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Tibetan Mastiff: A Loyal Guard Dog

Welcome to my ranch here, and I wanna introduce you to the breed and to my facility and help you better understand what the Tibetan Mastiff is all about. So come on, let’s meet some of the dogs. I usually keep my dogs here in sort of family packs. Usually, one male with several females tends to keep the peace, especially during breeding season. You can’t keep males or females together in groups if they’re not breeding dogs. But that’s not the case here. So we have my adult male, Dino, with a year old female in the back here, Golden Gaia, year old female, Talia, and a four-year-old, Dolly.

Sorta midday, the Tibetan Mastiff often takes a nap. They’re alert early evening through early morning. Then for the day they sorta relax and chill out unless there’s really somethin’ to bark about. The Tibetan Mastiff is sort of the ultimate family guardian protection dog. Their protection is instinctive, it’s not a trained dog. The distinction is they are not an aggressor but they are a defender. So in other words, as long as everything is status quo around the house, around the yard, they’re fine, like the lion layin’ up on the hill. But give ’em something to get upset about, they’re right there, standing at the guard, at the gate, ready to defend or take it on.

They don’t go looking for trouble but they don’t let trouble come to them. (dogs barking) My name is Richard Eichhorn, call me Rick. I’m Drakyi Tibetan Mastiffs. I started in this breed in 1978 when I saw a picture of them in a Life magazine on Rare Breed Dogs of the World. I had a friend who had Tibetan Terriers. I called her and said, “What’s up “with this Tibetan Mastiff?” She introduced me to the woman who brought the first dogs into the country who lived about an hour from where I am now. I got my first dog from her and that’s about 20 generations ago, never dreaming that I would still be in this, still breeding, living full time with the dogs, showing, judging around the world.

I mean it’s been a life-changing experience. It’s winter time here, beginning of February. So we have the nursery. Solita. (claps hands) (whistles) Where’s your babies? We got a little group of pups here that are five weeks old, here with mom, sorta learning how to be outside, getting socialized. Come on, pups. (whistles) Come on, babies, let’s go. Who’s over here? (dogs barking) The rest of ’em are sleepin’ right now so we’ll just have to take those two.

Then my facility here, my three car garage is my kennel building. All the dogs sleep in here at night. All the grooming, feeding, everything goes on in here. They are from the Roof of the World which is Tibet. They were from an isolated region both in geography and climate, in the religion, and tradition of the people. Because of that, they bred true for centuries, isolated in this sort of cold mountain kingdom, performing a function as a family and flock, guardian. Typically you’d have a dog living with nomads or living in a courtyard in the city, protecting the family, maintaining the safety of the home, of the children, of the flock of sheep from wolves, whatever their charge may be. Sort of evolving as a dual purpose, as a stationary guard dog much like some of the other Mastiff breeds, and also as a flock guardian like the Kuvasz, like the Great Pyrenees. Sort of the amalgamation of a Mastiff breed and a mountain guardian breed. A naturally evolved land race breed that sort of bred true and evolved very specifically because of the isolation, and the geography, and the climate of Tibet.

There wasn’t much coming in or going out. It really was the mountain villages, the snowcap mountains, the mountain passes, the low laying valleys, and the dogs were isolated there. Like the other Tibetan breeds, which include the Spaniel and the Terrier, they really didn’t have many options to crossbreed. They sort of developed a very pure race of dogs. In that evolution of the breed, there were different functions. You have history documenting the traditional Mastiff type, the very large, heavy, more pendulous lips, more hanging skin, sizeable, stationary guardian. These dogs would be seen at the monasteries, chained up in front often in the courtyards of the wealthier people in the cities of Tibet. Whereas a more athletic leaner, perhaps even a little meaner, more guardian type would be moving with the nomads, would be a little more efficient in its physiology, not quite as heavy, perhaps a little more confrontational with predators. So you had this duality and very often the two types would be regularly crossed to maintain the guardian ability and the physical ability of the nomadic type along with the size, and the presence, and the type, and the heft that came along with the Mastiff type.

That’s still manifested in today’s dog and the subject of tremendous controversy within the breed. Because you have people that are attracted to the breed for one type or the other and there’s many who sort of blend the types to maintain that same balance that was achieved in Tibet. The term Tibetan Mastiff was only applied once Westerners discovered the breed a couple centuries ago. Because it was the massive breed of Tibet, the old word for massive is mastiff, so it was known as the Mastiff of Tibet, the great dog of Tibet. In their native land, they were known as the Do-Khyi.

