Tibetan mastiffs, guardians of nomadic herds are large and fierce, and stand up to their reputation. One learns to stay clear of nomad camps when on foot and to watch out for dogs when riding a motorbike in the pasture near a yak of sheep herd. We used to take guests on nomadic visits on little motorbike convoys, and I once saw a dog trying to knock Yidam and Dechen, who were riding ahead of me, off their bike. The dog circled them menacingly, trying to destabilize the bike so it could attack. Yidam was a skilled driver, but it was an alarming sight. Norzin’s nanny, who is terrified of dogs except for her own, showed us a scar on her arm, from a childhood mastiff bite. Her niece was bitten in the face as a toddler and her mother had to carry her for hours to get to a hospital where they could save her from being scarred for life.
In Ritoma, every respectable household has a mastiff tied to a chain, to scare visitors. Before we had the Norlha guesthouse, we put up guests at our Production Manager Dunko’s house. Our Swiss guest was intrigued by the plate of dried bread left by his mother on a table near the kang, the heated platform where she slept. She was later told it was destined for the dog tied near the outhouse, to distract it an allow her to pass. The next day, she realized she should have kept some for the return, but fortunately, the dog was still chewing and let her by.
Mastiffs come in all forms and sizes, and ‘perfect’ ones can fetch an astronomical price. When Dechen and Yidam moved into their new house in 2009, Yidam’s parents gave them a puppy they named Thopdan. Dechen loves dogs, and wanted Thopdan to be free to roam at will. He enjoyed life as a puppy, wandering in the house, following her to the workshop and frolicking on the hills with other puppies, but when he reached adult size, she began to feel the pressure. He enjoyed frightening people and would send the workshop women in a frenzy with his ‘friendly’ leaps. In the end, the village ordered her to tie her dog before he caused anyone harm. He was scary, and though he knew our family, even allowing new members into his circle, he could also detect fear and acted upon it. One day, the nanny showed Dechen her arm and lectured her on respecting local customs and Dechen, heartbroken, had to comply.
As the years rolled by, we saw how the dogs behaved. Our accountant Serwo had a ‘nice’ mastiff, one that didn’t try to scare people, and he roamed around free. One day, a man riding through the village on his bike saw, on the plane in front of the village, a child walking towards a group of houses and a fast moving three dog pack running in a beeline towards him. The man redirected his bike to the child, and arrived just in time to interrupt the first dog’s attack. One of culprits was Serwo’s dog, spoiled by bad company; young dogs in a pack turn to being bullies and a lone child is an easy prey.
Nearly eight years later, Thopdan is still tied up. Unhappy at first, he grew used to his fate. For two years, he was tied near the guesthouse, and made many friends there. His peaceful disposition towards other animals made him a favorite of little dogs or puppies who came by to share his food and seek his company. At home, he is tied near the front door, terrifying guests with his bark and threatening manner, but sheep are not afraid of him, and sneak around the house to get to his bowl while avoiding the front door. He never minds sharing his food.
This year, there was Lennie, the neighbor’s yellow mastiff puppy. Dechen decided that Lennie, with his hazel eyes and friendly manner, was cute, and Lennie set his mind on our family, adding himself to the little group trooping up and down to the workshop every day; Dechen, her poodle Norbu, Baby D, Norzin, the nanny Tsering Kyi, or accompanying Dechen and Norbu on their early evening walks. They became inseparable. Lennie, after checking out Thodan’s bowl, also liked to come in the house, to sample the trash bin, scattering around any bones or other interesting content. Countless times I would pick up Lennie, who was getting heavier by the day, and move him from the kitchen corner to the front door until one day, like any other, Lennie stood by the trash bin and growled at me, then barked. Seeing me hesitate, he stared straight at me with his yellow eyes, and moved one step further; he began to attack, biting at my long scarf, that hung loosely. He looked like a child who has discovered something new, and quite pleased about it. The cute puppy had turned into a snarling, dangerous creature that I decided I didn’t want to fight with. I called Dechen and said sarcastically that there was “a huge yellow rat” in the kitchen that was trying to attack me. She took it literally and sounded very puzzled until she figured it was Lennie. She laughed and no one took me seriously, Lennie’s days of freedom were counted anyway; let him enjoy them, said Dechen. The next day, Lennie was back, and life went on as usual. On my next visit, he had disappeared, having taken up his post at the neighbor’s on the end of a chain.