Dog Tales

Although in cities like Los Angeles we tend to see Korean Americans with their pint-sized, sweater-wearing dogs stuffed into designer bags, the truth is that the only three known dogs native to Korea would hardly fit into a purse (at least, not the grown-up size), nor could any of them stand for it.

The Sapsaree, the Jindo and the Poongsan, instead, are formidable dogs, known for their strength, smarts and intense loyalty to their masters. Indeed, each canine has some legend-worthy tale of heroism attached to it. In the pages that follow, award-winning photojournalist HYUNGWON KANG, currently a senior editor and photographer for Reuters, introduces us to these three gaes (dogs) in words and images.

Since reporting on the Jindo in the 1990s for his then-employer, the Los Angeles Times, Kang has emerged as quite the Korean dog authority, with multiple pages of his website dedicated to the Jindo in particular. Here, he shares some precious dog tales that illustrate the special role these canines play in Korean culture.

The Comeback Gae

The fluffy and faithful Sapsaree dogs may have become a remnant of the past, if not for the heroic efforts of a father and son who rescued the breed from extinction.

Two-month-old Sapsaree puppies are pictured at Gyeongsan Sapsaree Research Kennel in Gyeongsan, South Korea, on October 29, 2010.


A 300-year-old stone memorial located in Gumi, Gyeongsangbuk-do, tells the story of an aristocrat who, after too many drinks at a party, took a nap on a riverbank on his way home. When embers from his pipe started a brush fire as he lay sleeping, his faithful Sapsaree quickly jumped into the river and used its wet fur to douse the fire, saving its master at the cost of its own life.

Tributes like this one illustrate how beloved the Sapsaree once was to Koreans, though the breed is not as well-known today as the Jindo. That’s largely because the shaggy-haired medium-size dogs nearly went extinct.

Decades of brutal Japanese colonialism, war and poverty took a deadly toll not just on millions of Koreans, but on the dogs long valued for their loyalty who were slaughtered in huge numbers during the Japanese occupation of Korea. The Japanese military used the dogs’ fur to make winter coats for its soldiers confronting the extreme cold of Manchuria.

A 5-year-old piebald Sapsaree named Ahrongyee takes a morning run at Gyeongsan Sapsaree Research Kennel on October 29, 2010.

The Japanese occupation ended in 1945 with Japan’s defeat in World War II, but more hard times followed with the Korean War (1950-1953) and decades of poverty and reconstruction. When Koreans emerged from this turmoil, the Sapsarees, or Sapsar-gae, whose name literally means “the dogs that ward off evil spirits or misfortunes,” had all but disappeared. By 1985, only eight Sapsarees were known to remain in South Korea.

Almost a quarter-century later, the breed, declared Korea’s Natural Treasure No. 368 by the South Korean government in 1992, has made a remarkable comeback, thanks to the efforts of U.S.-educated geneticist Ha Ji-Hong, who combined traditional breeding with advances in modern DNA technology.

Ha’s interest in the dog began with his father, Dr. Ha Sung-jin, a professor of animal husbandry who had set up a kennel in Daegu to protect the 30 Sapsarees gathered after a nationwide collection of all remaining such purebreds from the late 1960s to 1972 by his two then-students, Tak Yeon-bin and Kim Hwa-sik. Tak and Kim, who would later become professors at Kyungpook National University, co-authored a landmark 1972 Sapsaree research report that documented what was left of the Sapsaree breed since the slaughtering by the Japanese government decades earlier.

When the younger Ha returned to South Korea in 1985 with a degree in microbiology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he told his father he was determined to save the Sapsarees.

“My father said to me, “Restoring a dog breed is a project fit for an English nobleman with unlimited capital. I don’t know how you’re going to take on such a challenge with your college professor’s salary,” Ha recalled.

“Restoring the Sapsaree breed with only eight dogs was not easy,” added the professor at South Korea’s Kyungpook National University.

One huge initial hurdle was overcoming canine parvovirus, a disease especially lethal to puppies. “Until current good-quality vaccines became available around 1995, we lost a lot of puppies to parvovirus every year,” Ha said.

As his father predicted, the ambitious project quickly strained the younger Ha’s limited financial budget, which came out of his own pocket. “I ended up liquidating all of our family assets, including farmland that I inherited from my father, to pay for the dog food, staff salary, vaccination costs and construction of the [Sapsaree research] kennel,” the scientist described.

