Information about the Tibetan Mastiff

The Tibetan Mastiff (Do-khyi) is an ancient breed and type of domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris) originating with nomadic cultures of Central Asia.

The Tibetan Mastiff also known as Go-khyi (variously translated as “home guard”, “door guard”, “dog which may be tied”, “dog which may be kept”), reflects its use as a guardian of herds, flocks, tents, villages, monasteries, and palaces, much as the old English ban-dog (also meaning tied dog) was a dog tied outside the home as a guardian. However, in nomad camps and in villages, the Go-khyi is traditionally allowed to run loose at night.

The molosser type with which the modern Tibetan Mastiff breed is purportedly linked was known across the ancient world by many names. Bhote Kukur in Nepali as bhotey means someone from Tibet and kukur means dog. In Mandarin Chinese literally means Tibetan Mastiff or Tibetan “big ferocious dog”. In Mongolia, it is called bankhar, meaning “guard dog”, but there is another type of mastiff in Mongolia called the Mongolian Mastiff (Mongol Bankhar), which is bigger than the Tibetan Mastiff and has a darker color, but is not counted as a breed.

The name Tibetan mastiff is a misnomer; it is not a true mastiff, and first got that name when someone observed that it looked like a mastiff. A better name for the dog would be Tibetan mountain dog or, to include the same dogs on the periphery of Tibet, Himalayan mountain dog.

There is also controversy whether the Tibetan Mastiff is a molosser.

Currently, some breeders differentiate between two “types” of Tibetan Mastiff, the Do-khyi 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 or “nomad” type. Both types are often produced in the same litter.

Males can reach heights up to 31 inches (80 cm) at the withers, although the standard for the breed is typically in the 25- to 28-inch (61- to 72-cm) range. The heaviest dog on record may be one weighing over 130 kg (286.6 lb), but dogs bred in the West are more typically between 140 lb (64 kg) and 180 lb (82 kg); especially if they are in good condition and not overweight. The enormous dogs being produced in some Western and some Chinese kennels would have “cost” too much to keep fed to have been useful to nomads; and their questionable structure would have made them less useful as livestock guardians.

The Tibetan Mastiff is considered a primitive breed. It typically retains the instincts which would be required for it to survive in Tibet, including canine pack behaviour. In addition, it is one of the few primitive dog breeds that retains a single oestrus 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. Since its oestrus usually takes place during late fall, most Tibetan Mastiff puppies are born between December and January.
Tibetan Mastiff at an international dog show in Poland

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 gold (“blonde”), bluish-gray, chocolate brown, red, and the rarest – solid white.

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 or bitch 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 native type of dog, which still exists in China and the Himalayas (in Bhutan, Nepal, and North India), and the Westernized purebred breed can vary in temperament, but so can dogs of identical breeding, within the same litter, raised in the same household. Elizabeth Schuler states, “The few individuals that remain in Tibet are ferocious and aggressive, unpredictable in their behavior, and very difficult to train. But the dogs bred by the English are obedient and attached to their masters.”

Some Western and Asian breeders are seeking to create a replica of the legendary dog which they identify as the “true Tibetan Mastiff” or Tsang-khyi. Some breeders appear to select primarily for appearance (great size, profuse coat, heavy wrinkling, jowls, haw) while others also select for “soft” temperament (in the West) and fierce temperament (in Asia where the dogs’ “ferocity” is much vaunted and encouraged).

As a flock guardian dog in Tibet and in the West, it is tenacious in its ability to confront predators the size of wolves and leopards. 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 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 to be more active, alert and aware at night.

Like all flock guardian breeds, they are intelligent and stubborn to a fault, so obedience training is recommended (although only mildly successful with some individuals) since this is a strong-willed, powerful breed. Socialization is also critical with this breed because of their reserved nature with strangers and guardian instincts. They are excellent family dogs…for the right family. Owners must understand canine psychology and be willing and able to
assume the primary leadership position. Lack of consistent, rational discipline can result in the creation of dangerous, unpredictable dogs (although this is true of virtually every dog breed).

Newspaper reports have suggested a pair of these Mastiffs has killed tigers while guarding sheep in the highlands of Nepal.