An enormous dog snoozes on a stage in an industrial Chinese city, its drooping eyes barely visible behind its thick, glossy black fur. Its asking price: close to US$1 million.
“This is the greatest dog in China,” breeder Yao Yi said, as he stroked a one-year-old Tibetan mastiff who was put up for sale two days ago for 5 million yuan (US$800,000) at a dog show in Baoding, a few hours; drive from Beijing.
Massive and sometimes ferocious, with round manes lending them a resemblance to lions, Tibetan mastiffs have become a prized status symbol among China’s wealthy, with rich buyers across the country sending prices skyrocketing.
One red mastiff named Big Splash reportedly sold for 10 million yuan in 2011, in the most expensive dog sale at the time.
“Check out her paws, they’re enormous,” Yao said, as his dog salivated onto a wooden stage in a dilapidated sports stadium where breeders gathered from across northern China to show off their pure-bred canines.
“Her parents are from Tibet, so she’s not used to hot weather,” Yao added.
Mastiffs, descendants of dogs used for hunting by nomadic tribes in Central Asia and Tibet, are fiercely loyal and protective, owners say.
Breeders still travel to the Himalayan Plateau to collect puppies.
“It takes over a month to drive back from Tibetan areas with the dogs,” said Wang Fei, a Beijing-based mastiff breeder who collects white-colored puppies from Western China in the back of a truck.
Most of the puppies cannot adjust to low altitudes and die during transportation, Wang said.
“The success rate is not very high,” he added.
The risks of travel lead other breeders to raise dogs closer to their clients in China’s wealthy eastern provinces.
“I take dogs to Tibet for breeding, but they give birth near Beijing,” said Zhang Ming, who joined vendors at the mastiff expo, where dozens of dogs paced around in white cages or peeked out from the back of cars.
The wealthiest clients include owners of coal mines, which dot the landscape of northern China, Zhang said.
“Now, almost everyone has a car, so people need a new way of showing their wealth,” he said, adding that not all of his clients pay in cash.
“One buyer paid for a dog with a 30,000 yuan Omega watch and a car, just for a small dog,” he said, using his smartphone to show a record of the transaction.
The sperm of pure-bred mastiffs can also be worth a fortune.
“I would charge 50,000 yuan to sell his sperm,” Zhang said of his favourite dog, named Moonlight Fairytale, who was on sale for 200,000 yuan and weighs 155kg.
The booming market has attracted fraudsters, with some passing off crossbred dogs for pedigrees and using artificial hair extensions made with dog fur, the China Daily newspaper said.
Intensive breeding has led to dangerous numbers of inbred mastiffs and unhealthy practices such as injecting glucose into dogs’ legs to make them appear stronger, the state-run Global Times said.
Tibetan mastiffs have also been responsible for attacks across China, with one dog wounding nine people in Beijing last year, the Global Times added.
Local newspapers reported in December last year that a 62-year-old man in Henan Province died after being attacked by a Tibetan mastiff owned by a local government official.
Regulations in Beijing and other major cities ban residents from keeping large dogs in downtown areas, but rules are sometimes flouted.
“It’s like the one child policy, if you really need to break the rules, you can do,” Zhang said, referring to people who pay fines to the authorities to have more than one child.
Vendors at the dog show haggled with locals over prices for cheaper crossbred mastiffs, but Zhang sets his sights on the higher-end of the market.
“There are a lot of people buying dogs for 1 million yuan,” he said.