Do-Khyi meaning tied dog or guard dog. They are one of the original breeds from which many of our present days working dogs descend, certainly of the flock guardian breeds, also the St. Bernard, the Chow Chow. There is speculation, various theories of if the actual Mastiff breeds came from them, or if they involved simultaneously. Because of the geography and the isolation, it really bred a dog that was very adept at protection in high altitude and cold climates. You’re talking about a geography from eight, 10, to 15,000 feet, even higher. It was a dog that had a very heavy coat, that had a slower metabolism so it could survive on less. It was a stationary guard that would be tied during the day. It would be let loose at night. It was an independent thinker so it worked instead of people, not with people.

A very important distinction for people today who are looking for a guardian breed. This is a dog that thinks on its own, that’s an instinctive guardian, that’s not a trained guardian like a Doberman or a Rottweiler, or a German Shepherd would be. This dog says, “Point me in the direction, “show me what you want me to guard. “Now go to bed and let me do it.” That’s what they were prized for in Tibet. All night long, barking, sounding the alarm, keeping the predators away, letting everybody know that they were on guard, and no one should come there. That remains true today. If I leave my dogs out all night, they will sound the alarm all night long.

They’re not barking at anything. They’re sorta saying, “Hear ye, hear ye, all is well. “Stay away, don’t come here, don’t mess with me.” Then once the sun comes up, they basically sleep for the day. I live in the high desert mountains of Southern California at about 4,000 feet. There are predators here. There are birds of prey. I have to keep some of my puppy runs covered especially when the pups are young because there are big owls, there are hawks. Haven’t seen any eagles but I do know that a neighbor lost a young pup to what we think was a big barn owl.

There are packs of coyotes that are just outside my property at night. They don’t come here because, you know, there’s other places, there’s nothing here for them to eat, and there’s a whole lot of trouble if they do come here. Well in Tibet, especially with the nomadic lifestyle, you had herdsmen with horses, with goats, with sheep. The two main predators in Tibet would have been the Tibetan wolf, and as well as the snow leopard. The first female that I got back in 1979, her father was 11 years old, a dog named Kalu, the very first dog registered in the United States. Kalu had a very hoarse-sounding bark from an encounter with a snow leopard where his vocal box is punctured. So he sort of had a hoarse-sounding bark all of his life from that encounter. The physical appearance of the Tibetan Mastiff is sorta like the same purpose as a lion in Africa.

With the big mane, it’s sort of that king of the beast. In the animal kingdom, the bigger the appearance, the bigger they puff themselves up, the more intimidating they are. So the mane served a dual purpose. Well, actually more purposes, it was insulation, it also served to make appear larger and more fierce, and it also was a barrier with the loose skin.

If a predator did get a hold in a battle, the Tibetan Mastiff would have an advantage because there was a lot of loose skin, and a lot of hair, so that they had a little extra protection. Add to that, the traditional red yak collar, called the Kekhor, that they often put on the Tibetan Mastiff both to be able to identify them at distance, and to distinguish ’em from the wolf, and also for ceremonial purposes. But also that Tibetan collar gave them a lot of additional insulation, sort of like a spike collar would be used on some of the bully breeds. You know, this dog has been sort of classified as one of the flock guardian breeds. I would say it’s more ancestral to the flock guardian breeds. For example, I do get people often who call me, saying, “I’ve got a flock of sheep,” or, “I’ve got a wolf problem.” To be honest, very often I refer them to a different breed. The Tibetan Mastiff is what I’d call a sort of a home, or a ranch, or a farm protector. They are more involved with people than some of the other livestock breeds who would just as soon be with the sheep as ever see another person.

The Tibetan Mastiff wants to touch base with the people, with the home, oversee the corrals, oversee the fields, oversee the whole thing, but to remain the home and the family. They’re not a breed that excels at, for example, being raised with the flock like you would see with a Great Pyrenees, or a Kuvasz, or even one of the Ovcharka breeds. If you have a wolf or predator problem, I’d suggest going to another breed. If you’ve got a big ranch, or a farm, or some livestock that you want an overseer who’s gonna sorta been the foreman, and oversee the whole thing, the Tibetan Mastiff is the right breed.

I’ve been involved with the breed since 1978, and I have to say that it has gone to places I never imagined. For the first 20 years, we sort of struggled to get new bloodlines in, to get any sort of support, to get recognition for people to know what the breed was. It wasn’t until 2005 that the breed went into the AKC Miscellaneous Group. It was fully recognized just 10 years ago in 2007. I was a part of the committee that helped to draft a standard for AKC recognition.

I’ve been involved with it all along. The breed started out with very few imports coming in out of some of the outlying areas because Tibet was closed. Tibet was behind the red curtain of China. It wasn’t until the last maybe 10 years that Tibet has really opened up to visitors. We’ve been able to see what’s in there. China became a big player in the breed.

