Of Mountains and Dogs

Bookworm Issue 113 Mar, 2011
Text by Scott Berry / Photo: ECS Media

Don Messerschmidt first encountered one of these big dogs of the Himalayas, as a 23 year-old Peace Corps volunteer, on a yak pasture high above the Thak Khola Valley. As he and a friend approached a shepherd encampment they were greeted by the “frenzied barking of a very large dog,” which lunged at them so fiercely that it broke its tether. “… Rocketing down at us was a frothing mass of canine fury. The dog it seems was more shocked than we were …. As soon as he regained his feet he stopped in his tracks, spun 180 degrees around and raced pell-mell up over the top of the ridge out of sight … We were equally shocked that one of those fabled guard dogs would swap ends and disappear so quickly.”

He was luckier than many travellers (including the present reviewer) who have scars to show for such an encounter, and this was the beginning of a life-long fascination. Messerschmidt has looked up everything he could find about these fascinating creatures, travelled in search of them and raised several as well.

You might have noticed that the term “Tibetan mastiff” has not been used so far, and Messerschmidt himself is careful not to use it without qualification. In fact it was Brian Houghton Hodgson, the well-known and long-serving British Resident in Kathmandu who first called these dogs “mastiffs” in 1832, and Messerschmidt goes to great lengths to explain just why or why not they actually are true mastiffs. In the end he can only conclude that confusion reigns, hence the use of the more appropriate “big dogs”.

This is a book that works on many levels. Don Messerschmidt has wandered around the Himalayan regions of Nepal and India more than most of us, and has done his share of Tibetan travelling as well. His travellers’ tales, which in this book are all dog-centred, are sure to attract many of us. Additionally, his extensive research has uncovered a wealth of historical information. He goes into great depth about Marco Polo’s “dogs the size of asses”, and how this phrase has been misinterpreted over the centuries. Almost everyone who has written about the Himalayas mentions big dogs and whatever they wrote is quoted and skilfully woven into the text. A case of blatant plagiarism is exposed along the way.

The reader will soon discover that Messerschmidt loves dogs, and particularly these dogs. Consequently, he is not fond of people who try to make them into something they are not. In America and China, there is a tendency to breed “Tibetan mastiffs” that are larger than they should be with characteristics they never had. Their original breed functions, as guard dogs, hunters and herders have been forgotten in an attempt to create donkey-sized mastiffs for the show ring. Repeatedly, Messerschmidt emphasises that function has made these remarkable working animals what they are, and he makes no secret of what he thinks of those who attempt to breed their function out of them for the sake of form.

After reading this book, we know a lot about these dogs, but Messerschmidt cautions us against assuming we know it all. “I believe that we can read all we want about them, but … to know great dogs properly, we must greet them on their own terms and meet them on their own ground in the place where they come from.” So buy the book and pull on your trekking boots. The dogs are out there waiting for you.

Book available exclusively from
Vajra Books, Jyatha.