Fuzzy and adorable Tibetan mastiff puppies grow into strong, determined, and imposing guardians, resembling lions or even Tibetan bears. This ancient breed’s history is somewhat mysterious, but we do know that they were bred to defend herds, monasteries, and palaces in the Himalayas. The breed is thought to be the ancestor of modern mastiff breeds. Years of selective breeding have eroded some of the original characteristics of the breed, introducing new colors and more mass. Intelligent and willful, this breed learns new skills with ease but tends to obey only when it’s in the mood. “People that do best with the breed have a sense of humor and appreciate just how clever they are,” says Rebecca Chambliss, who is secretary of the American Tibetan Mastiff Association and president of Tibetan Mastiff Rescue. “They are not an easy breed to live with.” It’s relatively rare to see a Tibetan mastiff in the United States.
The Tibetan mastiff’s defining features are its lion-like mane and massive stature. According to the American Kennel Club, full-grown females can be 24 inches or more at the shoulder and males can be 26 inches at the shoulder. Females weigh 70–120 pounds and males weigh 90–150 pounds.
The breed’s thick double coat can be black, brown, blue-gray, red, or gold. Sometimes they have markings around the eyes, muzzle, throat, legs, and tail that vary from silver to mahogany. The outer texture of that coat is thick and coarse, while the inner texture is soft and wool-like. The Tibetan mastiff requires little grooming, except during the annual spring-to-summer shedding, when hair will be everywhere. The tail is feathered, similar to the mane, and arches over the dog’s back in a curl. The ever-watchful, serious, deep-set eyes can be any shade of brown.
Tibetan mastiffs are best suited for owners with dog-training experience and patience. Chambliss describes the Tibetan mastiff temperament as aloof, independent, stubborn, and highly intelligent. “They do not look to their people for direction, which is an issue for many people,” Chambliss says. “They are guardians of people and property and can take that job very seriously.” Even with proper obedience lessons—which are necessary—Tibetan mastiffs will still do what they feel like doing. Their smarts may mean they perform perfectly in a class setting, but their independent streak may show at home when they ignore those same commands.
Tibetan mastiffs are not affectionate and don’t care much for attention. They can be standoffish and have almost cat-like interactions with humans. Highly territorial, they don’t shy away from protecting their owners. They do get along with other animals—according to Chambliss, they do best when they have another large breed of dog with which to play, especially when they’re young. They can be wonderful family dogs—with a few caveats.
“Tibetan mastiffs can be excellent with children, but can be overprotective of ‘their children,’ which can be an issue when other kids come over to play,” Chambliss says. Their guard-dog nature is so strong it can be challenging to have guests over. “Tibetan mastiffs tend to not approve of strangers coming into the home or yard, so a home without a lot of people coming and going usually works best,” she says. Proper socialization and training is an absolute must with this dog.
Give Tibetan mastiffs a yard to roam and protect and they’ll be pleased—they usually don’t mind spending time alone. Though that yard must be fenced in: “A traditional, secure fence is an absolute must-have. Tibetan mastiffs will wander and not come back,” Chambliss says. These dogs are known escape artists and may learn to open a door or gate by watching a human do it.
Breeders say that the Tibetan mastiff may be quiet during the day, but it has a tendency to bark at night. “Tibetan mastiffs are very vocal and have a deep bark that carries,” Chambliss says. “Keeping them inside prevents issues with neighbors.” But take note: A crate is not an acceptable option for these dogs. Their instinct is to guard property and caging them keeps them from doing so. This can lead to anxiety and behavior issues.
With that double coat, they thrive in cooler and even cold weather and tend to be more active as the temperature drops. They also make good indoor companions and will curl up by the fire or fan, depending on the season.
Moderate exercise, in the form of regular walks, is necessary for the physical and mental health of Tibetan mastiffs—they have a tendency to become obese. Because these dogs can be stubborn and willful, their walks should always be leashed.
When training the Tibetan mastiff, it’s important to be positive and never punitive. “Training a Tibetan mastiff must be done with positive reinforcement only,” Chambliss says. “They learn directly by watching and experiencing life and so when someone uses force and dominance, the Tibetan mastiff translates that into using force and dominance when he wants something. It can create a very dangerous scenario.”
Tibetan mastiffs served as guardians in the Himalayan mountains. Some believe that most other mastiff breeds—including the English mastiff—are descendants from the Tibetan mastiff, although little recorded information is available and details of its history remains largely unknown. It’s not entirely clear when they first arrived in the United States, but according to the American Tibetan Mastiff Association, two Tibetan mastiffs were sent as a diplomatic gift to President Dwight D. Eisenhower from the Ministry of Nepal in 1958. Perhaps because of their surprising size, stature, and appearance, they were reportedly then sent to a farm. About a decade later, Tibetan mastiffs were imported to the United States from Nepal and India and the breed began taking hold as a household pet. The AKC added the breed in 2006.
- Tibetan mastiffs are rare and revered for their unique and imposing appearance. So much so that in 2014, a Chinese businessman paid $1.9 million for the dog, according to the New York Post. The breeder told the Post: “They have lion’s blood and are top-of-the-range mastiff studs.”
- Legend has it that Marco Polo once encountered a Tibetan mastiff and said it was “tall as a donkey with a voice like a lion.”
- The annual shedding of the Tibetan mastiff’s coat is so heavy, it’s referred to as a “blow.” Get that vacuum ready!
- Despite their large size, Tibetan mastiffs have small, cat-like feet and are surprisingly nimble and spry.