Much to my surprise and everyone else’s surprise, probably around 2004, 2005, suddenly there were hundreds of examples of the breed in China seemingly out of nowhere. Well what we didn’t realize was that during that 50, 60 year period when Tibet and China were closed, a lot of the dogs were still there, and reproducing in the Tibetan regions, and some of the southern regions of China with the Tibetan populations that were there. It was a sort of a shock to the Tibetan Mastiff world but at the same time very encouraging because suddenly here were a lot of new bloodlines that were available. So the breed was no longer endangered of extinction, no longer had to rely on maybe substandard examples with more or less Tibetan Mastiff blood from India, Bhutan, Nepal, all the outlying areas where the dogs were first exported to Europe and the United States in the 1970s and 80s.

So this has been a real boost for the breed which now has really legitimately reclaimed its position in the dog world. Come on in and meet the puppies. Hey pup, what’s goin’ on? Hey, you guys. Yeah, don’t get a wet nose on the lens. (dogs barking) They say, “What have you got? “You must have a treat for us.” (laughs) This boy here is probably staying with us since he’s already been named. This girl’s going to Norway next week and this boy is probably going to Mexico. Usually, if they’re staying in the US, they can leave at eight, nine weeks. They’re usually nine to 10 weeks if they’re gonna be shipped. They’re gonna be picked up eight to nine weeks. If they’re going overseas, they’ve gotta be vaccinated at three months of rabies and then wait 30 days before they go. So that’s why these big puppies are here. (laughs) Because the breed evolved naturally in Tibet, mother nature is sort of the harshest of breeders.

If a dog was not healthy, could not survive, and thrive to reproduce, it often didn’t. So as a breed, it is a relatively healthy breed. As a result of that land race evolution and mother nature, you do see some of the same issues you see in other breeds. But not to the same degree. We have a very low incidence of hip or elbow dysplasia, very few eye problems. Older dogs will die of cancer, or a heart problem, or some sort of glandular problem. But there’s nothing that is a breed wide problem like you see in other breeds. It’s a healthier breed, especially for a larger breed.

They do go 11 to 14 years. Some of the first dogs may go at nine or 10 years from cancer or some other ailment. But you’ll also have some of the, I’ve heard of dogs 15 or 16 years of age living. You know, sort of pampered dogs that have had the advantage of Western food, and medicine, and care. I’ve been fortunate enough to become a judge for the breed because of my experience and all the years. The breed standard is very clear about what makes an ideal Tibetan Mastiff. It needs to be a large imposing dog. When I say large, it’s not a giant breed as some of the giant breeds go. There are dogs that are much taller and dogs that are much heavier. But this is a very large imposing breed and that size is amplified by the coat.

You get an older male in a colder climate that’s a large dog, that coat’s gonna make him look 50 pounds heavier. My big males that you saw today all range between 130 and 150 pounds. But people will say, “Oh wow, that dog must be 200 pounds,” just because it has such an imposing look which helped a lot with their function in Tibet. You look for a very natural dog, not anything overdone. It’s gotta be balanced because you wanna keep in mind what the breed was used for in Tibet. It had to survive in very extreme conditions. It had to be an athlete. So you have a balance of muscle, of power, of bone structure, of a sizeable head, of a harsh coat. All those things evolve to help it perform its function and to survive in the extreme environment. Those things are still maintained and prized today. When understanding the temperament of the Tibetan Mastiff, first and foremost you have to realize that it is a dog that evolved to work instead of people, not with people. So I describe that as maybe about 20% cat. It’s a breed that’s smart, one of the smartest breeds, but it’s more intuitive intelligence, not behavioral intelligence.

You throw a ball for a Tibetan Mastiff, the second time it’s gonna go, “You threw it, you go get it. “Either that or I’m gonna get it and chew it up.” Another family group I have here. I have four-year-old Dolly. Dolly is a daughter of my big boy, Leo, who you met earlier. Nice solid black color which is the original dominant color in the breed. Then I have Dino, one of my stead dogs. He’s just come back from doin’ some stead work so he’s a little lean right now.

But he’s makin’ up for it by eating double. Hey Dino, hey girls, Talia. Then this red girl is Talia, she’s one year old. She’s gonna be sorta my future show prospect. She and Bravo are half brother, half sister. She just got that little show spark. Talia, come on, Talia. Gaia, come on, Gaia. The light gold girl here is Gaia. Gaia. Gaia. (claps hands) Gaia’s a year old also. I did a breeder trade. One of my friends, Himmat Singh from India. He has some dogs that are sort of distantly related to mine. We traded puppies this year. It’s sort of a way that breeders keep some genetic diversity while being able to maintain the integrity of the breed and the top quality. Gaia, come here, Gaia. (clapping hands) Come on. (whistles) Come on over here, Gaia.

