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China Syndrome

Judging Tibetan Mastiffs in China yields a rollercoaster of extremes

Photos by Sanna Sander

On April 21 to 22, 2012, I was invited to judge at the Shanxi Tibetan Mastiff Club of China’s annual display. I was very happy to accept the invitation, extended by Wu Hsin-Hsiung of Legend Wu in Taiwan, because all types of Tibetan Mastiffs would be shown at this event, which is in its second year.


Hsin Hsiung Wu of Legend Wu in Taiwan, who extended the judging invitation to the author.


I had heard rumors and of course seen the photos of the popular style of Tibetan Mastiff in China – the so-called “market type” that is in excess of anything remotely related to the more Molossian-type dogs historically noted in the breed. On this trip I got firsthand and hands-on experience with these dogs across all ages and colors – black and tan, gold, black, red-gold and the lightest expression of gold (which some would mistakenly refer to as cream). On my arrival, I was greeted by my Tibetan Mastiff-savvy interpreter, Luke (Liu Xulei), and taken to a five-star hotel, where I settled into the lap of luxury. I received the finest treatment and courtesy from every person I met in China and gained a wonderful appreciation for the culture, the countryside and, most of all, the individuals who love this breed just as I do. The next morning, at a sumptuous breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant, an animated discussion ensued about the day’s itinerary, which culminated in a trip to Shanxi province, for the display of Tibetan Mastiff business breeders and owners, coupled with a dog show.


Luke (Liu Xulei), the author’s translator and Tibetan Mastiff enthusiast himself.


My hosts and I wandered around the vendor/display area, where every type of adult and puppy was being offered up on carpeted stages or atop wire crates covered in cardboard so the dogs’ feet would not fall through. It was an eye-opening array of animals, some of which were simply caricatures of the Tibetan Mastiff. Throughout the walk, I was shown puppies whose muzzles had been injected with water to make them appear much larger and more padded than they really were. The poor puppy pictured at above had so much padding around his muzzle he could barely breathe, and his nostrils were almost closed. I also saw adult dogs with the huge, rounded dewlaps so often seen in websites; in these cases, great amounts of water were injected into the dewlap to make it hang lower and give it a round, mane-like appearance. When I did happen on puppies and adults that did not have the caricature extremes, it was like an awakening! Pure, unadulterated, shown in their natural state, these were real-life Tibetan Mastiffs, and I was so happy to see this – Chinese breeders staying true to what the breed was, and is, not what sells.  


Injecting the muzzle with water to give it a padded appearance is an unfortunate practice among less-than-reputable Tibetan Mastiff breeders. This puppy appears barely able to breathe.    


In some of the adults and puppies, I saw evidence of crossbreeding with Newfoundland, Shar-Pei, Chow Chow, Mastin Espanol, Mastino Napoletano and even the crossbred Korean Dosa. There could have been Caucasian Ovcharka influence as well, since coats are quite similar in certain strains of the market types. This was confirmed to me by several long-term Tibetan Mastiff people. One interesting side note: I have never seen Tibetan Mastiff puppies with volumes of coat on the front of their legs. But the pups I suspected of being crossbreds carried excessive amount of coat on the entire leg instead of just at the back, and dense fur in front. An eye opener.  

As with the previous year’s event, there was a huge bright-red and elaborate carpeted stage. Many of the event’s sponsors and the officers and members of the Shanxi Tibetan Mastiff Club of China were introduced, one by one, with Yanni playing over the loudspeakers. My interpreter Luke translated my comments to the audience as I expressed my appreciation for the invitation, which was quite an honor, as well as for the hard work of everyone involved, including the exhibitors, who had travelled from very far away to bring their dogs.

After introductions, I was escorted to the judge’s canopy, where the beautiful copper, silver and gold Tibetan Mastiff sculptures sat, along with 50,000 yuan (almost $8,000) for the future gold-statue winner. The silver and copper winners received cash prizes as well. The entries were broken down into two categories: black-tan, which included blacks, blues and blue/tans; and gold, which included any shade of red up the lightest expression of gold, which some would call cream or off white. The black and black/tan entries were broken down into six groups to make it easier for judging. Because this year all types were invited (the smaller Himalayan, the He Qu line from southeast Qinghai province, the commercially oriented “market” and other province types), it was a testament to the genetic diversity of the true Tibetan Mastiff, despite infusion of other breeds by some unscrupulous breeders to attain certain features.  


Soundness of construction and movement is still something Chinese breeders need to be striving for.


I had a small notebook in which I jotted down the armband number and shorthand notes on each dog’s exam and movement. This way, I was able to circle the numbers of the dogs that made the first cut. There were no ribbons or awards, just a lineup with callbacks for the final judging after the golds were done. All in all, I had approximately 50 black and black/tan dogs. I found several of them absolutely outstanding in type, bone, substance, structure and movement. I would have gladly taken them home. One of my absolute favorites was a glossy-coated, deeply pigmented black youngster (about 18 months old) who came bounding into the ring like he was on springs, balance galore, muscling, lovely head but still juvenile and clear eyes (no entropion/ectropion). I was able to put my hands on him, and loved the dog underneath. Then I had the handler open his mouth. The dog was severely undershot by about half an inch, and I could not use him for my callbacks.  

Out of 50 dogs, I was able to select about a dozen that were standouts to me. Structure is something the China breeders need to work on, desperately. I don’t just mean the fine-tuned stuff, I mean the general things, such as dogs that can actually make it halfway around the ring before collapsing from hyper-extended hocks (a lot of those) to dogs nearly doing the “frog stand” in front because only the front legs could handle the majority of the dog’s weight in motion. Some dogs were so grossly overweight they could barely walk, let alone trot.  