Ssoidol, an 8-year-old yellow Sapsaree, performs for patients at a rehabilitation hospital in Yeongchan, South Korea, on October 29, 2010.

After repeated requests by Ha to get the South Korean government to address the plight of the Sapsarees, in 1992, the government formerly recognized the dog as a natural treasure and began providing some funding, but only for dog food and vaccinations. Ha continued to drain personal wealth and his English teacher wife Moon Soon-oh’s earnings to supplement the kennel’s operation costs. By 1995, he hit rock-bottom.

Seeking strength and comfort, he and his wife started attending predawn prayer services at a local church. There, Ha found much more than that. He said he found God and made many good friends, some of whom would help sustain his Sapsaree project.

He spoke of a donor from the church whose financial assistance was instrumental in keeping the project alive during that particularly difficult winter of 1995. When he thanked the donor, the latter modestly said, “It’s only right that I help out since Professor Ha is doing the work that I would like to do, but not able to.”

Other benevolent benefactors also made touching gestures. “We’ve had donors who sent us shoes and work clothes for the staff at the kennel,” Ha said. “My situation during my desperate moments was as if I was riding on the back of a tiger not knowing what to do.

“At several critical moments … God answered with people who I did not know coming out of nowhere to save me and the dogs from financial bankruptcy, and helped me avoid shutting down the kennel.”

To rebuild the Sapsaree population, Ha used inbreeding methods at the beginning until he had about 50 to 100 dogs. After five years, that population increased to 500. Ha and his research team then took DNA samples of every dog, weeding out undesirable traits to stabilize the breed. Today, Ha has 500 breedable-quality dogs, and there are more than 1,200 Sapsarees placed with families across South Korea.

A patient hugs a therapy dog named Supersoondol, a 12-year-old yellow Sapsaree.

Ha’s research team also launched an innovative program, called the “Healing Dog” project, which takes the dogs to various long-term care facilities to provide comfort to patients. Lee Dong-Hoon, a researcher who did his graduate dissertation on Sapsarees, said their “calm, gentle, patient and quiet temperament, and more importantly huggable size,” make them favorites among patients.

“Many patients at long-term residential psychiatric facilities who seldom respond to medical staff have shown less hesitant interactions with Sapsarees,” Lee noted. “A patient who hasn’t uttered a single word in several years was heard speaking about the dog when a Sapsaree entered his room.”

At a recent visit to another facility, patients lined up for an opportunity to pet and hug a Sapsaree, Lee said. He heard one child patient, the victim of bullying, whisper into the dog’s ear, “Only you understand how I feel.”


Fierce and Formidable

The Poongsan gae of North Korea, the world’s least-known breed.

A Korean Poongsan dog runs in a courtyard at North Korea’s Pyongyang Zoo.


Finding the Poongsan gae in North Korea 15 years ago was not easy. During my 1995 trip there, I searched high and low for a glimpse of this little-known Northern breed. My guides finally took me to Pyongyang Zoo, where Poongsan dogs, along with foreign breeds such as the German Shepherd and Labrador Retriever, were on display. I noticed the Poongsan dog had a larger frame and wider skull than its Southern cousin, the Jindo.

On my way out, the North Korean immigration officer at the airport told me, “With a proof of purchase and vaccination certificates, visitors can leave with any puppies purchased in the DPRK.” Had I known that earlier, I would have offered to purchase a Poongsan puppy I had seen at the zoo.

Of course, five years later, the North’s Natural Treasure, rarely seen outside of the country, made its way south. During South Korea’s “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with the North, North Korea sent a pair of Poongsan puppies as gifts for then-President Kim Dae-jung. They were raised at the Blue House and later sent to Seoul Grand Park so the public could view them. They remain at the zoo today and have produced many puppies, which have been sent to other regional zoos and even to the private homes of South Korean dog fanciers.

As a rule, Poongsan and Jindo dogs, both belonging to the Northern Spitz Breeds, must have erect ears. But the puppies that were born from the Poongsan gae have varying looks, some with erect ears and some with semi-erect ears with a front flap that folds forward. Traditionally, the dogs have been used to hunt large animals, and some North Korean sources told me that Russian hunters have even used them to go after Siberian tigers. I’ve watched a North Korean video showing a Poongsan overpower a larger German Shepherd.

