The Tibetan mastiff - From fierce guardian to family dog

Written by: Judith Vrugt and Sanna Sander

Special thanks to Ashish Moktan, Giovanni Boffano and Susan Smith for answering questions and sharing their experiences with native Tibetan mastiffs.



From the moment the Tibetan mastiff entered the West, changes occured within the breed.

Breeders and western society affected the path of their development. For example, other breeds have been included and the gene pool was narrow due to very few foundation animals. The Tibetan mastiff was made to adapt to the western way of life through behaviour and temperament. As their temperament started to change, so did their phenotype. 


Today fanciers of the breed love to point out that the breed was once a fierce and serious guardian, but the modern version does not always show that character anymore, nor is it wanted. The aim of this article is to shed a light on these changes and on the emergence of a romanticized picture of the Tibetan mastiff.


The Tibetan mastiff in their country of origin

The Tibetan mastiff, or Do-khyi as the breed is also known as, has lived with the nomadic people of Tibet and the Himalayan mountains for at least a couple of millenia. The conditions in these areas are tough, the dogs’ character has been shaped by their surroundings and their task as a fierce protector. The job requires certain characteristics to make them suitable for said task. They have to be aggressive, independent, fearless, alert and above all, they need to be ready to act upon any form of danger or perceived threat quickly. If not, their life could very well be in danger. The native population is spread across a vast area, which has resulted in adaptation to different environments and the local cultures. Therefore a big variation in type exists; ranging from a smaller and lighter structure to a more solid structure. The coat can vary from short all over to a longer coat with impressive mane. There’s also great diversity in shades of colours: black and tan, brindle, ticking, piebald, sable, gold, red, black, with white collar, dilute, and the list goes on. They even exist with unilateral or bilateral blue eyes.

Photos: Sanna Sander

A lot of native Tibetan mastiffs spend most of their lives at the end of a chain in the proximity of their people and their tents and belongings. They are also used as protectors of herds, but should not be confused with shepherd dogs. Those who live chained often have the toughest temperaments. They only get food and are not petted or played around. They follow this life till their death and it makes them extremely aggressive and less stable. Tibetan mastiffs who work as livestock guardians are very aggressive towards other animals and most are aggressive to people as well. However, their temperament and reactivity differ. Some bloodlines are tougher than others. Also the preferences of the local people can affect the fierceness in character. There are dogs who are aggressive to anything and anyone, some are only aggressive on their own territory and are easier to approach once they are away from the place they have to protect and others only show aggression towards predators and other dogs. Fearful temperaments also exist within the native population. This can be caused by bad experiences with animals or humans, but it can definitely be an inherited trait as well. When they have to work on a chain, it doesn’t really matter if their aggression comes from fear or confidence. Either way, they exhibit the same behaviour when chained. As long as they do their job, they are useful. However, this temperament is not appreciated by everyone and not useful in every circumstance. They have to confront the threat when needed, and these dogs are more likely to run away when they have their freedom. However, a too confident Tibetan mastiff could also be problematic in certain situations, as they are more likely to get killed by predators. It can be a hard task to select the right specimens from the native population if you are looking for one that would fit into the western world.

Photo: Judith Vrugt


Moving to the west

The first imports

In the early 1800 the first Tibetan mastiffs were exported to England from Tibet, but back at that time there was no standard. Later on, more dogs got exported from Nepal and India as well. The modern standard was written in the 20th century, which was based on the Nepalese imports. The beginning of the population of the western Tibetan mastiff all started with a bottleneck. This term illustrates a small number of animals, which serves as the foundation for a large population over time, resulting in inbreeding. Around that same time Beisler’s Kachook, a Central-Asian shepherd, was used as a stud for the population in America (1976). He only produced two litters in 1976, and two of his offspring were used for further breeding. After only three generations there were 336 dogs registered in The Breed Archive of the Tibetan mastiff who are descended from Beisler’s Kachook. As this happened in the first stages of a bottleneck, Kachook appears repeatedly in many bloodlines of the modern Tibetan mastiff. Although it has never been registered, the change in phenotype can be explained by more crossbreeding with other breeds. This affected the western bloodlines even more. Typical traits got replaced with less typical features: they got a steeper stop, their coat structure changed, their body structure changed, they got bigger and heavier, etc. Although some would argue that certain traits would change by time anyway as a result of export, as we live in very contrasting environments with different climates. Due to the bottleneck, this selection of traits, in combination with the limited number of imports and the small gene pools, led (and still leads) to a higher coefficient of inbreeding within the western lines.


