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Photo by Nina Södergren

Meeting the Standard

Proposed changes to the AKC Tibetan Mastiff standard prompt impassioned debate
Standard revisions are probably the single most stressful experience a breed can undergo. Even the slightest change – the addition or removal of a word, the displacement of a mere comma – can alter the meaning of the document, and, by extension, the trajectory of a breed.
Breed cultures vary widely, and with them the reluctance or willingness to amend the breed blueprint. Some breeds that are relatively new to the American Kennel Club, such as the Dogue de Bordeaux, are in such synch with their country of origin that any standard adoption or revision is contemplated only after seeking the support and blessing of European breed specialists. Others – such as the Cane Corso, whose new AKC standard is enduring its share of hiccups, particularly over the disqualification for “bird of prey” eye color – pay the price for novel wording when it falls short of conveying the precise meaning intended.
In terms of guardianship of its standard, the Tibetan Mastiff presents an interesting conundrum. Its eponymous place of origin is both physical and spiritual; the land itself is an autonomous area ruled by the People’s Republic of China, while its cultural and religious leader, the Dalai Lama, and his Central Tibet Administration, exist in exile.
Since China does not have a full-fledged relationship with the Fédération Cynologique Internationale, by default the Tibetan Mastiff’s FCI standard is maintained by Belgium, where the FCI offices are located.
Like the Dogue and the Corso, the Tibetan Mastiff is relatively new to the American Kennel Club – though certainly not rare-breed circles – having only been approved to compete in the Miscellaneous Class in January 2005 and to compete in the Working Group exactly two years later. The current standard, the breed’s first such AKC document, was adopted in late 2004.
To discourage constant tinkering with breed standards, the AKC requires a wait of five years before a standard can be amended. Now that the Tibetan Mastiff has passed that milestone, the American Tibetan Mastiff Association is poised to reopen the document.
Vintage lithograph of a "Thibet Mastiff."
Hullaballoos over standard changes are nothing new in dogs. But the debate over the Tibetan Mastiff standard revision is noteworthy because it underscores diverse interpretations of what the ideal is in this ancient land race – a discussion that is by no means restricted to the American fancy.
The changes to the standard proposed by the American Tibetan Mastiff Association suggest a desire to cap size in the breed, from the inclusion of language that the Tibetan Mastiff is “not a giant breed” to the addition of a maximum suggested height.
In its first draft of the standard revision, the Tibetan Mastiff parent club proposed changing the name of the breed to “Tibetan Do-Khyi” (“Do-Khyi” is what the breed is called in FCI, with “Tibetan Mastiff” following parenthetically), and to institute a disqualification for those dogs that exceeded the proposed maximum heights (29 inches for dogs, 27 inches for bitches) by more than an inch. In subsequent drafts, those changes were withdrawn. 
Jumla's Kalu of Jumla, whelped in 1968, the foundation stud of Tibetan Mastiffs in the United States.
Rebecca Chambliss, secretary of the American Tibetan Mastiff Association and a member of the standards committee, says that the current standard allows room for misinterpretation, and so needs to be clarified.
“You may or may not know that most AKC breed clubs regularly update their breed standards,” she says. “Sometimes it’s prompted by a change in the breed (strange colors or patterns or eye colors showing up out of the blue, as has recently been the case with Cocker Spaniels, but it happens quite often). Or sometimes there is a need to clarify the description of the breed for judges, breeders and the public. … Since Tibetan Mastiffs were new to AKC and there has been some misinterpretation of the original [AKC] standard, we felt we could better clarify the ‘ideal’ TibetanMastiff in making some changes to the standard.”
As an example, Chambliss, who is also president of Tibetan Mastiff Rescue and a fancier for more than 20 years, though she does not currently breed, points to this sentence in the current standard: “When dogs are judged equal in type, proportion and movement, the more substantial dog, in terms of substance and bone, not merely height, is to be given preference.”
“This has been interpreted to mean that the larger dog is always better. Somehow the ‘if all things are equal’ – meaning type, movement, soundness, expression, etc. – has gotten lost, and we’ve found that judges will choose an inferior yet larger dog,” she says. “The Tibetan Mastiff is not a giant breed, nor a true mastiff. It is a large but still very athletic breed. We’ve seen breeders trying to build size at the expense of all else, not to mention creating more health and structure issues in the process.”
But some fanciers who oppose the standard changes see them as not a clarification but a paradigm shift. “This is an attempt to completely reinvent the Tibetan Mastiff as a smaller, more generic breed,” says Dan Nechemias of Dawa Tibetan Mastiffs in the Portland, Oregon, area, who has been breeding for nine years and owned the top-winning Tibetan Mastiff since AKC breed recognition, the number-six Working dog last year. (Nechemias is not a member of the parent club; he says he applied for a family membership with his wife, Lois Claus, but only she was admitted.) “The revisions seek to de-size the breed, change the head proportions and create new disqualifications that are inconsistent with past standards and the history of the breed.”
In a point-by-point criticism of the proposed standard that was sent to the breed club and the AKC, Nechemias argued that large size was always a distinguishing and valued trait of the breed. “One of the very first standards written by Max Siber, a German cynologist, described Tibetan Mastiffs as ‘not to be smaller than Newfoundlands, St. Bernards and English Mastiffs,’” he writes. “The prevailing philosophy of Western breeders worldwide was to breed the largest dog that could fulfill its description of ‘imposing,’ while still being agile and light-footed. A Tibetan Mastiff does its job as a guardian by its presence. To do this, it must be of intimidating size. The addition of the phrase ‘not a giant breed’ encourages the downsizing of breeding stock.”
