Korean Sapsaree dogs bounce back from the brink

GYEONGSAN, South Korea (Reuters Life!) - Decades of colonial occupation, war and poverty took a deadly toll not just on millions of Koreans but also one of the country’s traditional and beloved breeds of dogs.

Sapsaree puppies stand in their cage in Gyeongsan, South Korea October 29, 2010. Sapsarees, shaggy-haired dogs long valued for their loyalty, were killed in large numbers by the Japanese military during the period of Japanese colonial rule, but have since made a comeback thanks to Ha Ji-Hong, a U.S.-educated geneticist who combined traditional breeding with advances in modern DNA technology. REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang

Sapsarees, shaggy-haired dogs long valued for their loyalty, were killed in large numbers by the Japanese military, which used their fur to make winter coats for its soldiers serving in the extreme cold of Manchuria, as documented in government records during the period of Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945).

When South Korea emerged from the turmoil of two wars and decades of poverty, the medium-sized Sapsaree, whose name means “the dogs that ward off evil spirits or misfortune” and which resembles a sheepdog, had all but disappeared.

By the mid-1980s, only eight remained, says Ha Ji-Hong, a U.S.-educated geneticist.

But now the breed has made a remarkable comeback, thanks largely to Ha, a professor at South Korea’s Kyungpook National University, who combined traditional breeding with advances in modern DNA technology.

“Restoring the Sapsaree breed with only eight dogs was not easy,” he said, citing financial and veterinary woes.

Sapsarees, sometimes also spelled Sapsali, are one of three dog breeds native to Korea, along with the Jindo and Poongsan. The first known record of Sapsarees appears in an ancient tomb mural from the Three Kingdom period from 37 B.C.-668 A.D.

Ha’s father, a professor of animal husbandry, had set up a kennel to protect the few remaining purebred Sapsarees in the 1960s, with around 30 dogs. By the time the younger Ha returned in 1985 with a U.S. PhD, only eight dogs remained.

“The thought of Sapsarees being gone forever was like a jolt to my thoughts and it woke me up to take on the challenge” of preserving the breed, he said.

“My father told 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 added.

This proved true. Ha ended up selling all his family assets, including farmland that he inherited from his father.

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He had to use inbreeding methods at first to build the population to around 50 to 100. After five years, the population had increased to 500 dogs.

He and his research team then took DNA samples from every dog, weeding out undesirable traits to stabilize the breed.

Problems included canine parvovirus, especially lethal to puppies, until good quality vaccines became available in 1995.


But help arrived in 1992, when the South Korean government recognized the Sapsaree as a national treasure and began providing funds for dog food and vaccinations.

Today, Ha has 500 breedable-quality dogs and there are more than 1,200 Sapsarees placed with families across South Korea.

The breed’s loyalty is legendary.

A 300-year-old stone memorial in southeastern South Korea tells the story of an aristocrat who took a nap on a riverbank after too many drinks at a party.

Embers from his pipe started a brush fire as he slept. His faithful Sapsaree jumped into the river and used its wet fur to douse the fire and save its master at the cost of its own life.

This loyalty, combined with the animal’s gentle and quiet temperament, have made Sapsaree dogs ideal as therapy animals. They have been used for this in hospitals since 1999.

Lee Dong-Hoon, a researcher who did his graduate dissertation on Sapsarees, said their personality and huggable size -- they are 46-56 cm (18-22 inches) tall and weigh 16-26 kg (35-57 lbs) -- make them favorites among hospital patients.

“Children who are recovering from bullying by other children find themselves opening up to Sapsarees,” he added.

“I saw a patient who was whispering into one Sapsaree’s ears, ‘Only you understand how I feel.’”

Editing by Elaine Lies