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Romanticizing the Tibetan Mastiff is All Wrong

Updated: May 8, 2023

A nepal mastiff dog relaxing in grass

The Bhote Kukur or Tibetan Mastiff is a breed of mountain dog living in the Himalayan mountains of Tibet and Nepal. It is indigenous to the region and has been a working breed for millennia, working as a herder, a guardian, and protector of livestock and farmlands belonging to the Bhote people.

The name translated from Nepali means Bhote dog. Bhote describes an ethnic group of people of Tibetan origin, who migrated into Nepal. They sometimes say that their ancestors were horse people, nomads, and herders. Today, in the mountains of Nepal, near the Tibetan border where the Bhote people live, the name is given to those who have not received Nepali citizenship. Those people who have received citizenship have adopted the names of Nepali castes like Tamang and Gurung. Castes belonging to the Brahman system, but with customs outside of those traditions. They are Tibetan Buddhist and shamanic peoples who have retained the strong traditions of their heritage.

The village of Thulo Syabru is a remote Himalayan village a days walk from the Tibetan border with a human population of around 300 people. It is isolated at an elevation close to 2500 meters, and difficult to access. Like most of the villages in the region of Rasuwa it is accessible on foot, and is at least a days walk away from neighbouring settlements that can be seen shimmering on the steep sides of surrounding mountains at dusk. On a sunny day the Tibetan Himal are visible, looming large in the sky. If you were to walk a full eight hour day north in their direction you would walk to the border of China..

Historically, there has only been one breed of dog here, the Bhote Kukur, also referred to as the original Tibetan Mastiff, before selective breeding practices have changed the physiology of the dog to be larger and heavier. The human bred version of the animal is referred to as the Chinese Mastiff in local circles, as it has come to differ so greatly from the original mountain dog which is comparatively smaller, weighing an average of 60 lbs. The name Tibetan Mastiff is said to be the English name for Nepal's Bhote Kukur.

The people in the community of Thulo Syabru are farmers and herders who move between farmlands up and down the mountainside, changing grazing areas between seasons. They are primarily yak, sheep and goat herders who live on sustainable farms on high elevation steppes. They keep Bhote Kukurs as guard dogs tied up on short chains, often heavy ones, because they fear the dogs will break the chains and attack visitors or roaming livestock. The price of a dog attack is high, the cost of a chicken and a doctor's fee. Should a dog kill livestock it will cost the price of replacing that animal, a very high price, and it will cause the family shame in the community.

Bhote Kukur live on a vegetarian diet. They are fed tsmapa porridge once daily in the evening. Tsampa a mixture of flour and water made of corn, wheat or barley, a traditional flour. made into gruel when mixed with water or tea for consumption. I have been told that "the people of the before time told us dogs must eat tsmapa." Local folklore tells of a dog who spoke to his farmer once eons ago, and he told the farmer that rice was not enough for him, and that he must be fed tsampa. Now the people believe that tsampa porridge is enough for their dogs, because they are people who believe in the knowledge of folklore and tradition.

Corn flour has a high enough protein content to keep a dog alive, but so many of the dogs are very thin and don't live much longer than 7 years. Underneath the longer coats one cannot see the bones protruding from beneath their flesh, but under the short coats, every rib and often vertebrae are visible.

The flour in tsampa is labour intensive to produce and must be hand harvested, sorted and milled. It exists in short supply and its production is reliant on the seasons, the amount to be fed to a dog is also limited, enough to keep it alive. . This creates a sense of desperation among the animals. A Bhote dog will protect its homestead and source of food from roaming competitors. A dog that steps foot on a compeititors homestead risks fatal injury from attack. They know the boundaries of each farmland and will run along outside of them to stay away from another dog defending its resources. Most of the dogs have fought to determine a hierarchy, and some dogs have not come to a conclusion regarding dominance, and will fight every time they meet.

The Bhote Kukur is a nocturnal animal. At night when dogs are released from their chains, some will remain on their farms to guard and protect crops or livestock from wild animals; monkeys, deer, boars and leopards. Others will roam in search of food, and others will never be freed from their chains. I have met dogs that have always been captive, and have lived under ramshackle lean-tos made of tin and wood on heavy short chains through summer, winter and monsoon for years with no interaction. I have seen empty bowls turned over on the ground that have never been washed, and starving wastrels of animals treated like prisoners of war. Held captive, tortured with hunger, denied any dignity or kindness, because of fear, among other reasons.

