If you see one and think it is a lion you may be forgiven. With their fierce mane, thick coat and imposing size, they do look like wild felines from a distance. But they are dogs, albeit of the most impressive kind. Tibetan mastiffs rank among the most imposing breeds on earth, and are now enjoying widening popularity – for better and for worse.

A Tibetan man walks his Tibetan mastiff dog during annual China Tibetan Mastiff Expo on the outskirts of Beijing. Pic: AP.

According to the American Tibetan Mastiff Association, “the history of the Tibetan Mastiff – the large guardian dog of Tibet – is hidden in the mists of legend, along with the people of the high Himalayan Mountains and the plains of Central Asia. Accurate records of the genetic heritage of the dogs are non-existent.” That said, “they are considered by many to be the basic stock from which most modern large working breeds have developed. [..] Earliest written accounts place a large dog around 1100 BC in China. Skulls of large dogs date from the stone and bronze ages. Ancestors of today’s Mastiff breeds are believed to have accompanied the armies of the Assyrians, Persians, Greeks and Romans and later, travelled with Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan as far west as Europe. During these centuries, it is believed that the Tibetan Mastiff remained isolated in the mountain valleys of the Himalayas to develop into the magnificent animal so highly prized by the people of Tibet.”

Not anymore: a frenzy of buyers and news now surrounds this breed. The most evident proof is the price at which they can be sold: in 2011, ‘Big Splash’ broke the world record after being sold for a staggering $1.5 million. Part of the reason is that this red-coated dog belongs to the small group of pure bloods still around, which, according to Xinhua News Agency, counted less than 200 individuals worldwide in 2011.

(READ MORE: China zoo tries to pass off dog as lion)

But vanity plays a role, too. It is commonly believed in China that a Tibetan Mastiffs is a symbol of status comparable to expensive jewelry and cars. In 2012, a breeder told Xinhua: “If you are rich, you can easily buy a big house or a Lamborghini [..] But owning a purebred mastiff is quite another thing. It’s solid evidence of your wealth, power and taste, and makes a most presentable gift for your clients and partners.” This was confirmed to Asian Correspondent by a Dutch breeder who argued that such prices “clearly have to do with status. But if you buy a dog only because it is a status symbol, what do you know about how to handle it?”

Money has awoken interest among businessmen, who have taken to breeding as a lucrative activity. Zhou Yi, secretary-general of the Qinghai Tibetan Mastiff Association told Xinhua last year that Qinghai Province is home to more than 20,000 mastiff breeders, and warned that the bubble may well burst one day. As a matter of fact, prices are very different when you move out of China. Rebecca Chambliss, secretary of the American Tibetan Mastiff Association, told us that in the US “more and more people are breeding so they can be found as low as $100 U.S. online.” The Dutch breeder was sure that “no one in Holland would pay such money for any dog.” In spite of this, some Chinese breeders appear to be looking to foreign markets – and may find them already crowded. The website Tibetanmastiffinfo.com, for one, lists tens of breeders from all over the world, from Australia to Europe to the United States.

It is not just the market that has brought Tibetan Mastiffs under the spotlight. Attacks on humans have played a role, too. The most recent happened last month in Dalian, a city in north east China, where a dog killed a three-year-old girl who was walking with her mother. Apparently, the dog materialized all of a sudden from a corner and bit the girl’s neck. The owner is now under arrest, but this is not by any means an isolated case. The Global Times reported that in January 2012 a Tibetan Mastiff attacked and wounded nine people in Beijing, and another injured six in Shanghai in September.

The attention could well be a byproduct of the mystique surrounding the mastiffs. They have historically been used to defend villages and herds among harsh Tibetan mountains, and a popular legend depicts them as able to “take three wolves at a time.” Their imposing – at times scary – appearances do not play in their favor when it comes to people being injured.

Yet, most sellers and dedicated websites clearly warn customers that this breed is not friendly towards strangers, and is not suitable for first-time owners or people who do have not enough space for them. Asked whether this is a pet anyone can have, Ms Chambliss adamantly told us: “absolutely not. The breed is a free-thinking, independent large breed. They don’t look to their people for direction, are highly protective at home and can be very destructive. They also bark quite a lot. Many people don’t understand what a challenge they can be to live with.” Mixing them with other breeds might happen due to market pressure for larger dogs, she added, but is a risky practice, as it alters the Mastiffs’ character, making them “unpredictable and dangerous.”

So, is it a ferocious dog that should not be kept in cities? The debate will likely go on forever. That said, when I asked to a group of Chinese nationals if the death of the three-year-old girl in Dalian was the dog’s fault or it’s owner’s, the answer was unanimous: “the owner’s.”