DOG ISLANDJindo Island, South Jeolla
The ride in a cab from the Jindo bus terminal to my designated location was like a ride in a bumper car.
It was a stop-and-go ride all the way, not because of the traffic lights but because of the numerous dogs that crisscrossed the street on this remote, southwestern rock off the South Korean coast. The bus terminal was located in Jindo, which is the main town on Jindo Island, making up all of Jindo County.
The landscape here is rice paddies and small hills. The cab driver seemed to be in his comfort zone despite all the disruptions, a sure sign that he was used to all the activity on the roads. Soon the cab arrived at my destination: the Jindo Dog Research Center.
The center is a symbol of Korea's effort to preserve a particular dog breed called the Jindo, which is wide- spread in South Korea and is said to have originated on this island.
Many of the dogs in the countryside are mongrels and people call them just that. Nevertheless, one breed, the Jindo, is widely accepted as Korea’s national dog.
In fact, the Jindo might become the country's first dog to gain official recognition outside the peninsula.
“I hope everything works out just fine,” says Park Byung-joo, manager of the Jindo Dog Research Center. Mr. Park is talking about the center's effort to get official recognition from The Kennel Club in Britain, which is considered the most prestigious institution in the dog world. Last December, a delegation was sent to London to begin work introducing the Jindo to the world. A full-grown Jindo and five puppies accompanied the delegation. The adult Jindo is scheduled to appear at a dog show in London for the first time next month.
While Jindo County provided the Jindo dogs, Everland, an amusement park south of Seoul that includes a zoo and is an affiliate of the Samsung Group, took the necessary steps to get world-wide recognition for Korea’ s top dog by planning the trip as well as a long-term strategy to get recognition for the Jindo. People like Ha Woo-jong, an official with Everland, feel that it is time for a change. “The Jindo is only known in Korea, while the country is famous, or if you will, notorious, for eating dogs but not for having great dogs. Japan already has six registered dogs with the club. Korea has none. We are trying to change that.”
Jang Jae-won, another official with Everland, says that getting recognition won’t be an overnight decision. “It won't be an easy decision. The Kennel Club will breed the Jindo for two or three generations to see whether the characteristics are passed down. So, what we are looking at is a minimum three to four years of waiting before a final decision is made.” According to the center, a typical Jindo can reach a height of 45 to 53 centimeters (17 to 20 inches) depending on the gender, while a full grown one weighs approximately 18 to 20 kilograms (40 to 44 pounds). The Jindo is categorized as a medium-sized dog, comparable in size to, say, a boxer. The Jindo comes in one of seven colors, while the white Jindo also called the baeku and the brown Jindo, called hwanggu, are the dominant colors.
Lee Gae-woong, a veterinarian with the center, adds that the tail of a Jindo has to point upward while the ears should be sharp and also pointing toward the sky. The veterinarian concedes that the Jindo might have been utilized as food long ago, but at the turn of the 20th century the Jindo evolved into a watchdog and hunting dog.
The Jindo is known for being fiercely loyal. Recently, when the owner of a Jindo died, the Jindo guarded the man for more than 10 days without moving or eating. When people tried to remove the body, they had to sedate the dog before the corpse could be touched. Another Jindo, sold to someone living in Daejon, fled to Jindo County, covering a distance of more than 300 kilometers (180 miles) just to get back to his old owner. It is none other than this fierce loyalty that has made this dog so famous ― at least in Korea.
Park Jong-hwan, who works as an assistant at the Jindo Dog Research Center, says, “At home we have our own Jindo. My father is a fisherman, and when he comes home and sounds the whistle on his boat, our dog just goes crazy. Sometimes, I think he is almost human.”
There are various stories that explain the existence of the Jindo on the peninsula. One theory is that during the Korea Dynasty (892-1392) the Mongols invaded and left some dogs that became the ancestor of today's Jindo. Another belief suggests that the ancestors of the Jindo were dogs brought in from Mongolia during the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910). During this period Jindo was a farm belonging to the royal household and needed dogs for various functions such as watchdogs and for herding. Nevertheless, according to the research center, more weight is given to the theory that Jindo Island had its own distinguished dog that kept its original form throughout the years without many alterations due to the isolated geography of the island.
