The Combai is a multi-purpose working dog native to Southern India, specifically the region of Tamil Nadu. Originally developed to hunt bear and other large and dangerous animals by the Indian royalty, in recent centuries the breed has served mainly as a guard dog for farmers in rural areas. The Combai is among the most distinctive looking of all Indian hunting dogs due to a ridge of fur running down its back that grows in an opposite direction to what is found on the rest of the body. The Combai is now a very rare breed even in its native India, and most experts believe that it is on the verge of extinction. This breed is also known as the Indian Bear Hound, Indian Bear Dog, Tamil Bear Hound, Tamil Bear Dog, and the alternate spelling Kombai.
The Combai was developed long before written records were kept of Indian dog breeding, and most of the breed’s history has been lost to time. In fact, almost anything that is said about this breed’s ancestry is little more than speculation. All that can be said for sure is that the breed has been in existence since at least the 15th Century and that it has always been primarily associated with the region of southern India now known as Tamil Nadu, where it was traditionally used to hunt bear and other large mammals. Many locals believe that the breed was actually first developed in the 800’s by the Marava kings (also known as Maravar and/or Maravan) as their royal hunting dog, but these claims cannot be substantiated without more evidence to support them.
Although there is not enough evidence to make any real judgments as to their merits, there are several theories that may explain the ancestry of the Combai. Most seem to believe that the breed is descended from other Indian sighthounds. This breed is probably more similar to those breeds than any other dogs, and was used for a similar purpose. Given the breed’s protective temperament, somewhat wide head, and black mask, it is also quite possible that the Combai was developed from Mastiff-type dogs or Mastiff/Sighthound crosses. The Combai also could have been selectively bred from the dingo-like Pariah dogs found across India. The hair ridge on the dog’s back strongly suggests that it is somehow related to the Thai Ridgeback and/or the Khoisan Dogs that gave rise to the Rhodesian Ridgeback, but the connection between these breeds is not clear and may not exist at all. Given the age of the Combai and the fact that Indian sailors and traders had regular contact with both Southeast Asia and Eastern Africa in past centuries, the Combai is more likely to have been the ancestor of other ridgebacked dogs than vice versa. In the opinion of this author, the Combai was probably developed by crossing sighthounds, Mastiff-type dogs, and other Indian breeds together.
For many centuries, the Combai was kept primarily by the nobility of southern India who used primarily used the breed as a hunting dog. Unlike breeds such as the Chippiparai and Rajapalayam which specialized in hunting rabbits, gazelle, game birds, and other swift-footed game, the Combai was used primarily to hunt dangerous species. The breed’s primary quarry was always the Sloth Bear (Ursus ursinus), which was at one time very common throughout India. The breed was so skilled at bear hunting that it became known as the Bear Dog or Bear Hound. Although bears were the Combai’s specialty, this versatile and fierce hunter was regularly used on all major game species, native to the region including Lions, Tigers, and Leopards. The breed’s success at hunting some of the most dangerous creatures found on earth earned it great acclaim and the Combai spread across the southern portion of the Indian subcontinent. At one point, the breed was numerous across the entire region, although it was always most common in Tamil Nadu.
As the centuries wore on, the Indian nobility gradually lost a great deal of its power, wealth, and prestige, a process which was greatly expedited by the conquest. The Combai actually played a significant role in the British subjugation of its homeland. The legendary Marudhu Pandiyar brothers, the rulers of Sivavangai, Tamil Nadu who were the first Indians to issue a formal Declaration of Independence from British rule in 1801, used the breed extensively in their armed resistance to colonial authority. Although the Marudhu Pandiyar Brothers were eventually defeated, they have long since been remembered, as have the dogs that they used. As the Indian nobility was consistently weakened, the Combai found a new group of fanciers, rural Indian farmers. The same traits that made the Combai a fierce and dedicated hunter of dangerous game also made the breed a loyal and fearless guard dog. Farmers kept the Combai on their properties to protect themselves and their families from marauding wildlife, especially the greatly feared tiger and leopard. Although large land predators have now been driven to the brink of extinction in India, at one time they were a constant and very real threat. The British Raj estimated that tigers alone killed approximately 100,000 people in India in the century between 1800 and 1900, and that does not figure in other major predators such as lions, leopards, hyenas, wolves, and dholes. The ever vigilant Combai would loudly bark to alert its master of the presence of a predator and then try to scare off the beast. If the beast was still determined to attack, the Combai would attack it and attempt to drive it away. When faced with a creature that would not flee, the fearless Combai did battle on its own, doggedly fighting until either one or both animals were dead or its master came to assist in the struggle. As most Indian farmers could only afford to keep one dog, the Combai usually worked alone. However, the breed was most effective when kept in small groups.
