The ancient Tibetan Mastiff, commonly referred to as the TM, is largely credited with influencing the development of a multitude of Molosser breeds that includes the Anatolian Shepherd, Newfoundland and St. Bernard. Relied on for his role as protector and for predator control by villagers and nomads, some were also given the honoured task of sentry duty in Tibetan monasteries. Because the breed retains many of its primitive guardian characteristics, it is generally not recommended for novice owners. Simply put, the transition from historical purpose to modern-day companion can often overwhelm those unprepared for a territorial dog.
In conjunction with the feedback of others heavily involved with the TM, my years of personal experience as owner and breeder lead me to conclude that priority must be given to finding appropriate homes that appreciate and enthusiastically embrace the various facets of the maturing TM. While the breed can present challenges, these needn't be daunting or insurmountable. Combined with insight, proper guidance by experienced breeders and correct training strategies, the care and management of a Tibetan Mastiff can be a joyful and richly rewarding family adventure.
The powerful Tibetan Mastiff is generally a hardy dog. Health concerns include issues familiar to large breeds such as hip and elbow dysplasia. Hypothyroidism is not uncommon so complete thyroid panels should be run annually after 2 years of age. A conservative vaccination protocol is recommended. The all-weather and dirt resistant coat consists of two layers, a top coat of longer coarser guard hair and an insulating, soft, woolly undercoat. TMs prefer colder dry climates but can be kept in warmer climates as long as they have access to air-conditioning. Weekly brushing of the abundant coat is required as there is little to no shedding from autumn through winter seasons but there is a massive unloading of undercoat through spring and summer months that requires daily attention. The TM is dry-mouthed and occasional drooling is associated with drinking, when hot, nervous, anxious or hungry. A slow maturing breed, longevity is one of the main attractions for many owners with dogs typically living 10-14 years.
Coupled with the majesty, elegance and beauty of the breed are behavioural and temperament characteristics which are fairly consistent with various growth stages.
The puppy stage is often the busiest and a supply of appropriate chew toys is essential as unsupervised precocious puppies can be prone to mischief out of sheer boredom. Destructive chewing of all things wood, plastic and paper is not uncommon. Crate-training or “safe rooms” are essential for puppies and adolescents until they have proven trustworthy.
It would not be unusual to find a TM perched on the dining room table or other lofty place as the dogs love to survey their domain from the highest vantage point. Luckily, decks, elevated yard locations or picnic tables soon become a more suitable and favoured spot. The need to alert and defend results in a dog that likes to bark. Night-time nuisance barking can be a problem for dogs left outside but this problem is avoided when dogs are allowed to sleep in the house. Management strategies are used to curb varying degrees of guardian possessive behaviour as dogs may protect food or high value toy/chew items. The TM is deceptively agile and athletic but is not a ball, Frisbee or fetching kind of breed. Moderate exercise sessions would consist of leisurely walks, self-directed play and yard patrolling. Due to growing bones and joints, forced exercise sessions that include extended or strenuous hikes, jogs, or activities that require repetitive jumping or jarring should be discouraged until after the age of 2. In accordance with a independent and territorial disposition, TMs are not well-suited for off-lead activities such as dog parks or open-area romps. A securely fenced yard is a must. Tethering, tying a TM to a running line or relying on underground/invisible electric fencing is strongly discouraged.
Described as aloof and wary, owners can be surprised to learn that their TMs are often comical, extremely responsive, affectionate and devoted. The reserved attitude is extended to strangers but not with immediate family. This breed is very loving with supervised children who have been taught to be respectful. The guardian nature may be a double-edged sword when it comes to family and children, however, as a dog might feel protective when confronted with rambunctious play by visiting children. TMs are also known to be good with other household pets when raised with them. Conflicts can develop between same-sex housemates of similar or larger size. Many TMs live together happily in multi-dog homes but prospective owners must be aware of the potential for personality conflicts and should not assume that spaying/neutering will automatically eliminate this possibility.
Socialization, consistency in daily management and positive training methods are the three key elements to successfully raising this highly intelligent and sometimes wilful breed.
An incorrect widespread myth is that TMs will not accept introduced visitors into the home. Successful socialization routines involve short frequent excursions and not just occasional monthly outings. Socialization, especially between the ages of 8-16 weeks, means 100 introductions in 100 days to different people, places, car rides, noises, surfaces, smells and situations. For those that do not routinely welcome guests into their home, socialization efforts should double. Socialization should persevere for the first 2 years of life to ensure the most confident, stable and reliable companion. While one should not believe they can “socialize the guardian out of them” these outings DO translate and will help a TM to become more accepting of visitors and situations.
Bred to be alert to change, the TM is most comfortable with a reliable routine and tends to be sensitive to the new and different. The sudden addition of a potted plant on the patio may receive a serious once-over until it is deemed acceptable and safe. Bred to work independently, one should never confuse a TM’s lack of compliance or a refusal of immediate obedience with a lack of intelligence. This breed bores quickly with repetition and so short, frequent and positive reinforcement training methods are most successful. Building a mutually respectful relationship with your TM will be rewarded. The use of force, intimidation or heavy-handed techniques undermines and damages the very fabric of trust that is essential to the Tibetan Mastiff.
The Tibetan Mastiff does not become an assured and dependable family pet left on automatic pilot. It is the proactive, plugged-in owner who invests time in socialization, consistency and developing a working relationship based on mutual respect who will be rewarded with a steadfast ambassador of this magnificent and beautiful breed.
© Kathleen McDaniel - Article originally written for ShowSight Magazine and appeared in the August 2011 issue.