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Video: King-sized canines are China’s top dogs

  1. Transcript of: King-sized canines are China’s top dogs

    MEREDITH VIEIRA, co-host: Well, tiny, purse-sized dogs may be popular here in the US, but a much bigger breed may soon be all the rage. NBC 's Adrienne Mong explains.

    ADRIENNE MONG reporting: It's a lion, it's a bear. No, it's a Tibetan mastiff , to be precise, the latest rich man's accessory in China . `They're so loyal,' says businessman Cai Li , `and fierce.' Cai and his wife prize these canine traits so much that last year they claim to have paid $600,000 for a dog named Yangtze River Number Two , a purebred, delivered in style by a fleet of Mercedes . Such is the life of a privileged pup in the new China .

    MONG:

    Mr. CAI LI:

    MONG: This certificate is actually what's worth money because it verifies the bloodline for the dog. Weighing up to 180 pounds, the mastiff is also valued for its origins, from the former Himalayan kingdom 12,000 feet above sea level on the Tibetan plateau . ` In China , people think of the Tibetan mastiff as a holy animal, a blessing to their health and security,' says Wen Li , who helps to organize dog fairs across the country, where mastiffs come in all shapes and sizes, judged for their physical traits, the thickness of their fur, and the shape of the mouth and jaw. And demand has skyrocketed in recent years, with prices jumping 500 percent a year and dog fairs like this taking place in cities across China during the show season, boosting the fortunes of men like Zhao Yanjun , once a chicken farmer, now a breeder of prize-winning mastiffs. `The beginning I liked them because I like big dogs ,' said Zhao . `Then I realized I could make a lot of money from them, and now I'm really in love with them.' So this two-year-old Tibetan mastiff is his prized breed and he will set you back half a million dollars.

    I don't know, are you worth it? Some people don't think so.

    Mr. FAN XING (International Center for Veterinary Services): The whole trend is rich people buying the dog. You know, it doesn't matter you're pet lovers. You want to look at dog or live with dog, you just buy the dog and say, `I got a Tibet mastiff.'

    MONG: But owners like Cai Li argue otherwise. `It's very expensive to own a Tibetan mastiff ,' he says. `You have to love the dog to want to spend that kind of money.' A status symbol for those smitten by puppy love . For TODAY, Adrienne Mong, NBC News, Tianjin, China .

    VIEIRA: Lisa Peterson is the spokesperson for the American Kennel Club , and she has brought along Dolma and Baby Gia . Good morning.

    Ms. LISA PETERSON: Good morning.

    VIEIRA: Gia 's just a puppy. Matt and I both had the first same question. What is with these collars?

    Ms. PETERSON: These are actually the historical kekhors, which are collars to protect them from attacks from snow leopards and wolves in the Tibetan mountains.

    MATT LAUER, co-host: Oh.

    Ms. PETERSON: Yeah.

    LAUER: So -- but now in this country, they are not that expensive, correct?

    VIEIRA: Right.

    Ms. PETERSON: That's correct. In the United States they're not as rare or valuable. Approximately 800 to $3500 for a purebred puppy, just like any breed really.

    VIEIRA: And are they a good family dog ?

    Ms. PETERSON: They are a good family dog . They're a guardian breed. They will protect their loved ones and their family and their property. But they are a little aloof and reserved with strangers because of their nature.

    VIEIRA: Well, this one wasn't.

    LAUER: Do you think -- yeah, he was good.

    VIEIRA: Gia was giving me some kisses, some loving.

    LAUER: You think -- are you thinking what I'm thinking?

    VIEIRA: You want one?

    LAUER: We export these to China , $2,000 a dog, we sell 1.3 billion of them. We are done. We're set.

    VIEIRA: We got money coming in. Oh.

    LAUER: There you go. They're really, really sweet dogs.

    VIEIRA: They are gorgeous, yeah.

    Ms. PETERSON: They are highly intelligent, but they do need proper socialization because they are a guardian breed.

