[Visual History of Korea] Tough competition in Korea to be man’s best friend

A Sapsali named Gang runs in Gyeongsan, North Gyeongsang ProvincePhoto © 2020 Hyungwon Kang

Korea has designated three native dog breeds as natural landmarks, and two more breeds are gearing up for future protection designations.

Jindo (Natural Monument No.53), Sapsali (Natural Monument No.368) and Donggyeongi (Natural Monument No.540) are protected by law and by the respective local governments ensure the preservation of the native dog breeds of Korea.

One of the earliest evidence of dogs in Korea is a prehistoric rock carving showing a dog, along with wild animals, at the Bangudae Petroglyphs in Ulju, near Ulsan.

The Stone Age Neolithic sculpture on a vertical cliff shows a dog with an oval chest and arched back, with the tail pointing upwards – a typical image of the native Korean dog breed.

Dogs, one of the first domesticated animals, moved with humans on their migration in search of food and safe places to live. Man’s best friend has helped humans hunt, keep us safe, and keep us company. Because dogs have always been with us, domestic dogs are a walking history book when we examine their DNA.

Dog remains have been found in ancient archaeological digs, and modern science has been able to decipher the genome to define how modern breeds relate to ancient dogs.

Preliminary research on the DNA of Korean dogs gives us encyclopedic information about their history and therefore their family tree.

A team of researchers in Seoul are awaiting peer review of a research paper that preliminary shows the heterogeneous genetic makeup of the Sapsali breed. “This means that genome data from other Asian dogs exists in the Sapsali breed, but not the other way around,” said one of the researchers.

Sapsali dogs are found at the top of the genetic hierarchy of East Asian dogs, including the Jindo, Donggyeongi, Pekingese, Pug, Shih Tzu, Tibetan Mastiff, and Tibetan Terrier breeds.

Sapsali dogs in Korean culture are defined as all long-haired dogs. Sapsali’s heterogeneous gene pool led to the rediscovery of the Spotted Sapsali, better known in Korean history as Baduki, born with the long-haired Sapsali, who appears in paintings of the Joseon period.

This is likely the result of a long history of unattached or fenced dogs in rural villages until modern leash laws required all dogs to be kept on a leash when they are outdoors.

During my research visit in the 1990s to Jindo, the island’s native dogs guarded their owners’ houses by sitting in the middle of the road in front of the houses, only getting up to give in to oncoming cars. . They would come back to the middle of the road once the cars had passed. The Jindo dogs running free in the village got along without any territorial conflict, but there was definitely order and hierarchy among the dogs.

One of the local families I interviewed did not know which dog sired their puppies. Natural selection took place at night, with the dominant male Jindo circling the island competing for mating opportunities. “I never know who sired my puppies,” said female owner Jindo with a litter. “Male Jindo dogs only visit under cover of darkness.”

Jindo dogs await visitors with treats at Jindo Theme Park on Jindo Island, South Jeolla Province.  Photo © 2020 Hyungwon Kang

Jindo dogs await visitors with treats at Jindo Theme Park on Jindo Island, South Jeolla Province. Photo © 2020 Hyungwon Kang

Natural selection on the island meant there was healthy genetic diversity in the Jindo dogs.

This ancient Jindo breed of dogs is known for their intelligence, exceptional hunting skills, intense loyalty, incredible ability to return home, sometimes hundreds of miles away, and the overall absence of genetic defects. Natural selection was responsible for the strength and health of the breed, which lived on the island, isolated from the mainland, for centuries, until a 484-meter-long bridge connected the island to the mainland in 1984. Another bridge was added the following year to the original in 2005 to double its traffic carrying capacity.

In the 1930s during the Japanese colonial period, with the exception of the Jindo dog breed, all other dog breeds were threatened with extinction when they were slaughtered to make winter coats for the Japanese army. Korea has lost most of its native races.

But there are places so remote in Korea, mostly in the mountains, that some Sapsali survived the massacre.

Ha Seong-Jin, professor of veterinary medicine at Kyungpook National University, herded a few dozen Sapsali dogs – the last known group of Sapsali dogs – in the 1960s.

When Ha’s son Ha Ji-hong, who had just returned with his doctorate in microbial genetics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, saw his father’s Sapsali dogs, the breed was in danger of extinction.

The young researcher finally switched his field of research to animal genetics and proceeded with the restoration of the Sapsali breed. That was over 35 years ago.

The fact that the future of the Sapsali breed was not determined by commercial dog breeders but rather by a non-profit organization made for the best possible outcome for the breed.

The Sapsali population does not have any known defects or genetic issues that are prevalent in purebred dogs.

A Donggyeongi named Seok-dol in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province Photo © 2020 Hyungwon Kang

A Donggyeongi named Seok-dol in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province Photo © 2020 Hyungwon Kang

Donggyeongi, the dog of Gyeongju Donggyeong, Natural Monument No. 540, was the last to join the ranks of the protected native breed.

On the outside, Donggyeongi resembles Jindo dogs except for the naturally cut tail. Like other Korean native breeds, Donggyeongi is gentle with children and humans, but fiercely dominant among dogs.

By Hyungwon Kang ([email protected])

Korean-American photojournalist and columnist Hyungwon Kang is currently documenting Korean history and culture in pictures and words for future generations. – Ed.

By Korea Herald ([email protected])


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