Chinese market type
Around the year 2000, the breed took an extreme turn. The Tibetan mastiff gained interest in China and suddenly it was very fashionable to own and display these dogs. The Tibetan mastiff became a symbol of status and wealth, initiating a rise in both pure and impure litters being bred. They drew the attention of successful businessmen and it was not uncommon that the Chinese kept entire kennels of these dogs. The demand pushed the prices up and as the news about the most expensive dog breed in the world traveled all around the globe, it only fueled the already busy industry that was growing in China. Commercial breeders emerged everywhere to saturate the demand and their main objective was to breed dogs to sell for top dollars. To accomplish this, they started to create a type of dog with more extreme traits. They needed to have more skin, a huge amount of coat, a bigger head and had to be big-boned, all to make them look bigger. They began to crossbreed the Tibetan mastiff with any breed they could find for that one goal. A few examples of the breeds being used were the shar pei, chow chow, Korean mastiff, Newfoundland, bloodhound, Neapolitan mastiff and the Saint Bernard. The bigger they looked, the more money they could potentially bring. As the extreme traits made the money, their temperament and health were forgotten by the breeders. This resulted in unpredictable behaviour, extreme inbreeding and health problems. Hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, brachycephaly and eye conditions like ectropion and entropion are very common. Also, their coat structure changed for the worse, which is difficult to take care of.

Chinese mastiffs, presented as tibetan mastiffs at a FCI supported dogshow in China 2012.
Photos: Sanna Sander


FCI pedigrees were acquired for these newly made mastiffs and suddenly the “rare and pure Chinese bloodline Tibetan mastiffs” could be bought and used as studs, creating offspring sporting FCI pedigrees stating they were actual Tibetan mastiffs, in spite of their motley background. New blood has always been coveted in the West and more than a few breeders imported Chinese mastiffs and incorporated them in their breeding programs. 

People in China have paid a high price for them, until the craze ended after multiple incidents and less people got interested. Many kennels were forced to shut down. These Chinese mastiffs were abandoned and are now even getting sold for their meat. Over time, they got known as “pig-mastiffs” in China. As they affected so many bloodlines of Tibetan mastiffs, the pure population of the breed shrunk even more. Due to this crossbreeding and the selection of such extreme traits, it became harder to find bloodlines which weren’t affected.


Unfortunately, when the standard was written in 1931 by Mrs. Bailey and associates, there was not much known about the huge diversity and features of this landrace. So when they set up the breed standard, it was solely based on a small population and thus causing the standard to be very limited. This can also lead to a smaller gene pool, as useful genes get disqualified at dog shows and ignored for breeding programs, because they are not desired within the breed standard. For example, most colours that are now seen as faulty in the West, are actually commonly seen in native specimens of the breed.


These changes in structure can also be caused by the selection for different temperaments, as sometimes there’s a link between character and appearance. When you change their temperament, theoretically you can change their structure as well. This phenomenon has been widely represented by Dmitry Belyayev’s breeding experiments with foxes, which have demonstrated the selection for tameness to go hand in hand with physical changes. The most recent and plausible hypothesis explaining this, is the underlying selection for neural crest deficits, which can lead to changes within the whole animal. Some of these changes are thought to be smaller adrenal glands, altering the animal’s susceptibility to fear or aggression. Another explanation, one that again could be applicable to the Tibetan Mastiff breed, is genetic linkage. If one or more genes for either aggression or tameness are close to a gene responsible for a physical attribute, it will be less likely for these genes to be divided during recombination, which occurs throughout meiosis. Thus, this would highly increase the chance of both characteristics to be inherited or bred out together.

The native dogs are usually described as extremely aggressive. Aggressive dogs like the ones we can find in Tibet are not suitable in social environments. For this reason western breeders started selecting for softer temperaments once those dogs were imported. The sharp edges were taken off, which made the dogs become more open and easier to guide, making them more suitable for a western way of living. Also, when looking at the requirements of the FCI, a dog should be disqualified when it behaves aggressively - “ ‘Disqualified’ must be awarded to a dog which does not correspond to the type required by the breed standard; which shows a behaviour clearly not in line with its standard or which behaves aggressively”. This is in contradiction with the temperament this breed needs in its native lands. The typical characteristics of the Tibetan mastiff had to change to fulfill these wishes, so many were bred to be a non-aggressive guard- and family dog. In extreme cases some specimens lost their drive completely.


Yet people created a romanticized picture of the breed. Fanciers still talk about the fierce and fearless guardians of the past. Today’s breeders and owners often promote their western Tibetan mastiffs as “authentic”, “ancient” and “from old bloodlines”. However, this does create a wrong image of the original dogs from the high altitudes. The western requirements do not meet the native standards. Aggression, the will to attack immediately and the fierce, fearless temperament has been reduced or even got lost for the purpose of a family dog. So, although the dogs descend from the native Tibetan mastiffs, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are authentic dogs from old bloodlines. We, of course, want to believe it’s true and so we incline to recall information in a way that confirms or supports our prior beliefs (confirmation bias). An example from the author; “when I describe my native dog’s temperament to people, they often take a few words out of the story and link them to theirs, immediately claiming their Western Tibetan mastiff is very similar to mine, while both dogs have a completely different mindset.” When people join the world of the Tibetan mastiff (even those with a critical mind) they often automatically accept the opinion and the point of view from others who’ve been there longer. Once they take over those statements, cognitive dissonance might occur when someone criticizes these statements. We’re starting to believe false information, because the western vision gets repeated and repeated, until it becomes reality (illusory truth-effect).