By NBC News correspondent
TODAY
updated 8/6/2010 8:25:27 AM ET 2010-08-06T12:25:27
Correspondent’s notebook

The rattling steel-link chain was starting to freak us out. At each rattle, we glanced nervously over to where the sound was coming from.

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The source? A giant Tibetan mastiff, standing at least 3 feet tall and weighing somewhere between 130 and 150 pounds. Inexplicably, he was chained on a platform right at the entrance of the Tianjin dog fair, guaranteeing a rude welcome for every individual wandering into the event in this large city in northeastern China.

There was no missing this dog. And if he didn’t bark the fear of God into you, there was a heavily made-up woman in heels and a miniskirt firmly steering you away: “Be careful. He’s a little temperamental.”

When his chain wasn’t anchored to a steel cage, it was held by a guy reclined on a folding chair. Somehow, only his arm, not his entire body, jerked up whenever the mastiff jumped up to bark at a new entrant.

Adrienne Mong  /  NBC News
Tibetan mastiffs can weigh up to 180 pounds.

We started looking around for something safe to climb on. But everywhere around us were mastiffs: some just as large, although none appeared as temperamental. Most, in fact, were puppies. All were available for sale or for breeding.

‘A holy animal’
The stuff of legend, the Tibetan mastiff is considered the guardian dog of the former Himalayan kingdom of Tibet and reputed to be the original source of many large dog breeds today.

“In China, people think of the Tibetan mastiff as a holy animal … a blessing to their health and security,” said Wen Li, a spokesman for www.1dutm.com, a website about Tibetan mastiffs, who helps organize dog fairs like the one in Tianjin.

In recent years, as China’s middle class has expanded and dogs have become more popular household pets, the appeal of Tibetan mastiffs has grown exponentially — so much so that fairs just for this breed take place several times a week during the three-month show season (the dogs shed during the summer, so the best time for breeders to present them is in the spring.) And as their popularity has grown, so have prices for top breeds — 500 percent a year.

In China, breeders say that adult Tibetan mastiffs typically sell for tens of thousands of dollars, with some going for more than $100,000, according to the Associated Press.

The popularity is apparently driven by Chinese millionaires. “Most buyers are wealthy people, like entrepreneurs,” said Wen. “The newly rich want to show off their status by owning such a precious dog, which makes them feel really confident and powerful.”

In that case, Cai Li and his wife must be brimming with confidence. Last November, the couple from the provincial capital of Xi’an forked over $600,000 for a purebred Tibetan mastiff called Yangtze River Number Two, and organized a fleet of twenty Mercedes-Benzes to bring the slobbery black-haired beast home.

“I like Tibetan mastiffs, because they’re really loyal to owners and they’re ferocious,” said Cai, a fortysomething-year-old businessman who was coy about his source of income. 

Yangtze River Number Two cost so much, according to Cai, because of his pure bloodline. With their overwhelming popularity and the high prices they fetch, it’s increasingly rare to find a purebred Tibetan mastiff. Breeders told us there were permanent scouts in places like Yushu, Qinghai (a western Chinese province on the Tibetan Plateau struck by a huge earthquake in April), looking for mastiffs to poach.

Just an accessory?
Actually, Cai seemed a little frightened of Yangtze River Number Two’s ferocity, whereas his wife, in a home video, appeared delighted with him, romping through grassy fields with the giant dog at her heels.

Adrienne Mong  /  NBC News
An unusual way to transport mastiff puppies to the Tianjin dog fair in China.

In fact, Yangtze River Number Two was kept in a large cage during our visit to the couple’s country residence in the hills a couple of hours outside of Xi’an. At least he was in good company; Cai owns at least 40 other mastiffs, each kept in a cage.

The fact the dogs are kept behind bars reinforces the criticism that the animals are just status symbols for millionaires looking to flaunt their wealth.

