Korean Sapsaree bounce back from the brink

On assignment for National Geographic Korea.

Ha Ji-Hong, a U.S. educated geneticist and professor at South Korea’s Kyungpook National University has combined traditional breeding with advances in modern DNA technology to bring the Sapsaree breed back from the brink of extinction. Decades of colonial occupation, war and poverty took an immense toll on the Korean peninsula, not only in the millions of dead but also on one of the countries beloved and traditional breeds of dog, the Sapsaree who’s name means “the dogs that ward off evil spirits or misfortune” and look similar to a sheep dog.

During the Japanese occupation the Sapsaree, prized for its thick, warm coat was killed and nearly wiped out. By the mid-1980s only eight remained, says Dr. Ha. Thanks mainly to Dr. Ha the breed has made a strong comeback. “Restoring the Sapsaree with only eight dogs was not easy,” he said, due to financial and veterinary problems. 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. 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. In 1992 the South Korean government recognized the Sapsaree as a national treasure, which allowed Dr. Ha to receive funding to continue his work.

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.'”