Come on, Gaia. Come on, Gaia. Come on, Dolly. You notice when we were out in the yard with my dogs, I call ’em three, four, five times. They acknowledge that I’m calling ’em but they’re like, “I know you’re gonna put me back. “I’ve got other things I need to do. “I need to check the boundaries. “I need to pee on everything. “I’ve got a higher calling.” So the temperament is stable. They’re not necessarily a one person dog. They’re more of a one family, a one yard, a one flock dog. They want to belong. They wanna know what am I supposed to protect, how are things suppose to be, what’s the status quo, who’s allowed, who’s not, and point me in the direction, and I’ll do it, and let me do it by myself. They should be much more of a guard on their home turf whether it’s with the flock of sheep, the chickens, the kids in the yard, or just their basic neighborhood backyard. They should be a guardian there. When you take ’em off the property, whether it’s the park, to a dog show, whatever, they’re much more relaxed because it’s like, “Well okay, I’m off duty here.

“I guess I can enjoy wherever we are.” They’re not a dog for example that you could tell to attack a stranger when you’re off property. Again, they are a defender but not an aggressor. You don’t see them going out causing trouble, looking for trouble. But they stand their ground, and say, “Don’t cross this line.” If you’ve got other breeds, get the dog as a puppy, and raise ’em with those other breeds so that they establish their order. They’re very reliable with other animals. I always recommend that they have a canine companion just because they relate to another dog differently than they do to a person. I do recommend for the average owner whose got a yard and a family to have an opposite sex companion.

So if you want that big male puppy because you just love the breed and want a big male, then get an opposite sex. Get either a Tibetan Mastiff female as a companion, or a Labrador female, or something more sizeable, a large mix breed Malamute. Something that is large enough to interact and exercise with the Tibetan Mastiff because they’re a physical breed and they enjoy roughhousing and having a buddy. A nice sizeable yard for the dogs to run in and play in. They’re not a good apartment or condo dog at all. They are not particularly good in hot humid climates. They can take heat as long as they have shade and cold water. They can take wet and cold but it’s the combination of heat and humidity that is exactly opposite of the cold, arid, dry climate of Tibet that really is a problem for their coat. Ear infections, skin infections, lethargy, not thriving, short lifespan if they’re in a tropical climate. The type of home I look for is first and foremost someone with large dog experience.

This is not a starter breed. This is an extremely intelligent breed that will be running you if you don’t run them. They need an alpha owner who has large breed experience. They need a good size yard. It doesn’t have to be a large yard. It can be normal suburb yard. Six-foot fencing minimum. You wanna make sure it’s sturdy because they’re a powerful breed. They can go over, under, around, and through just about any fence. You want a family that knows and appreciates a large breed, an independent breed, and who can stay a step ahead of them because the Tibetan Mastiff wants boundaries.

Once you give it that boundary, it’s a great dog, and it’s not gonna be a problematic dog with behavior. But you wanna socialize it early. Socialize it with the people and places you expect it to go. Then it will thrive in that environment that makes up your life. Some people say, “Why this breed? “Why did you get involved?” I liked something that was rare, something that was exotic. I wanted a place that I could make a difference and there was only about 100 dogs, 100 Tibetan Mastiffs, in the United States when I got involved in 1978. What makes me stay with the breed? They’re such individuals. They have such character. They really are sort of an ultimate companion. I like the fact that they’re independent, I like that they’ve got their own mind and do their own thing. I can rely on the fact that they are independent and I like that.

They’re not gonna behave the way I want them to necessarily, but I appreciate the character and the personality that they have. For an individual or a family that wants a very loyal, and reliable, large, healthy breed, that has some experience, that lives in a moderate to colder climate preferably, this can really be a special dog. But this is a large breed. It’s something that requires a large car, a large crate, larger bags of food. Everything is big sized. It’s not like having a small companion dog that sleeps on the couch. They’re gonna wanna be an indoor and outdoor dog. They’re gonna wanna know what’s going on. They’re not a dog to be left in the house when you leave. They’re a dog that should be outside to guard the place. Because if not, they’re gonna go through the screen, or the door or the window to get out if there’s a threat and you’re not home to let ’em out.

Consider the strength, the character, and the personality of the breed. If it’s what you’re looking for, it can be a fantastic dog. But you have to choose the right dog for the right situation and be sure that you’re the right owner.

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