“[These people] will first tell you how much that dog is. It’s not how much they love the dog,” said Fan Xing, who runs the International Centre for Veterinary Services in Beijing and fiercely opposes the current obsession with mastiffs. “You don’t really feed the dog. You don’t really walk the dog. You don’t really even play with the dog. You don’t have any relationship with the dog. That is not a pet lover.”

Adrienne Mong  /  NBC News
One of  Zhao Yanjun’s prize Tibetan mastiffs checks out the NBC camera.

But owners like Cai insist they do care. “It’s very expensive to own a Tibetan mastiff. You have to love the dog to want to spend that kind of money,” Cai argued.

Breeders like Zhao Yanjun have no shortage of love for the dogs. “At the beginning I liked them, because I liked big dogs,” he told us. “Then I realized I could make a lot of money from them. And now I’m really in love with them.”

Zhao, whose kennel is in far northeastern Beijing, was a chicken farmer who made several thousand dollars when he began raising Tibetan mastiffs seven years ago. “I can easily make half a million U.S. dollars a year now,” he said. As if to underscore his point, there was a Porsche SUV behind him.

Altitude problems
But for all the love and money being tossed around, Zhao and Cai admitted looking after the dogs is no cakewalk. “It’s not easy to keep Tibetan mastiffs,” said Cai. “Their diet, their health: All of that makes it difficult to raise them.”

The biggest challenge is helping the dogs adjust to sea level. Coming from the Tibetan Plateau, the breed is used to breathing thin air at altitudes of at least 12,000 feet.

Adrienne Mong  /  NBC News
Don't let that placid demeanor fool you: This Tibetan mastiff’s bite is definitely worse than his bark

When he first started buying Tibetan mastiffs and bringing them to Beijing, breeder Zhao Yanjun said his dogs would get very sick. “A few died,” he recalled. “But now things have changed. People pay more attention to vaccinations and take really good care of them.”

Zhao went to great lengths to explain the dogs’ appeal to owners. The most valued physical traits are the thickness of their fur and the shape of the mouth and jaw. In fact, one of Zhao’s prize-winning animals, named King, looked more like a lion than a dog. Another, named Bull, could do a great impersonation of a bear — if it could stand on its hind legs. 

And then, of course, there’s their size: Some mastiffs can weigh up to 180 pounds. Lastly, in addition to their loyalty, Tibetan mastiffs are easy to train, explained Zhao.

“They can perform just as well as German shepherds.” Once they know their owner, he added, they are devoted to him forever. “But with strangers, they’re fierce.”

Which is exactly why, back at the Tianjin dog fair, we were relieved to end our shoot and beat a hasty retreat from the chain-rattling beast.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

Explainer: A $15,000 clump of hair? Silliest splurges of all time

  • Image: $175 burger
    Brendan Mcdermid  /  Reuters

    How much would you pay for a clump of Elvis Presley's hair? What exactly is on a $175 burger? And what goes into a $33,000 mattress? It turns out that plenty of items are tailored just for the ultra-wealthy and well-heeled — proving that when it comes to money, some people want to use it and lose it.

    Here are 12 examples of splurges that are so silly, so decadent and so unexpected that they will a) blow your mind and b) make you happy that the economy tanked and frugal is the "new normal."

  • The $15,000 hair clump

    Image: Elvis' clump of hair
    TODAY

    Yes, Elvis Presley was the King. But seriously, now: How much is a clump of hair from his head worth?

    A lot of Benjamins, apparently. Even though it looks like the aftermath of a home improvement project involving Drano, the hairball pictured here sold for $15,000 at a Chicago auction house in October 2009. The locks are thought to have been clipped when Elvis joined the Army in 1958.

    In addition to dropping $15,000 on the hair clump, the purchaser also had to pony up $3,300 in auction house fees.

    Related: Elvis' hair sells for $15K at auction

  • The $33,000 mattress

    Image: Inside view of expensive mattress
    E.S. Kluft & Co.