Nechemias also takes exception to the proposed new head planes, which shrink the muzzle to 50 to 30 percent of the top skull. He argues that such proportions are “inconsistent with any present international or historical standard” as well as with the functionality of the breed: “A Tibetan Mastiff must have more than a 50 percent muzzle to deal with the extreme climate of the Himalayas. This is why Malamutes and Siberians do not have short muzzles. The freezing air inhaled through the nose is warmed before it reaches the lungs.” Moreover, he says, the massive back skull and blunt muzzle (think Boxer and Bullmastiff) will create a morphology that will tend toward undershot bites, a new disqualification in the proposed standard.
Do-Khyi in Tibet, 1908. Courtesy Molosser Magazin.
Another vocal critic of the proposed standard is Richard Eichhorn of Drakyi Tibetan Mastiffs in Palmdale, Calif. A breeder-judge who has been involved with Tibetan Mastiffs since 1978, Eichhorn says he co-founded the American Tibetan Mastiff Association in his living room in 1983, but has been unable to rejoin the club after letting his membership lapse.
Eichhorn calls the standard changes “frivolous, unwarranted, restrictive and historically inaccurate,” arguing that they seek to reward and promote “mediocre and sub-standard” dogs, while marginalizing the “more authentic” dogs.
Among his concerns about the proposed standard are the new disqualifications regarding color. The proposed standard DQs a “sable saddle,” which Eichhorn worries might be interpreted by judges to mean sabling elsewhere in the coat. “Every Tibetan Mastiff on the planet, whether cream or gold or red, has some degree of sabling,” he says.
Overall, Eichhorn sees the proposed changes as a “disenfranchisement” of the impressive, large, truly Mastiff dogs that have been elevated as the ideal by native Tibetans and Chinese.
Chambliss of the ATMA says that Chinese dogs are a concern in terms of the breed’s “authenticity.”
"China is finally coming out with press that because the breed has become so popular and profitable there, that many breeders are ‘creating’ Tibetan Mastiffs that aren’t pure breeds, if at all Tibetan Mastiffs …” she says. “People are importing and exporting [these] ‘Tibetan Mastiffs’ … and we are seeing type, colors, patterns, behavioral characteristics and health issues that do not belong to the breed. Clarifying our standard helps to hopefully keep non-TM bloodlines out of the breed to prevent a further ‘watering down’ of the breed.”
In China, the Tibetan Mastiff is experiencing a tremendous boost in popularity.
Eichhorn, who has traveled to and judged in China multiple times, says he had been warned by breeders there that some greedy upstarts had started crossing with St. Bernards to bring up size quickly; a recent news story out of China noted that some unscrupulous breeders are even using hair extensions to make their dogs appear more impressive. But Eichhorn adds that on a recent judging assignment there in which he examined some 700 dogs, none showed any signs of impurity.
Eichhorn notes that he started out in the breed 33 years ago with the smaller, less dramatic dogs that were typical of the European imports of the time, those that came from dogs originating in Nepal and the Himalayas that became the early template for many European Tibetan Mastiffs. Broadening his sights to what was produced in the country of origin, Eichhorn says he grew to appreciate that the more moderate dogs were only a segment of the spectrum, and it was the larger, more imposing dogs that were the more valued, if more elusive, ideal.
Tu-Bo,  a very influential Nepalese import to Europe in the 1970s and early '80s.
“In the early days, we thought the only Tibetan dogs alive were those that left with the refugees to places like Nepal and Bhutan and India. We thought China was a barren wasteland,” he says. “The Qinghai Plateau, which is about the size of Texas, is an ancestral area for the Tibetan people, and when the red curtain fell, we realized that it was filled with Tibetan populations who have continued to breed dogs through the dark years.” 
Should the new AKC standard pass, Eichhorn raises the specter of the American version of the breed becoming a separate variety, much as the American Akita is now bred and judged separately from the original Japanese breed abroad.
“It’s the war of the varieties – which variety will win?” he asks. “Either have a standard that’s inclusive of the varieties, or they have to go their separate ways.”
To that end, if the standard passes and the larger dogs are “marginalized,” Eichhorn says one possibility is that they can create a new variety and begin the process as an FSS breed, with a new name, such as the “Greater Tibetan Mastiff” or the “Dog of Tibet.” 
Both Chambliss of the American Tibetan Mastiff Association and Mari-Beth O’Neill, assistant vice president of special services at the American Kennel Club, point out that the standard-revision process took into consideration opinions from non-members of the club, an approach O’Neill calls “very open-minded” and “very positive.” The process has taken about a year and a half, O’Neill says, adding that “breed standard revisions bring out the most passion” among fanciers.
Chambliss says the response to the proposed standard changes was “very good overall. Of course, there will always be a few people with conspiracy theories or those who are against any change, but we have had mostly support from members and non-members alike.”
At its April meeting, the board of directors of the American Kennel Club voted unanimously to withhold approval to the club to ballot its membership on the standard revision, “unless and until all club members requesting it are provided with a club membership list.”
Once that happens, the club will presumably vote on the changes. Whither the Tibetan Mastiff standard after that? Stay tuned.

The Standard at a Glance

General Appearance

Proposed AKC standard changes:
Qualification that the breed is “not giant,” and removal of reference to the breed being “heavy” and with “much … bone”: “Noble and impressive: a large but not giant breed. An athletic and substantial dog, of solemn but kindly appearance.”
Current AKC standard:
“Noble and impressive: a large, powerful, heavy, well built dog, well muscled, with much substance and bone, and of solemn but kindly appearance.”
Current FCI standard:
“Powerful, heavy, well built, with good bone. Impressive; of solemn and earnest appearance. Combines majestic strength, robustness and endurance; fit to work in all climate conditions.”
Proposed AKC standard change:
Addition of “The hallmarks of the breed are the head and tail.”
Current AKC standard:
Not mentioned.
Current FCI standard:
Not mentioned.

Size and Proportion

Proposed AKC standard change:
New “preferred” size ranges for dogs (26 to 29 inches) and bitches (24 to 27 inches). Size disqualification for dogs and bitches that do not meet the minimum height after 18 months of age.
Current AKC standard:
Size: Dogs - minimum of 26 inches at the withers. Bitches - minimum of 24 inches at the withers. Dogs and bitches that are more than one inch below the minimum heights to be severely faulted.
Current FCI standard:
Height at the withers: Dogs: 66 cm (26 ins) minimum. Bitches: 61 cm (24 ins) minimum.


Proposed AKC standard change:
Removal of the adjective “heavy” in reference to the overall head: “Broad, strong, with heavy brow ridges.” Additionally, the new standard describes the head proportions as slightly wider than long: “Width of skull measured from ear set to opposite ear set to be slightly greater than length of skull measured from occiput to stop.
Current AKC standard:
“Broad, heavy and strong.” No description of head proportions.
Current FCI standard:
“Broad, heavy and strong.” No description of head proportions.
Proposed AKC standard change:
Change of the muzzle-to-skull proportions, making a “longer muzzle” a severe fault. “Measurement from the stop to the end of the nose to be between one-half to one-third the length of the measurement from the occiput to the stop.”
Current AKC standard:
“Measurement from occiput to stop and stop to end of nose, equal or slightly shorter.”
Current FCI standard:
“Skull measured from occiput to stop equal to muzzle from stop to end of nose but muzzle may be a little shorter.”
Proposed AKC standard change:
Addition of a bite disqualification for undershot or overshot and removal of “essential that dentition fits tightly to maintain square form of muzzle.”
Current AKC standard:
“Complete scissor bite. Level bite acceptable. Essential that dentition fits tightly, to maintain square form of muzzle.”
Current FCI standard:
“Jaws strong with perfect, regular and complete scissor bite, i.e. upper incisors closely overlapping the lower incisors and set square to the jaws.  Level bite acceptable. Dentition fits tightly.”
“Eliminating fault: Undershot or overshot mouth.”

Neck, Topline and Body

Proposed AKC standard change:
Addition of the adverb “always” to describe the tail carriage when in motion or alert, and description of tail when relaxed: “When alert or in motion, the tail is always carried curled over the back, may be carried down when the dog is relaxed.” Tail not carried in the above manner is to be severely faulted.
Current AKC standard:
“Tail: Medium to long, but not reaching below hock joint; well feathered. Set high on line with top of back. When alert or in motion, curled over back or to one side. Tails that are double curled or carried in an incomplete curl to be faulted.”
Current FCI standard:
"TAIL: Medium length. Set high on line with top of back, carried high, loosely curled over back, when dog alert or in motion; well feathered.”


Proposed AKC standard change:
Permitting the trimming of hocks in addition to feet: “The Tibetan Mastiff is shown naturally. Trimming is not acceptable except to provide a clean cut appearance of feet and hocks.”
Current AKC standard:
“The Tibetan Mastiff is shown naturally. Trimming is not acceptable except to provide a clean cut appearance of feet.”
Current FCI standard:
Not mentioned.


Proposed AKC standard change:
Changing the “various shades of gold” to “shades ranging from a pure gold to a rich red gold.” Creation of color DQs for “wolf sable” and  “sable saddle.”
Current AKC standard:
“Black, brown, and blue/grey, all with or without tan markings, and various shades of gold. Tan ranges from a very rich shade through a lighter color.” Other colors faulted.
Current FCI standard:
“COLOUR : Rich black, with or without tan marking; blue, with or without tan markings; gold, from rich fawn to deep red, sable.  All colours to be as pure as possible.” DQs for white, cream, grey, brown (liver), lilac, brindle, particolours.



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