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Once banned by the Communist Party as bourgeois, pet ownership is booming in China, and the Tibetan mastiff is the dog of the moment for those who want to spread their wealth beyond stocks and real estate.
"I used to invest in German shepherds, but Tibetan mastiffs are what's hot right now," said Sui Huizheng, a business owner who has about 20 of the dogs and attended the 6th annual China Tibetan Mastiff Expo this past weekend.
Hundreds of the hairy dogs were on hand, and owners and handlers marched the most expensive ones down catwalks as though they were fashion models. Some carried the names of wealthy Americans like "Warren Buffett," while others were called "God" and "Prince." Among the owners was a controversial running coach who trained world track champions in the 1980s.
Their hoped-for prize: breeders willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a mate for their mastiff. Sui spent $43,000 for a large platform and a poster-plastered booth to show off his dogs. One breeding session with Sui's top mastiff King goes for $40,000.
The craze seems to defy sales patterns and common sense elsewhere, especially for a dog that is common, has thick, lion-mane-like hair, grows to 180 pounds (80 kilograms) and is known for being fierce.
"I can understand racehorses and diamonds, but I don't understand why someone would want to pay half a million dollars for a dog," said Martha Feltenstein, president of the American Tibetan Mastiff Association. "They have a relatively short life expectancy and are not especially rare, so it's quite puzzling why they are fetching such a high price in China."
In the U.S., Tibetan mastiff pups can be bought for as little as several hundred dollars, Feltenstein said.
Breeders in China say adult Tibetan mastiffs sell for tens of thousands of dollars, and can even go for more than $100,000.
One of them sold for more than half a million dollars last year to a woman in northern China who then sent 30 black Mercedes-Benz and other luxury cars to fetch the dog from the airport, according to a report in the state-run China Daily.
After splurging on real estate in Australia, American thoroughbreds and European designer fashions, China's rich see the Tibetan mastiffs as a new status symbol. China is now home to an estimated 825,000 millionaires, its most in modern history, and its luxury goods market is one of the fastest growing in the world. Among the must-haves for rich men in northeast China, the official Xinhua News Agency recently said, was a young beautiful wife, a Lamborghini and a Tibetan mastiff, "the bigger and more ferocious the better."
"You could call it a local luxury brand," said Rupert Hoogewerf, a Shanghai-based tax specialist who compiles a popular annual list of China's richest people. "Luxury brands are growing at phenomenal rates in China and owning a Tibetan mastiff is another channel for increasing your credibility and showing off your rich status."
The mastiffs, themselves, look like money, resembling a lion that is a traditional symbol of good fortune.
"We want a breed of dog that is home grown, and this guardian dog is perfect because it is also a symbol of good luck for Chinese people throughout history," said Wu Yunliang, the owner of "Warren Buffett" and nearly 20 other mastiffs. He keeps them in the northern city of Taiyuan where he owns a nursing home.
Potential profits from mastiff breeding are what drew Sui, the businessman-breeder, who said he isn't a dog lover. "I don't touch or play with them much," Sui said. He leaves the brushing and fluffing of his dogs to nearly a dozen handlers.
Passers-by were told only to admire the dogs from afar and not get near them because they're hostile to strangers - all the better for protecting flocks and herders on the isolated Tibetan plateau, where they originated.
Retired track coach Ma Junren became fascinated with the mastiffs when he was training female distance runners on the Tibetan plateau in the late 1980s. Ma claimed the high-altitude training and concoctions of turtle blood and caterpillar fungus he fed the runners helped them set world records. But some of his athletes were later caught using banned performance-boosting substances. Ma retired, denying wrongdoing.
At the expo, he exhorted breeders to raise their standards so that China can gain entry to the World Canine Organization (Federation Cynologique Internationale), an international federation of kennel clubs. The organisation has so far kept China out over lax controls on vaccinations, several breeders said.
"I hope all our Tibetan mastiff lovers are honest. We don't want to see thieves, criminals or cheaters around us," Ma said.