    Sure, a mattress is important. You use it every single day, and if it's uncomfortable, life can be miserable. But — BUT! — would you spend $33,000 on one? You can, thanks to E.S. Kluft & Co., makers of the most expensive American-made mattress set money can buy.

    The fit-for-a-king mattress contains "10 layers and more than 10 pounds of cashmere, mohair, silk and New Zealand wool that has been washed, dried and crimped," according to the Wall Street Journal.

    If the $33,000 price tag doesn't alarm you, just wait: Kluft has pans to start selling a $44,000 mattress later in 2010.

    Related: Could a mattress ever be worth $33K? You decide!

  • The $1,000 pizza

    Image: $1,000 pizza
    TODAY

    Mama mia! A thousand bucks for a 12-inch pizza pie? You betcha, says New York restaurateur Nino Selimaj. He dreamed up a thin-crust pizza that comes loaded with six kinds of caviar and lobster tail.

    "The idea came because I've been 29 years in this city," Selimaj told TODAY in 2007. "It's a great city, maybe the greatest city on Earth. I believe we deserve something to show ... I wanted to be different."

    At the time of the TODAY interview, he estimated his production costs to be about $720 per pizza. He's still serving up the pies today at his restaurant, Nino's Bellissima, on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

    Related: Mama mia! That's an expensive pizza!

  • The $582,000 dog

    Image: Chinese woman with dog
    AFP - Getty Images

    Most of us would be hard-pressed to put a price tag on our beloved pets — but this price tag was such a whopper that it understandably made headlines in September 2009. That's when a young Chinese millionaire known only as Ms. Wang forked over $582,000 for a dog — and then had the pup picked up at the airport by a motorcade of 30 black Mercedes-Benz cars.

    The dog, an 18-month-old Tibetan Mastiff named Yangtze River Number Two, belongs to a breed that is prized in China for its guarding skills. "Gold has a price, but this Tibetan Mastiff doesn't," the mysterious millionaire told Chinese publications.

    Actually, Ms. Wang, he does: Tibetan Mastiffs usually sell for about $2,000 in the West.

    Related: The world's most expensive dog cost $582K

  • The $1 million cow

    Her life resembles that of most ordinary cows: Producing milk, having babies, staring off peacefully into the distance. But what makes a lovely red bovine named Apple stand out is her price tag: At $1 million, she just might be the most expensive cow ever sold in United States.

    It may have been a classic case of auction fever when a group of partners from Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin placed the winning bid for Apple at a Connecticut auction in July 2008. The bidding began at $200,000.

    Observers said the hefty sum was justified because Apple's genes, breeding potential and rare red color made her "very marketable."

    Related: Holy cow! Rare red bovine sold for $1M

  • The $9,150 toothpick

    Image: Charles Dickens' toothpick
    AP

    Save your toothpicks, everyone — if you ever become famous, you could make your grandchildren rich. As evidence, consider Exhibit A: An ivory and gold toothpick once owned by Charles Dickens that just sold at a New York City auction for $9,150.

    In case you're wondering whether the British writer really used the toothpick — (and secretly hoping that maybe he didn't) — an authentication letter from sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth says Dickens put the toothpick to use "when travelling and on his last visit to America."

    Ewwww!

    Related: Charles Dickens' toothpick sold for $9,150

  • The $175 burger

    Image: $175 burger
    Brendan Mcdermid  /  Reuters

    An absolute extravagance at a diner where a standard hamburger sells for $4.50, this $175 hamburger has been characterized as "a work of art."

    That's how Heather Tierney, co-owner of the Wall Street Burger Shoppe in Manhattan, described the burger, which is made of Kobe beef and comes with foie gras, black truffles and Gruyere cheese along with ... drum roll ... flakes of real gold.

    Tierney said the burger is a hit with Wall Street folks who like to show off to their friends for fun. (Oh please don't tell us you showed off with bailout money!)