The Jindo was nearly wiped out during the 1950s due to the hardships of the Korean War and a lack of interest in the dog. However, under the guidance of the government, the Jindo was named a natural treasure in December 1962. Five years later, a special law for the protection of the Jindo was passed.
As a result of the continuous effort, there are an estimated 12,000 baekgu and 5,000 hwanggu on Jindo Island, bred by individuals and at special breeding farms.
Virtually all employees at the research center are natives of the county, which has approximately 41, 000 or so inhabitants. A veterinarian, two researchers, a manager and three assistants make up the bulk of the personnel that works at the research center, where about 100 Jindos are being researched. The center consists of two main buildings that serve as quarters, hospital, and a training ground and housing for the dogs. Here, Jindos are crossbred, carefully observed and studied so that only the best characteristics of the Jindo are preserved and passed along.
The assistants at the center are locals, and according to Mr. Park the help he gets is more than enough. “Most of the people here breed their own Jindo as a watchdog or for selling purposes. So when they come here to work, we don't need to teach them a lot. They are as good as it gets.”
Before the center was established in November of 1999, efforts to breed the Jindo professionally were not systematic. In 1988, villages were appointed by Jindo County to breed the dog. Some communities would breed only white Jindos. Others only brown dogs. Some villagers would chase after other dogs with brooms to keep that village pure. Nowadays, things are much different.
Twice each year, in the spring and summer, a group of officials, including a veterinarian, a county official and a Jindo dog specialist from the center, makes its rounds in the county. The group acts as a sort of quality control unit to ensure that only the best Jindos are bred in the county. Besides checking for illness and giving immunization shots, the unit places an electronic microchip in the neck of a Jindo that has met quality standards.
People that breed Jindos en masse in order to sell them receive word that the officials are paying a visit to their village through the village’s loudspeaker system or via village heads. Owners of individual dogs are told to take their Jindos to designated areas for inspection.
On the peninsula, there are about 12 farms that breed around 100 Jindos or more.
The microchip usually implanted on the upper part of a Jindo’s neck makes it possible to trace its parents, ensuring that the Jindo is pure. The chip contains information on the parents and the owner of the dog while the information is registered with Jindo county. According to Mr. Park, a dog has to be approximately 35 days to 60 days old to receive a test.
What happens to dogs that fall short of the judging criteria, such as not having an upward pointing tail? “Well, we tell the owners to get rid of the dogs. Most of them sell them but there are people who choose to keep their dogs. So there is a possibility that not every Jindo here is pure although the physical appearance is almost identical,” says Mr. Park.
If you want to buy a genuine Jindo, Mr. Park says that a puppy’s papers must show the history of the parents if quality is to be assured. In short, a 100 percent pure Jindo is a dog born on Jindo Island and has a pedigree that can be authenticated.
To keep the characteristics of the Jindo stable over generations the local law forbids anyone to take a Jindo from the island after the dog is six months old.
The center’s long-term strategy is to make the island a homeground for Jindos that will serve as standard examples of how a typical Jindo should look, while over time, by exporting these dogs to the main peninsula, it hopes to stabilize the breed throughout the country.
As he drove me back to the bus terminal, Mr. Park was careful not to speed too much as he maneuvered his blue pickup truck through the streets of the island. This requires work, for Jindo dogs seem to appear along every curve of every street.
“Aren’t people afraid of a big dog wandering around the streets?” I asked.
Laughing loudly, the manager shakes his head, “Are you kidding me? A Jindo is like family to us. It will be interesting to see if they get voting rights! As you can see, the whole island is a gaepan.”
In Korean, gaepan means “a mess, utter confusion,” but in this case Mr. Park used the word literally. Meaning simply: a place full of dogs.
by Brian Lee