This mentality can be very problematic if the person decides to buy a Tibetan mastiff from native origin. As these dogs are not affected by the West in any way, they have maintained their original temperament and purpose and so their drive to protect and defend is unaltered. It remains raw and unyielding. This is the reason why it’s not possible to approach and handle them like it would be with westernized Tibetan mastiffs. These necessary characteristics are often interpreted as problematic and incorrectly based on the western vision. As many people stick to the western idea of what a Tibetan mastiff should be like, a native Tibetan mastiff is more vulnurable to misunderstandings, which can easier lead to rehoming or even euthanasia.

Photo: Sanna Sander



Discussion and conclusion


In their native lands the Tibetan mastiff has adapted to a tough lifestyle where they have to protect their ground and people, and sometimes livestock, against large predators. There’s no time to think, they need to act when the situation occurs. Because they have no remorse and are so quick with responding, it does make them less suitable for a social western lifestyle.  It’s quite logical that people decided to make changes in the temperament of the breed, so it can still perform its job in a more risk free way. However, there is a big difference between just taking off the sharp edges and completely reducing their instincts. In the latter case, the breed changes into a whole different type of dog. It’s important to realize that if we still act like these dogs are just the same as their original ancestors, we lose the grip of reality.

One could argue that if you like the looks of a certain breed, but do not like the way it behaves, it’s simply not the breed for you. It's not right to pick that breed and form it into something completely different so it suits your wishes more, while continuing to call it the same breed. Actually, the western vision of the Tibetan mastiff is very similar to the standard of the leonberger. The leonberger looks like a livestock guardian, but is created to function as a family dog. Even though the leonberger has some guarding traits, it will never be claimed as a livestock guardian. A livestock guardian who is friendly and social can not function as a livestock guardian and the same goes for most Tibetan mastiffs of the western population. We should ask ourselves whether or not it’s fair to promote western Tibetan mastiffs as if they are the same as their original ancestors, while their changes made sure they can not function like their ancestors can.

New native imports
Recently, new native specimens have been imported to the West. But when should we stop calling their following generations, who are being born in western kennels, “native”? For breeders it’s an attractive term to use, to promote the offspring they produced with native dogs, referring to their pure and typical type and bloodline. However, a line should be drawn between what we call “native” and “western”, otherwise backyard breeders will use the term “native” for their practises as well. We’ll also forget the real meaning of a “native dog”. That is actually referring to those who have been born in their native lands with the indigenous people who’re using these dogs for their original jobs. Once offspring are born in a kennel outside their native lands, it’s not really a “native” anymore. But their birthplace isn’t the only determining factor when calling a dog “native”, because there are also breeders in those areas who are mixing the dogs, or are selecting for different traits in different ways. With every generation bred by western breeders, the selection criteria differs greatly in comparison to their native lands. There is no natural selection any longer, crossbreeding happens and in addition, the climates and circumstances might be completely different. To retain their typical traits, it’s necessary to continuously use new, true native Tibetan mastiffs after a couple of generations at most. If we call the following generations, who all have been born in western kennels, “natives”, we can call pure western Tibetan mastiffs “native” as well. But that is, of course, incorrect. After many generations of adaptation to the western life, they lost the necessary traits to function in their native lands. Eventually this will also happen with the bloodlines of the new imports if no new native Tibetan mastiffs will be used along the way.

Future outlook

The dogs in their native countries are in danger and are even close to extinction. The numbers are dropping due to a decrease of the nomadic lifestyle. The amount of people, who’re living in the traditional way and thereafter choose to switch to better jobs closer/in the city or abroad, increases. Also, more security became available; roads are being built and the need for these dogs is decreasing as a result. So, let’s imagine: what happens when the nomadic lifestyle disappears and the native dogs go extinct? We’re breeding a ghost of the once mighty, fierce beasts from the high altitudes, yet we’re promoting them as the ancient dogs they once were. If the native Tibetan mastiffs go extinct, is it fair to keep breeding westernized dogs and then fully romanticize them as “real Tibetan mastiffs with an ancient history”? Landraces are often considered as cultural heritage for the local people. Therefore the importance of keeping them in their original form is higher than with modern breeds. So, wouldn’t it be more fair to remember the native dogs in their true form and accept the fact we have a different type of Tibetan mastiff now? Once the native Tibetan mastiff is extinct, the only thing left is their memory within history- let’s keep our knowledge accurate.

Photo: Judith Vrugt

Photo: Judith Vrugt