  • The $25,000 cupcake car

    Image: Cupcake cars
    Photographer: Philip Chudy Www,p  /  Neiman Marcus

    So if you go out and spend $25,000 on a car, you might want it to travel faster than 7 mph — unless, of course, you're in the market for a cupcake car. Yes, you read that right: A cupcake car.

    Courtesy of Neiman Marcus, the luxury retailer that knows just how to captivate our imaginations with decadent gifts, the cupcake car can be customized to your unique tastes and can reach a maximum speed of 7 mph with its 24-volt electric motor.

    The cupcake car began as a cooperative art project at Burning Man. (And we promise not to insert any gratuitous jokes here about what the artists may have been smoking.)

    Slideshow: World's most extravagant gifts

  • The $100,000 book

    Image: $100,000 book
    Bebeto Matthews  /  AP

    Talk about a luxury gift idea. How about a 62-pound book — bound in white marble and red velvet — that is lovingly made by hand in Italy and that depicts the life and work of Michelangelo? Yowza!

    More than 20 copies of "Michelangelo: La Dotta Mano" — valued at more than $100,000 each — had been sold as of November 2008. That's when the book made headlines as it arrived at the New York Public Library. (That copy was donated, by the way.)

    Six long months are required to make each extravagant book — a detail that contributes to its hefty price tag. On the upside, though, Amazon.com offers free shipping on most book purchases over $25. (Cha-ching!)

    Related: Need a luxury gift? Try a $100K book

  • The $200,000 private spaceship flight

    Image: Inside the Virgin Galactic
    Daniel Berehulak  /  Getty Images

    OK, so who doesn't want to travel on a spaceship? The thing is, unless you're an astronaut for NASA, you probably won't get that privilege unless you've got lots and lots of cash.

    So far, about 300 private individuals have lined up to take a flight on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo as soon as passenger travel begins on the spaceship in 2011 or 2012. They've plunked down a total of $40 million in deposits to secure the opportunity.

    A 2.5-hour trip on SpaceShipTwo is supposed to cost $200,000. According to msnbc.com science writer Alan Boyle, "SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry six passengers and two pilots to the edge of outer space, past the 100-kilometer (62-mile) altitude mark. The flight profile would provide about five minutes of weightlessness, a commanding view of a curving Earth below the black sky of space, and the world's highest roller-coaster ride going up and coming down."

    Five minutes? That's it?? C'mon, Virgin — it's not too hard to figure out how to achieve that floating effect right here on Earth with the right combination of drinks.

    Related: Cosmic Log: Spaceship debut causes chills

  • The $1 million sword

    Image: Glass sword
    BusinessWeek

    Dubbed the "Glassic Katana," this $1 million glass sword can't kill anybody — and it may not even do such a great job slicing up a loaf of bread. What it does have going for it, though, is 70 carats of flawless rubies and diamonds. BusinessWeek reports that glass artist Monique Schloss spent more than six months crafting the sword by hand.

    The sword, which will go up for auction through Bonhams New York in January 2010, was among the extravagant items featured in Amsterdam at the ultra-decadent Millionaire Fair — an event that thumbs its nose at that silly ol' Great Recession. After all, if you're still staggeringly wealthy, where else are you supposed to learn about $1 million swords?

    Related: Luxury items for sale at the Millionaire Fair

  • Your own butler: Priceless!

    Image: Butlers
    Chris Schotanus  /  BusinessWeek

    Think of him as an executive assistant who's really good at ironing. And if you're Batman, he can totally help you stay organized as you juggle a crazy, late-night crime-fighting schedule.

    Yet another excessive option held out to the ultra-rich at the Millionaire Fair in Amsterdam was — you guessed it — butler services. Apparently the International Butler Academy does a smoking good job of training butlers to welcome guests, clean, iron, pour wine and manage a staff. (Manage a staff?? Wow.) So for a price that varies according to your needs, you could have your very own Jeeves.

    Related: Super rich at luxury fair ask, 'What recession?'

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