I’m planning a trip to document the Poongsan dogs in the Poongsan region of North Korea from which the breeds hails as soon as I can muster access. Stay tuned.

The Jindo: Canine Royalty

With amazing stories of the Jindos’ exceptional hunting skills and devotion to their masters abounding, it’s no wonder these canines remain a beloved Korean natural treasure.


Two-year-old white Jindo Demi, originally from Jindo Island, keeps watch as she nurses her puppies in Montrose, Calif.


Anecdotes about the incredible loyalty and superior hunting skills of the Jindo gae (dog) are quite commonplace among Koreans. Perhaps you’ve heard this one, or one like it: A 5-year-old female Jindo named Baek-ku was sold from Jindo Island to a family in Daejeon, some 300 kilometers away. Within days of arriving in her new home, the white-furred Baek-ku cuts off her leash with her teeth and runs away. Seven months later—and several pounds lighter—she shows up at her original master’s home.

I also have my own firsthand tale, a testament to the fact that Jindos never forget their original master. When I was about to move from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., in 1997, I left Dol, one of my Jindo dogs, with my aunt. Six years later, during a visit to Los Angeles, I stopped by my aunt’s home for a fourth of July barbecue. While I was exchanging greetings with relatives, I felt a gentle lick on my hand. Dol was standing behind me, wagging his tail. I almost cried.

A 12-week old tan Jindo puppy named Chelsea, pictured in Los Angeles

To say that the Jindo, named after the island from which the natural breed originated, is man’s best friend would be understating its place in Korean culture. This preeminent hunting dog is as much a Korean staple as rice and kimchi, only Koreans don’t eat the former. (Noorungyee dogs, with larger frames and meatier bodies, are considered the edible variety. Besides, Jindos are too expensive to eat.)

Images of the canine can be found in ancient Korean tomb murals. And even the Japanese colonial government, during its 35-year occupation of Korea, spared the Jindo from its general practice of slaughtering Korean dogs for fur coats, recognizing it as the ancestor breed to most Japanese medium-sized dogs.

The Jindo gae is also quite handsome. It has a coarse, medium-length coat and Gingko nut-shaped eyes. It boasts the lean body of a marathoner, capable of running long distances and moving up and down mountainsides almost effortlessly. The dogs are instinctive hunters, said to recognize and remember more than 30,000 different scents. In addition, they make excellent house dogs because of their unique sense of cleanliness. They never poop or pee inside the house.

Recently, the Los Angeles Police Department decided to tap Korea’s Natural Monument No. 53 and traveled to Jindo Island last November to recruit two puppies for possible use in the department’s K-9 unit. According to my source at the LAPD, the Jindo pups, now situated in the City of Angels, are
said to be doing well. They are still being evaluated and are not old enough to work yet, he said. The LAPD received special permission to do this, as it is illegal under Korean law to take the prized dogs who are older than three months old off the island without the authorization of the Jindo County office. This is to keep older breedable dogs in the gene pool, and there’s also a law prohibiting people from bringing in other breeds to the island in order to protect the Jindos’ purity.

Puppies younger than three months old, however, are legal to sell, and those Jindos outside of the island are free to travel anywhere, including overseas. Since the late 1980s, Korean Americans have been bringing Jindos to the United States. I saw my first Jindo in person when a friend presented a puppy to my family in the early 1990s. It was an American-born Jindo whose mother came from Jindo Island. Soon after, while reporting a story about the dogs for my employer at the time, the Los Angeles Times, I visited and met just about all the Jindos and their owners in Los Angeles and Orange counties, just as the “first wave” of such canines were landing in the United States.

This U.S-born Jindo dog, named Jindo, runs through a stream in Angeles National Forest in Los Angeles.

After my full-page photo essay was published in the Times, I was flooded with requests for more information. In 1995, I published some detailed Jindo information on my home page (, and 15 years later, I’m still answering Jindo queries from all over the world.

Unlike most modern breeds of dogs around the world, Jindos were, for the most part, left on their own for centuries. The physical isolation of being native to the island of Jindo at the southwestern tip of Korea had much to do with that. The island is so remote that, in ancient Korean kingdoms, kings would exile disagreeable subjects to Jindo.