The Combai developed largely as a result of natural selection. Only the fiercest and strongest examples could fight a tiger and live to pass on their genes to the next generation. The breed also developed a tremendous resistance to heat to the extent that the Combai can work for hours in temperatures that would kill most dogs in minutes. Perhaps most importantly, the Combai developed natural resistances to the diseases and parasites which are so prevalent in Southern India. This breed became so well suited to life in its homeland that it thrived in a place where many breeds perish in weeks. Few Indian breeders artificially selected their Combais’ reproductive partners, although being kept penned or tied up ensured that the breed remained relatively pure.
For untold centuries, man and nature were locked in a constant battle for survival in India, a battle in which neither side could gain the upper hand. The introduction of modern technology such as automatic weapons and antibiotics in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries meant that humans changed that balance permanently. Tigers and other predators began to be hunted extensively, and they disappeared entirely from vast areas where they were previously common. The human population of India began to grow at an almost unimaginable pace, and almost all of the little remaining undeveloped land in the country was converted to residential, agricultural, and/or industrial uses. Those few predators which survived the gun often found they had nowhere to live and no prey to hunt. By the time World War II ended, the threat posed by large predators was a mere fraction of what it had been a few generations earlier. The disappearance of the predators that the Combai had been used for generations to hunt and protect against meant that the breed was now largely without a purpose. Most Indian farmers are hard pressed to keep their own families fed, and this was especially true several decades ago. This meant that they could not afford to keep a dog that had no useful purpose, and Combai numbers began to fall dramatically.
Once a very common breed across Southern India, the Combai has almost entirely disappeared from most of its former range. The Combai is now almost entirely limited to the state of Tamil Nadu, located on the far southeastern part of the Indian subcontinent. The breed is so rare outside of this stronghold, that most Indians mistake it for a Rajapalayam or a Chippiparai, even though those breeds are not especially similar in appearance to the Combai. The Combai’s plight is currently being exacerbated by a number of factors. Since the colonial period, Indian dog shows have been dominated by foreign, especially European, breeds that are seen as more fashionable and valuable than native Indian dogs. Because of this, native breeds have been largely ignored by most serious Indian dog fanciers and breeders. Like many Indian breeds, the Combai lacks a major breed club dedicated to promoting and protecting it, and it is unclear how much interest there is in creating one. Although the Combai has occasionally made appearances in Indian dog shows, the breed is a very rare sight in the show ring. Bred almost exclusively as working dogs, the vast majority of Combais remain unpedigreed and unregistered. This lack of registration has meant that many breeders have extensively crossed their Combais with other breeds and mixed breed dogs. Purebred Combais are now owned by a very small number of breeders and kennels in Tamil Nadu, and their numbers are continuing to drop. The Combai is so rare that most dog experts believe that the breed is very close to total extinction, and that it will disappear entirely within the near future unless something is done to save it.
Because the Combai is not bred to a unifying standard is frequently crossed with other dogs, the Combai exhibits much greater variation in appearance than is common among modern breeds. In fact, it is very difficult to make anything other than very loose generalizations about the breed’s appearance. The Combai is a medium-sized breed, although the actual height and weight of individual dogs varies tremendously. This breed has a very natural appearance and lacks any feature that would impair its working ability or ability to survive. The Combai is an incredibly muscular and athletic breed, but should always look lean and fit rather than stocky or bulky. Some individuals are built more like a Catahoula Leopard Dog while others are built more like a Borzoi. The tail of the Combai is quite variable, ranging from medium to long and from straight to completely curled in an upright circle over the back.
The head and face of the Combai are relatively narrow, but are significantly wider than those of most sighthounds. The muzzle and skull of this breed are usually not entirely distinct and blend in very smoothly with each other. The muzzle is quite long, usually at least as long as the skull, and normally tapers slightly from the base to the tip. Although not especially wide, the muzzle of the Combai is usually significantly wider and more powerful than most similar breeds. The ears of the Combai are also quite variable. They usually either drop down from the sides of the head or fold backwards, but many individuals have significantly different ears or even two different ears.
The coat of the Combai is probably the breed’s defining characteristic, and indeed is what most separates the breed from other Indian dogs. Like most Indian dogs, the Combai has a short, smooth coat which both keeps the breed cool in the Indian sun and allows it to more easily find and kill parasites. The coat is generally uniform in length over the entire body but is often slightly shorter on the head, face, and fronts of the legs. The coat’s most important feature is a distinctive ridge of hair along the top of the back that grows in a different direction from the rest of the coat. This ridge is very similar to those found on the Rhodesian and Thai Ridgebacks, although it is often not quite as pronounced or large. The Combai varies substantially in terms of coloration, but most breed members are primarily rich red, tan, or brown. Most breed members are significantly darker on the backs and sides than they are on the chest and underbelly. The vast majority of breed members also have black masks covering their muzzles and black markings on the ears, but some do not possess these markings. Many Combais also have white markings on the chest, underbelly, and feet, although this is less common than the black mask.