Because of a caste system, and a reciprocal society that doesn't recognize the value of their working dogs, and because of the lack of education, and stymied access to information. There are a good number of people living in this region who cannot read nor write, even more people without access to the internet. They rely on the knowledge of lore, and the traditions of their elders, but they live in a changing society where the Bhote Kukur is used less as a herding animal, and more often as a guardian, where its purpose is limited, and it may spend the entirety of its life on a chain. Even those people who like their dogs still see them as working animals that should be able to take care of themselves.

The dogs may have matted fur, be infested with fleas and ticks, and they will not receive care. Flea and tick infestations are a prominent reason why people will not touch their dogs, and why they will not let them indoors. Fear of being bitten and the transmission of rabies is another reason. I am often told I should never trust a dog, that they are unpredictable. I am frequently told that dogs don't belong inside. I have even heard of dogs dying of mange while living in the care of owners, because they were neglected to death.

The greatest secular fear of the people of Thulo Syabru is their dogs. Most of the Bhote dogs I know, in fact every Bhote I know in this village has rarely, if ever, been touched with affection. Physical contact is functional, to impart a lesson in the form of a beating, or if they are moving farms and the dog must be moved from one location to another. I have encouraged people to touch their dogs, to feel their ribs, to show them how hungry their animals are. To try and inspire compassion.

I have advocated for the dogs for years, visiting remote herders at their farms hidden deep in the forests, and paying porters to carry food and medicine high into mountains where there are no veterinary services, so I can treat easily diagnosed conditions myself. I have advocated for kindness and compassion towards the animals, and education around nutrition and behaviour. Since most people in this community are scared of the dogs they don't interact with them except to feed them once daily. In this environment dog fights are very common, and since the nature of the dog is to guard and protect, and they are mostly starved, territorial behaviours reach an extreme.

The majority of dogs in this region are male, females are culled at birth by drowning or other means. Dogs are the only species of animal here in which the male is prized more highly than the female. In livestock populations females are more highly valued for their ability to give birth and expand a herd, but for the dog population the opposite is true. Aggressive uncut males are sought after by farmers to keep wild animals from raiding farmlands. In many ways the dogs are like wild animals, striving to survive by hunting game and the occasional domestic animal, and by fighting for dominance, access to females, territory and food.

The dogs of this community are considered to be among the lowest order of working animal. The reason for this could be attributed to what people consider to be their unpredictable behaviours.. Another consideration is the nature of the society in which they live, which is a culture based on reciprocity. People keep count of gifts, and debts, and are highly conscious of a need to reciprocate in some form. Clothes and goods are shared among community members, money is given and something must be reciprocated in value, if not in kind. In the life of a farmer or herder in a reciprocal society the contribution of a dog is less than that of livestock that offer greater value to the family’s economy and nourishment.

Over time the usefulness of the animals has been lessened as agriculture has increased and herding has become confined to smaller areas and smaller numbers of livestock.

The introduction of tourism since the 1950’s has also impacted the value of the dog in the eyes of local people. I am told that before Europeans arrived all the dogs looked the same, they were pure bred mountain dogs, but the development of the mountain areas for tourism, power and economy have over time introduced other genetic strains of canine, diluting the purity of the Bhote Kukur. Although the dogs are still widely used as guard dogs on the farmlands, their role in the reciprocal value system of the people who own them, and the poor conditions in which they are kept, contribute to their unpredictability and aggression, and have led to fewer freedoms for them, and a decline in their value among the people who keep them.

I have met dogs that left the mountains because they were chased away from their farmlands with stones and starvation, due to the lack of an aggressive enough nature. This might occur if the dogs bark was not loud enough, in this case a dog will not be fed until it starts to bark loudly and aggressively enough. Should a Bhote dog do its job well it will be labeled crazy and it will never again be touched or trusted by its owners. Children and foreigners like me will be warned to stay away from them, and they will remain tied without water under the hot sun surrounded by yak dung while their owners sleep under bamboo lean-tos covered in plastic. When the greatest fear of a people is its dogs, there will always be discontent among them, and the dog will pay a price for that fear.

There is an avid fan base of American and Canadian Bhote Kukur breeders and enthusiasts who admire the cultural romanticism of the Bhote Kukur and what they think it means to be a working animal in Nepal. It isn't romantic.

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