The gold dogs were impressive in terms of coat and type, but many lacked good structure.


I tried very hard to set aside my compassion for these animals as they attempted to run around the ring with their handlers. Some just could not make it all the way around, and it broke my heart watching them try so hard. Hsin Hsiung Wu was also in the ring co-judging with me, and many of our selections were very close. This pleased me because it meant I was able to view the type and points of value Chinese breeders strive for, as well as incorporating my own knowledge of structure and what constitutes a quality Tibetan Mastiff. I did not find the dogs difficult to go over at all. Luke instructed the handlers how to show the teeth, sometimes Hsin Hsiung Wu would help, and we’d be able to get a good view of the frontal bite. Sadly, I found a good majority of the dogs badly overshot, more so in the golds than the blacks and black and tans. I was not able to actually go over the muzzle and forehead, but was able to have the handler hold the head in such a way that I could sometimes feel the backskull or start at the neck and go over the shoulders, chest, legs, ribcage, loin, croup, hindquarters, tail and testicles.  

The fur on the legs of many of these dogs was very dense and had not really been groomed to the skin. I had to wriggle my fingers into the coat to feel the actual bone size. I was astounded because while they appeared to have tree trunks for legs, I found the bone to be average/moderate for a good portion of them, with some having very heavy, dense bone befitting the breed. Once we were done with our callbacks from the black and black/tan group, we started with 36 goldens, broken down into six groups, approximately five to eight dogs in each group, one group at a time.  

My eyes flew open at the wondrous golden lions walking into the ring from a distance. But that wonderment soon dissipated on closer inspection of the golden and red lion dogs. Yes, they had these humongous, amazing manes and coats, but even more so than the black dogs, the gold dogs’ structure – but for a handful – needed help. I saw A-framed fronts and rears; pinched elbows/out at the elbows; severe cow hocks, and east-west fronts. I am unsure how much of this is genetic, given the hard surfaces many are kept on, which breaks them down quickly along with being grossly overweight.  


The gold winner from among the gold color dogs. “He had the best overall structure and movement, was not entropic and was not undershot,” the author says.


The handlers tend to brush the excessively long hair on the forehead forward, thus hiding the eyes completely. They also push the skin and fur up from behind, creating rolls of flesh that caused the eyes to squint shut. So, between fur fringe and rolled skin, I could not see the eyes at all. I had each handler brush the fur back off the dog’s face and stop rolling the skin forward so I could get a good look at the eyes.   Sadly, about 90 percent of the gold or red dogs were singly or doubly entropic, and not lightly, either. In fact, on some I could see slight ulcerations beginning on the corneas. In addition to this, about 80 percent of dogs were undershot more than a quarter-inch, some as badly as a half-inch undershot. I was asking myself, “Why so many undershot gold/red dogs?” as I looked at mouth after mouth of misaligned teeth and undershot bites.  

When I did find a perfect mouth (level or scissors), good bone, balance, movement/structure in a gorgeous light gold male I was ecstatic – until I found one eye with some moderate entropion. But it was not as bad as the rest of the dogs, and he was one of my callbacks. My gold statue/first place winner, though not as impressive overall as the other ones, had a good bite and decent structure, could ambulate without getting lower and lower to the ground, was not fat nor entropic, and overall he was a dog that could do the job of protection, whether camp or livestock guardian.  

I came to find out a few weeks later that my black/tan winners were all somewhat related in bloodlines, with the gold and copper winners being from the same kennel and the silver winner being related to the other two. They were not overdone, not entropic, with excellent bone, good structure, solid movement that could actually cover ground, and excellent bite/dentition with that “look of eagles” for which the Tibetan Mastiff has been historically noted.  


The top winner gold-statue from the black-and-tan group at center, flanked by the second place (silver statue) winner at left and third place (copper statue winner) at right. Second from left is Shanxi Tibetan Mastiff Club president Hsin Hsiung Wu; second from right is judge and author Kristina Sherling, who was pleased to learn after judging that all three of her winners were related.


A close-up of the gold-statue winner from the black-and-tan group. Note the excellent bone, overall soundness and typical Tibetan Mastiff expression without being overdone.    


After the show, I was asked to do a seminar on the history and structure of the Tibetan Mastiff. Since I had a Powerpoint presentation from my 2010 seminar to Russian fanciers, only some tweaking and additional line drawings were required to update everything, and I worked with Luke via email so he could translate for attendees to follow along.  

I also spoke about health because eventually, with increased exports, an absence on checks and balances in this area is going to snowball in the breed. Collectively, we will find ourselves in an inescapable genetic corner, and the breed will suffer across the board.  

Hsin Hsiung Wu assisted me in explaining the concept of correct front end, shoulder assembly, pasterns, feet, prosternum, and the rest of those very important features necessary to just survive, let alone do a guarding job, whether more sedentary or more active.  

Unfortunately, the historical documents that discuss loose skin, visible haw, and big-headed, boned and bodied dogs have been taken to the extreme by breeders who think the public wants it that way. Such breeders have deviated from the course with the infusion of many other breeds, adding coat where there never historically was any (such as right above the eyes) and taking the word “mane” to literally mean hair the length and volume of a mature lion’s mane, when in fact it historically referred to the hair around the neck, mantling down the back.      

A tiny slice of Western breeders shared with their Asian friends that they did not agree with my placements, despite my explanations about structure, entropion and dentition. This minority group favors the big-haired, wrinkled, overdone dogs that cannot get around the ring without laboring – in essence, the “market type” dogs.  

A few attendees thanked us, but I think most were anxious to get going to a soon-to-happen convention elsewhere in China about how to market the Tibetan Mastiff.  

Long hair on the front of the legs was something the author was surprised to find.     


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