The Combai’s temperament is the breed’s defining characteristic and is the primary reason that the breed has been kept for centuries. Many sources compare the breed to the Rottweiler and Bull Terrier. The Combai is known to be an incredibly fierce and savage breed towards its enemies, whom it will fight fearlessly to the death. It comes as a surprise to most that know of the breed due to its legendary ferocity that the Combai also makes an affectionate and loyal companion. This is a breed that forms an intensely close bond with its family. Combais want to be in the constant company of their families, and absolutely thrive on human companionship. This breed is also known to be exceptionally loyal, and some sources indicate that it can be very difficult to rehome. Combais lived in close quarters with the families that they protected, and had to be tolerant and gentle with children. When properly trained and socialized with them, most Combais are very good with children and are said to be especially fond of playing with them. Because this breed can develop aggression issues, it is not a good choice for a novice dog owner.
This is definitely a breed that prefers to be in the company of its own family to strangers. The Combai has been kept as a guard dog for centuries, and most breed members are highly suspicious of strangers. Proper training and socialization is absolutely essential for a Combai. With it, most breed members become highly discerning guardians that are more than capable of determining what is a true threat. Without it, this breed may develop aggression issues and potentially severe ones. The Combai is very territorial, extremely protective, and constantly on the alert making it an excellent watchdog. This is a dog whose bark is much worse that its bite, however, and a Combai makes an excellent guard dog that will not allow an intruder to enter its property uninvited. The Combai is said to be completely fearless when doing its job, and unhesitatingly attacks tigers, lions, bears, and armed human assailants. This breed also makes a peerless personal protection animal as anyone who attempts to harm a member of a Combai’s family will have to go through the dog first, and almost certainly kill it.
The Combai was developed to hunt and protect against the largest and most dangerous predators on earth. This breed is usually extremely animal aggressive and will probably attempt to attack and kill any canine animal that it senses. Most breed members will be trustworthy and quite protective over individual animals that they were raised with and believe are members of its pack, but will still probably attempt to attack animals with which they are not familiar. Although generally not as dog aggressive as many guardian breeds, the Combai is known to exhibit dog aggression issues especially territorial ones. Dog aggression is extremely serious in the Combai as this dog is an incredibly determined fighter. The Combai will usually be trustworthy with other dogs with which it has been raised but usually does best as either a single dog or in a home with a single member of the opposite sex.
Because the Combai is almost exclusively used as a guard and hunting dog, there are almost no reports as to its trainability other than for those tasks although it is said to take to both naturally with essentially no training. Most sources claim that the breed is highly intelligent and very eager to please its master. Some even claim that it is among the easiest of the native Indian breeds to train. Given what else is known about the Combai’s temperament, this breed probably requires an experienced trainer that is able to maintain a constant position dominance. Like most hunting breeds, the Combai usually becomes so intensely focused on the chase that it can be impossible to call back. For this reason the breed should be kept on a leash at all times when not in a safely enclosed areas.
The Combai is a very active and athletic dog that requires a substantial amount of exercise. Individual breed members vary tremendously in their exercise requirements, with hunting lines usually requiring more and guarding lines usually requiring less. All breed members should receive at least 45 minutes to an hour of vigorous daily exercise, although would ideally receive more. The Combai makes an excellent jogging and bicycling companion, but truly craves an opportunity to run around freely in a securely enclosed area. Breed members that do not receive sufficient exercise are very likely to develop behavioral problems such as destructiveness, hyperactivity, excessive barking, over excitability, and aggression. Because of the Combai’s exercise requirements, the breed adapts very poorly to apartment life although it usually adjusts well to life in the suburbs.
The Combai is a very low maintenance breed. This breed should never require professional grooming, only an occasional brushing. Other than that, only those routine maintenance procedures which all breeds require such as tail clipping and ear cleaning are necessary. There do not appear to be any reports as to the Combai’s shedding. It is probably safe to assume that the Combai does shed, although almost certainly very lightly.
It does not appear as though any health studies have been conducted on the Combai, which makes it impossible to make any definitive statements on the breed’s health. Most fanciers seem to believe the breed is in excellent health, and it does not appear that the Combai suffers from any genetically inherited conditions at high rates. In fact, this breed is known to be incredibly disease and parasite resistant, a necessity for a dog native to the tropics. Other ridgebacked breeds such as the Rhodesian Ridgeback and Thai Ridgeback are known to be highly susceptible to an intensely painful and often fatal spinal condition known as dermoid sinus. However, it does not appear that this condition has been recorded in the Combai. There do not appear to be any reliable life expectancy statistics on the Combai, but any that existed would probably be highly skewed by the fact that dogs in India live several years less on average than Western dogs do to superior diet and veterinary care.
Although skeletal and visual problems are not thought to occur at high rates in this breed it is highly advisable for owners to have their pets tested by both the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF). The OFA and CERF perform genetic and other tests to identify potential health defects before they show up. This is especially valuable in the detection of conditions that do not show up until the dog has reached an advanced age, making it especially important for anyone considering breeding their dog to have them tested to prevent the spread of potential genetic conditions to its offspring.
Although health studies have not been conducted for the Combai, a number have been on similar and closely related breeds. Some of the problems of greatest concern hound in those breeds include: