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February 6, 2010

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The next big thing: a mastiff

THERE'S a saying among ultra-rich men in northern China: you need a young beautiful wife, a Lamborghini, a villa with expansive grounds, a purebred horse and a Tibetan mastiff (zang'ao), the bigger and more ferocious the better.

The latest four-footed status symbol has an enormous and powerful body, a big mane or ruff like a lion's, a thick coat, iron jaws, and a fierce and protective temperament. Males can weigh more than 100 kilograms. It's the world's biggest dog.

They can be quite scary -- rich men like to say the dogs only obey them.

Tibetan mastiffs can cost up to 4 million yuan (US$585,785) -- that's what a woman in Shaanxi Province paid for one dog last fall. It was welcomed at the Xi'an airport and escorted in a motorcade of 30 black Mercedes and SUVs. She told all her friends, especially informing them how much she paid, and everybody turned out.

The Tibetan mastiff, one of Central Asia's mastiffs, is an ancient and primitive breed -- the fossil record goes back 8-10 million years. In China it's sometimes called "No. 1 dog" and "miraculous beast." Marco Polo wrote of seeing one and legend has it that Genghis Khan and Buddha himself had mastiff companions.

They were used for guarding monasteries, palaces and homes (they still guard Tibetan homes) as well as livestock. They are famously fearless and said to fight to the death, even battling wolves and tigers. Some say they are descended from lions in the Himalayas that mated with black bears. They are intelligent and stubborn. The stuff of legend.

In Fengxian District, Wang Yang breeds pure mastiffs that he calls his babies and names after famous Shanghai snacks, including Youtiao (deep-fried bread stick), Tangbao (steamed bun), Tangyuan (dumpling made from glutinous rice flour) and Wonton among others. He has five dogs, about a year old -- three already have been sold.

Wang sells them for 20,000 yuan to 50,000 yuan as puppies, a relatively small amount, but he won't sell to just any rich guy who wants to show off.

"I don't make money from this," he says. "I do it because I love being with dogs."

Just a few weeks ago a multimillionaire from Zhejiang Province offered 800,000 yuan to buy Youtiao, but Wang refused, he could tell the man wouldn't raise it properly.

"It's the owners, not their money that I care about," he says. "Mastiffs are just like my children and I have the responsibility for their life."

Almost all his clients are rich businessmen "because raising such a huge dog is expensive," he says.

Space to roam

One of his buyers from Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, even bought a mountain property to raise the mastiff so it would have lots of space. He invited Wang to his house, showing that he knew about mastiff raising, had a warm heart and the right environment.

Wang, a 30-year-old Shanghai native, set up Jielian Tibetan Mastiff Kennel last winter, in remote Hangtou Village in Fengxian District.

The former logistics company profession used all his savings, about 500,000 yuan in all, aimed at "fostering China's best Tibetan mastiff." His kennel is set in a big orchard, and as one approaches the dogs start barking -- a deep rumbling, rather frightening sound.

"Take it easy. My boys and girls are a little wary of strangers," Wang says as he opens the heavy iron-made gate.

Five huge Tibetan mastiffs locked in five enclosures, each 8 square meters, bark even more fiercely and jump against the doors.

"Hush. Hush." Wang soothes them. "What's up, naughty baby?" He kneels down and pats one of the dogs lovingly through the metal gate.

If it were not raining, these huge monster-like dogs would be running freely and playing in the peach garden.

Wang has one bitch, Bafei, a perfect lion-maned mastiff bought in northern China in 2008. All dogs in the kennel, already huge at 12 months old, are built like young lions.

"My biggest concern is whether the master can raise the dog properly," says Wang. "To some extent, the mastiff is a status symbol because it is very expensive to raise. More important, it is a trust-worthy friend who deserves true love and sincerity from the master."

Wang has raised many big dogs since he was a child, including chows and German shepherds.

He calls the Tibetan mastiff "the ultimate goal of a dog lover."

After years of studying everything about mastiffs, Wang says good-bye to the 10-year-old logistics company he founded with a partner 10 years ago and started raising mastiffs.

"I devote my heart and soul to the kennel for the rest of my life," he says.

The minimum monthly cost to raise a mastiff is 3,000 yuan, says Wang. "That's the bottom line. If it's less than that, you're raising a pig."

Each dog consumes two big washbasins of food every day. Wang feeds an imported French dog food, adds duck that he buys at the supermarket and steamed rice. Sometimes they get beef and chicken as snacks.

He feeds duck because, according to traditional Chinese medicine, it contains yin (cold) energy that fights internal heat. Since the dogs are native to high elevations, their systems can become overheated or inflamed in low-lying warm areas, he says.

All the food is carefully cooked, so the dogs don't get parasites.

Because of the humidity they are prone to skin infections beneath their thick coats, so he grooms them very carefully.

Wang chose the 2-hectare orchard, which he rents for 20,000 yuan a month, because there are no nearby neighbors and there's plenty of room for the dogs to run.

"They are extremely territorial and won't stray too far from home," he says, noting that Tibetans frequently tied dogs up near their homes as guard dogs.

Wang says he raises mastiffs not for the money but because he is passionate about the dogs.

Many mastiff kennels in China force the bitch to breed every year, which is physically demanding and harmful to health.

The puppies are not as strong when the mother breeds frequently.

Mastiffs have one estrous cycle a year and Wang says he would rather miss the cycle and let the bitch recover.

"This is necessary to ensure excellent offspring and show love and care," he says.

Though the mastiffs love him, Wang was bitten once by a dog that was anesthetized for a hip-joint test -- it involuntarily snapped when he pulled the tongue from the mouth so it wouldn't choke.

The bite was deep and reached the bone. Wang has a scar.

It is hard for Wang to say goodbye to his mastiffs. He has parted with three so far.

"I believe they can read my mind and we've got a connection between us," he says.

Each time when the dog is reluctant to leave, Wang kneels down, pats the dog and whispers, "You'll have a new master, baby, and he can give you a better life. Just go.

"It understands me and stops barking," Wang recalls.

After four or five months, he always visits buyers to see how the dogs are doing. "The dog begins to forget me and barks at me," he says, a little sadly. "But to see that the dog is living well makes me happy."


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