiff to behave like many companion or even sporting breeds. But we do expect our dogs to be tolerant of outside people and environments, and have found that early exposure has been a key to our success in teaching them this. While this breed certainly is not for everyone, they are and can be great companions and family members given the opportunities to be socialized.
About the Authors
Dan and Lois live on a small farm outside of Portland, Oregon. They are owned by 10 Tibetan Mastiffs, a Golden Retriever and a Tibetan Terrier.
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Fri, 03/16/2018 - 8:41am