Even today, urban rules, such as keeping dogs on leashes, don’t apply on the island, and the vast majority of the 7,000 Jindo dogs there are unleashed and uncaged.

For a time, the dogs were rarely seen in mainland Korea until a bridge connecting the island to the mainland was erected in 1984. “Officially, about 2,500 puppies are exported out of the island annually,” said Kim Young-Hee, director of Jindo County’s Jindo-gae Department, which oversees the management and promotion of the breed’s population on the island.

The department evaluates all Jindo dogs on the island at about age 1 for their looks (everything from the size and shape of their head, to their teeth, eye color and tail functionality), gait and temperament. They are vaccinated for free and, except for the dogs that score below 60 out of 100 on their evaluation, their owners even receive government assistance for dog food. Owners with dogs who don’t score at least 60 points are strongly discouraged from breeding them.

Some argue that the bridge connecting Jindo to the Korean mainland has contributed to the loss of quality Jindo gaes on the island. “Within days of the Jindo dog show, the champion stud dog would disappear from the island,” said Chun Young-ahm, former head of the Jindo Dog Cooperative, a group of Jindo fanciers who promote the sale of the dogs to help local farmers. “Mainlanders would show up with bundles of money and buy out the champion dog, never to return the dog to the island’s gene pool.”

He also described a growing problem of families who don’t want to raise Jindos. “With most young people leaving for the city, many homes that used to have five to seven people of multiple generations with one or two Jindos are now only occupied by elderly members,” Chun said. “Raising Jindos is too much trouble for some elderly who want to visit their children and grandchildren without having to worry about their dogs.”


City Dog vs. Island Dog

Those Jindos raised in various metropolitan Korean cities are quite different from the Jindos raised on the island, noted Yim Tae-young, one of the judges in the national Jindo dog show. Since 2005, the annual event, usually held in October or November, has allowed city Jindos to enter what has traditionally been a showcase for island dogs.

“Dogs from the city are well-groomed and good-looking, but they lack the Jindo Island dog’s original feel,” said Yim, one of the most prominent authorities on the breed. “The island dogs freely play with scores of other village dogs, all leash-free, in rain, snow or any kind of natural environment,”
he described. “We never have any dog-aggression problems here. [But] dogs from the city show rigidness, absence of free-spirit and … anxieties from being tied down or being in closed confines. Therefore, they are not as relaxed, and they lack hunting abilities.”

Notably, it’s not just Koreans from Jindo Island concerned about preserving the original Jindo gae qualities that have distinguished the breed for centuries. Kyong Taek Chong, of McAllen, Texas, has been bringing Jindos to the United States since 1993. He started out with eight and now has 126 American-born Jindos at his five-acre ranch. His dogs are said to have the look and temperament of the originals.

But that has come at a deep cost. His first wife, and mother of their three children, left him after he quit his successful wholesale and retail leather bag business and spent the family’s life savings to run the Jindo ranch full-time. He has even paid to have experts assess his dogs.

Martin Helan, a renowned dog trainer from New York City, called Chong’s purebreds highly intelligent and easy to train. “Sometimes I only have to teach [them something] three times before they learn the routine,” said Helan, referring to the Jindo breed. “Other times, they figure out things on their own. Most dogs need treats or tug-pull rewards, but not Jindos. They love to please the master.”

Helan, however, added that the dogs are almost too smart and can get bored easily. “My training involves teaching Jindo owners to escalate praise as the dogs learn new tasks,” he said.

Chong’s attachment to Jindos can be traced back to his childhood, which was spent playing with the dogs in the mountains of Gyeonggi-do, just north of Seoul. When he was in middle school, he would take his grandfather’s Jindos to a stream by the hillside for bathing. He fondly recalls hiking with them and playing hide-and-seek, calling out the dogs’ names as he concealed himself amongst tall mountain shrubs.

Over the past 18 years, Chong has placed more than 350 puppies with families all over the United States, including with some Hollywood luminaries, as well as in Canada and Europe. One of Chong’s puppies sent to France was among 20 winners, out of 3,700 puppies, crowned at the prestigious Paris
International Dog Show.

Chong’s dream is to leave a legacy of purebred Jindos in the United States for future generations. It’s a vision that his formerly estranged sons from his first marriage—now collegeaged—have come to accept and understand about their father.

“They told me that they now understand what I’m doing,” said Chong. “And they say that Dad has done the right thing.”