Tibetan Mastiff

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Tibetan Mastiff
Tibetan Mastiff
Height Dogs 66 cm (26 in)[1]
Bitches 61 cm (24 in)[1]
Kennel club standards
FCI standard
Dog (domestic dog)

The Tibetan mastiff (Tibetan: འདོགས་ཁྱི, Wylie: Do khyi, Chinese: 藏獒, Pinyin: Zàng áo, Nepali: Bhote Kukur) is a large Tibetan dog breed. Its double coat is long, subject to climate, and found in a wide variety of colors, including solid black, black and tan, various shades of red (from pale gold to deep red) and bluish-gray (dilute black), often with white and blue markings.


Ten Prized Dogs series, Tibetan mastiff. Artwork depicting a Tibetan mastiff from the Qing Dynasty.

The name Tibetan mastiff is a misnomer, as the breed is not a true mastiff. The term mastiff was assigned by the Europeans who first came to Tibet because that name was used to refer to nearly all large dog breeds in the West. Early Western visitors to Tibet misnamed several of its breeds, such as the Tibetan terrier, which is not a terrier, and the Tibetan spaniel, which is not a spaniel. A better name for the breed might be the Tibetan mountain dog or — to encompass the landrace breed throughout its range — the Himalayan mountain dog.[2]

The Tibetan mastiff is known in Nepali as Bhote Kukur (bhote means someone from Tibet and kukur means dog), in Chinese as Zàng áo (Cantonese: Tzong ngou meaning "Tibetan mastiff-dog") and in Mongolian as bankhar.[citation needed]

Tibetan mastiff from Ukraine 77 cm rise



Tibetan Mastiff at an international dog show in Poland

Some breeders differentiate between two "types" of Tibetan Mastiff, the Do-khyi (-gs is not pronounced in Lhasa Tibetan) and the Tsang-khyi. The Tsang-khyi (which, to a Tibetan, means only "dog from Tsang") is also referred to as the "monastery" type, described as generally taller, heavier, and more heavily boned, with more facial wrinkling and haw than the Do-khyi type. Both types are often produced in the same litter with the larger, heavier pups being placed in more stationary jobs versus more active jobs for the Tibetan Mastiffs that are better structured and well-muscled.

The Tibetan mastiff is considered a primitive breed. It typically retains the hardiness which would be required for it to survive in Tibet and the high-altitude Himalayan range, including the northern part of Nepal, India[3][page needed] and Bhutan.

Instinctive behaviors including canine pack behavior contributed to the survival of the breed in harsh environments. It is one of the few primitive dog breeds that retains a single estrus per year instead of two, even at much lower altitudes and in much more temperate climates than its native climate. This characteristic is also found in wild canids such as the wolf and other wild animals. Since its estrus usually takes place during late fall, most Tibetan mastiff puppies are born between December and January.[4]

Its double coat is long, subject to climate, and found in a wide variety of colors, including solid black, black and tan, various shades of red (from pale gold to deep red) and bluish-gray (dilute black), often with white markings. Some breeders are now (as of 2014) marketing white Tibetan mastiffs. These dogs are actually very pale gold, not truly white. Photoshop is often used to make dogs of normal color(s) appear white in advertisements.

The coat of a Tibetan mastiff lacks the unpleasant big-dog smell that affects many large breeds. The coat, whatever its length or color(s), should shed dirt and odors. Although the dogs shed somewhat throughout the year, there is generally one great molt in late winter or early spring and sometimes another, lesser molt in the late summer or early fall. (Sterilization of the dog may dramatically affect the coat as to texture, density and shedding pattern.)

Tibetan mastiffs are shown under one standard in the West, but separated by the Indian breed standard into two varieties: Lion Head (smaller; exceptionally long hair from forehead to withers, creating a ruff or mane) and Tiger Head (larger; shorter hair).


The Tibetan mastiff is a livestock guard-dog
Tibetan mastiff in Tibet

As a flock guardian dog in Tibet and in the West, it uses all the usual livestock guardian tactics (e.g., barking, scent-marking perimeters) to warn away predators and avoid direct confrontations.[2]

As a socialized, more domestic dog, it can thrive in a spacious, fenced yard with a canine companion, but it is generally not an appropriate dog for apartment living. The western-bred dogs are generally more easy-going, although still somewhat aloof with strangers coming to the home. Through hundreds of years of selective breeding for a protective flock and family guardian, the breed has been prized for being a nocturnal sentry, keeping would-be predators and intruders at bay, barking at sounds throughout the night. Leaving a Tibetan mastiff outside all night with neighbors nearby is not recommended. They often sleep during the day, making them more active, alert and aware at night.[2]

Like all flock guardian breeds, they are intelligent and stubborn to a fault, so obedience training is recommended (although it is only mildly successful with some individuals) since this is a strong-willed, powerful-bodied breed. Unless they are to be used exclusively as livestock guardians, socialization training is also critical with this breed, because of their reserved nature with strangers and guardian instincts. They can be excellent family dogs – depending on the family. Owners must understand canine psychology and be able and willing to assume the primary leadership position. Lack of consistent, rational discipline can result in the creation of dangerous, unpredictable dogs. The protectiveness of Tibetan mastiffs requires alertness and planning by the owner, in order to avoid mishaps, when the dog is merely reacting as a guardian. The breed is not recommended for novice dog owners.[2][3]


Tibetan mastiff in Drepung Monastery. Lhasa, Tibet
A Chinese-bred Tibetan mastiff

Many breeders claim a life expectancy of 10–16 years, but these claims are unsubstantiated. Some lines do produce long-lived dogs. Other, more closely inbred lines, produce short-lived, unhealthy dogs. The breed has fewer genetic health problems than many breeds, but cases can be found of hypothyroidism, entropion, ectropion, distichiasis, skin problems including allergies, autoimmune problems including demodex, Addison's disease, Cushing's disease, missing teeth, malocclusion (overbite, underbite, dry mouth), cardiac problems, seizures, epilepsy, progressive retinal atrophy (PRA), cataracts, and small ear canals with a tendency for infection. As with most large breeds, some will suffer with elbow or hip dysplasia.

Canine inherited demyelinative neuropathy (CIDN), an inherited condition, appeared in one of the prominent lines of Tibetan mastiffs in the early 1980s.[5] Unfortunately, known carriers were bred extensively and are behind many lines still being actively bred. Because the mode of inheritance appears to be as a simple recessive, continued inbreeding can still produce affected puppies.

Hypothyroidism is fairly common in Tibetan mastiffs, as it is in many large "northern" breeds. They should be tested periodically throughout their lives using a complete thyroid "panel". However, because the standard thyroid levels were established using domestic dog breeds, test results must be considered in the context of what is "normal" for the breed, not what is normal across all breeds. Many dogs of this breed will have "low" thyroid values, but no clinical symptoms. Vets and owners differ on the relative merits of medicating dogs which test "low", but are completely asymptomatic. Some researchers think that asymptomatic hypothyroidism may have been adaptive in the regions of origin for many breeds, since less nutrition is required for the dog to stay in good condition. Therefore, attempts to eliminate "low thyroid" dogs from the Tibetan mastiff gene pool may have unintended consequences for the breed.


Tibetan dog from the 1850s

The Tibetan mastiff originated as a herding and guarding dog for the nomads of Tibet, and as a watchdog in Tibetan monasteries.[6][2][3]

The Tibetan mastiff is a phenotypically distinct dog breed that was bred as a flock guardian in the high altitudes of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateaus.[7][8]

Meer Izzut-oollah (1872) wrote:[9]

“The dogs of Thibet are twice the size of those seen in India, with large heads and hairy bodies. They are powerful animals...During the day they are kept chained up, and are let loose at night to guard their masters' house.”[9]

In the early 20th century,the Prince of Wales, George introduced a pair of Tibetan mastiffs, and enough of the breed were available in England in 1906 to be shown at the Crystal Palace show. However, during the war years, the breed lost favor and focus and nearly died out in England.

Tibetan mastiff

The breed has been gaining in popularity worldwide since 1980. Although the breed is still considered somewhat uncommon, as more active breeders arose and produced adequate numbers of dogs, various registries and show organizations (FCI, AKC) began to recognize the breed. In 2008, the Tibetan mastiff competed for the first time in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

Since AKC recognition, the number of active breeders has skyrocketed, leading to over-breeding of puppies, many of which are highly inbred and of questionable quality. Initially, the breed suffered because of the limited gene pool from the original stock.[citation needed] By 2015, due to excessive breeding and unsuitability of the breed as a pet in urban situations, prices in China for the best dogs had fallen to about $2,000 and both lower quality and crossbreed dogs were being abandoned.[10]

In 2011, a DNA study concluded that there was a genetic relationship between the Tibetan mastiff and the Great Pyrenees, Bernese Mountain Dog, Rottweiler and Saint Bernard, and that these large breed dogs are probably partially descended from the Tibetan mastiff.[11] In 2014, a study added the Leonberger to the list of possible relatives.

Admixture with an unknown wolf-like canid[edit]

The Tibetan mastiff was able to adapt to the extreme highland conditions of the Tibetan Plateau very quickly compared to other mammals such as the yak, Tibetan antelope, snow leopard, and the wild boar. The Tibetan mastiff's ability to avoid hypoxia in high altitudes, due to its higher hemoglobin levels compared to low-altitude dogs, was due to prehistoric interbreeding.[12][13] In 2020, a genomic analysis indicates that a ghost population of an unknown wolf-like canid which is deeply-diverged from modern Holarctic wolves and dogs has contributed the EPAS1 allele found in both Himalayan wolves and dogs, and this allows them to live in high altitudes.[14]


Popular culture[edit]

  • A Tibetan mastiff named “Max” is the central antagonist in the 1993 horror film Man's Best Friend. At least five different dogs were used in filming.
  • A Tibetan mastiff is the subject of the 2011 animated film The Tibetan Dog.
  • Mouse, a "Tibetan Temple dog" (a semi-divine creature that closely resembles a Mastiff), is the canine companion of the titular character of the Dresden Files book series.
  • The animated film Rock Dog featured two Tibetan mastiffs named “Bodi” and “Khampa” (voiced by Luke Wilson and J. K. Simmons, respectively).
  • In the 2018 animated television series, Craig of the Creek, the character Wildernessa rides a Tibetan mastiff, Cheesesticks.
  • In the 2011 film Old Dog by director Pema Tseden, the Tibetan mastiff of a herder family is coveted by several characters to be traded to rich Han Chinese in the eastern part of the country.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b FCI breed standard
  2. ^ a b c d e Messerchmidt, Don (2010). Discovering the Big Dogs of Tibet and the Himalayas: A personal journey.[page needed]
  3. ^ a b c Tibetan Dogs: A complete anthology of the breeds. Vintage Dog Books. 18 November 2010. ISBN 978-1-4455-2671-3.[page needed]
  4. ^ "Tibetan mastiff". American Kennel Club. Dog breed information. Retrieved 9 March 2019.
  5. ^ "The Tibetan Mastiff" by Ann Rohrer and Cathy J. Flamholtz[full citation needed]
  6. ^ Palika, Liz (2007). The Howell Book of Dogs: The definitive reference to 300 breeds and varieties. John Wiley & Sons. p. 374. ISBN 978-0-470-17585-9 – via archive.org.
  7. ^ Messerschmidt, D.M.R. (1983). "The Tibetan Mastiff: Canine sentinels of the range". Rangelands. Vol. 5. pp. 172–174.
  8. ^ Li, Q.; Liu, Z.; Li, Y.; Zhao, X.; Dong, L.; Pan, Z.; Sun, Y.; Li, N.; Xu, Y.; Xie, Z. (2008). "Origin and phylogenetic analysis of Tibetan mastiff based on the mitochondrial DNA sequence". J. Genet. Genomics. 35: 335–340.
  9. ^ a b Izzut-oollah, Meer (1872). Travels in Central Asia in the Years 1812–13. Translated by Henderson, [n/a], Captain. Calcutta, IN. p. 15.
  10. ^ "Once-prized Tibetan mastiffs are discarded as fad ends in China". The New York Times. World/Asia. New York, NY. 2015-04-18. Retrieved 27 February 2017.
  11. ^ Li, Y.; Zhao, X.; Pan, Z.; Xie, Z.; Liu, H.; Xu, Y.; Li, Q. (2011). "The origin of the Tibetan mastiff and species identification of Canis based on mitochondrial cytochrome c oxidase subunit I (COI) gene and COI barcoding". Animal. 5 (12): 1868–73. doi:10.1017/S1751731111001042. PMID 22440462.
  12. ^ Miao, Benpeng; Wang, Zhen; Li, Yixue (2016). "Genomic analysis reveals hypoxia adaptation in the Tibetan mastiff by introgression of the grey wolf from the Tibetan plateau". Molecular Biology and Evolution. 34 (3): 734–743. doi:10.1093/molbev/msw274. PMID 27927792. S2CID 47507546.
  13. ^ Signore, Anthony V.; Yang, Ying-Zhong; Yang, Quan-Yu; Qin, Ga; Moriyama, Hideaki; Ge, Ri-Li; Storz, Jay F. (2019). "Adaptive changes in hemoglobin function in high-altitude Tibetan canids were derived via gene conversion and introgression". Molecular Biology and Evolution. 36 (10): 2227–2237. doi:10.1093/molbev/msz097. PMC 6759075. PMID 31362306.
  14. ^ Wang, Ming-Shan; Wang, Sheng; Li, Yan; Jhala, Yadvendradev; Thakur, Mukesh; Otecko, Newton O.; Si, Jing-Fang; Chen, Hong-Man; Shapiro, Beth; Nielsen, Rasmus; Zhang, Ya-Ping; Wu, Dong-Dong (2020). "Ancient Hybridization with an Unknown Population Facilitated High-Altitude Adaptation of Canids". Molecular Biology and Evolution. 37 (9): 2616–2629. doi:10.1093/molbev/msaa113. PMID 32384152.

External links[edit]