A Sheepdog of Korean descent, the Sapsali is one of four dog breeds native to that country; the others being the Korean Jindo Dog, Korean Dosa Mastiff, and Poong San. Over the centuries the Sapsali has also been known by the names “Sapsal Gae” (gae meaning dog) and more commonly, the “Sapsaree”; the latter being the original Korean term to identify this breed for centuries. In Korean, the name is translated as “sap” meaning to dig out, and “sar” meaning ghost, giving the Korean meaning of the Sapsaree name to mean a dog that roots out evil. Ancient adage tells that the Sapsali/Sapsaree breed “drives away ghosts” and gives weight to this claim by saying “a ghost dare not appear when there is a Sapsaree around.” These proverbs indicate that the Sapsali has been treasured by its homeland as a dog that dispels ghosts and evil spirits, as well as a dog that brings good fortune and blessings.
Early documentation of the Sapsali places the breed in existence as early as Korea’s Three Kingdom period, circa 37 BC to 668 AD. Tombs from this period contain murals displaying the breed, and ancient records indicate that by the Silla Dynasty, around 400 AD, the Sapsali breed was already an adored and cherished companion to those living in the royal houses during this time. So revered was this breed for their supposed ability to bring good fortune, that these dogs were often used as canine soldiers, brought along on war campaigns by General Kim Yoo Shin to bring good luck in his battles and to ward off the presence of evil.
Until this point, the Sapsali breed was raised and kept only by royalty; however, after the Silla Unification period, these dogs began to be kept and bred by non-royals; their new owners were mainly upper class citizens and members of the nobility. In the later periods of the Koryo and Chosun Dynasties, the Sapsali breed became more common with the average Korean and overtime, they became so popular that the breed could be found living amongst all classes of Koreans. The Sapsali breed continued to thrive and develop over the proceeding centuries.
World War I (WWI) would, however, have a major impact on the Sapsali and would modify the breed’s fate and destiny permanently. During WWI, government records indicate that during the Japanese Colonial Rule (1910-1945) the gruesome practice of killing shaggy-haired dogs to harvest the leather from their hides and the fur from their coats, as raw material for winter clothing worn by the Japanese military was rampant. The harsh Manchurian climate led to the slaughter of roughly 100,000 to 150,000 Sapsali every year during WWI and WWII. This information is according to the documentation kept by the Chosun Raw Hide Company, a business with government affiliations during the Japanese occupation of Korea.
During this time of the extreme massacre of helpless dogs, a member of the Sapsali breed could rarely be found. Where once this breed thrived in its native land, it was now used merely as a material commodity, a natural resource to be used up at man’s discretion. The Japanese, during the occupation, sought to eliminate the beautiful culture of Korea, and to impose their own heritage and preserve and develop native Japanese dog breeds such as the Akita, the Shiba, and the Hokkaido.
The Korean War in the 1950’s would cause further disruption to the country of Korea, their society and culture, and even their native Sapsali dog breed. The Japanese occupation, as well as the years of war would lead to the following decades being consumed in poverty and suffering, not only for the Korean people but also for their dogs. A purebred Sapsali was a rare sight in Korea at this time as the breed’s numbers had seen a massive decline from which it seemed challenging to recover.
Being on the verge of extinction, the Sapsali breed’s sad fate would come to the attention of some professors from the Kyungpook National University. In 1969, a search for any members of the Sapsali breed that had survived was conducted by these professors. The Kyungpook province would yield thirty members of the breed. The Professors set up a kennel to protect and develop the Sapsali breed, and to prevent their extinction.
It was not however; until the 1980’s that the breed would really be out of danger. Professor Ha Ji-Hong, an American educated geneticist returned home to Korea in 1985. His father had been one of the Professors responsible for establishing that first Sapsali kennel, and although they started with thirty dogs, by the time Ji-Hong returned, only eight dogs remained. Ji-Hong is quoted in a Reuter’s article as saying: “The thought of Sapsarees being gone forever was like a jolt to my thoughts and it woke me up to take on the challenge. 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.’”
Restoring the Sapsali breed would prove to be a struggle for Ji-Hong. Financially, the breed cost him most of his family’s assets, even inherited land he had received from his father. Using techniques of inbreeding he had learned in his studies, Ji-Hong quickly built the breed to a more substantial genetic sample; approximately 50 to 100 dogs. The following five years of breeding efforts would produce a population of Sapsali that boasted about 500 breed members. DNA samples were taken, and the adverse characteristics were weeded out of the genetic pool. With these efforts and the increase in population, the Sapsali/Sapsaree breed stabilized.
In 1992, the Sapsali breed was named a national treasure of Korea and assistance from governmental funds further assisted the breed’s development. These government funds even helped to sponsor a preservation project aimed at protecting this much beloved native breed. There are some who question the origins of the Sapsali, claiming that the original breed died out and that these new dogs are simply a modern creation, not deserving of national treasure status. It may never be known for sure if the ancient Sapsali breed was completely eliminated, or whether a few surviving members of the breed went on to father the modern line of Sapsali, but either way it does not take away from this breed’s popularity in their homeland.
The Sapsali breed is virtually unknown outside of their native Korea; however the breed has received much recognition in its homeland. Leading Korean dog clubs, The Korean Canine Club, and the Korean Kennel Club all recognize the Sapsali as a unique and specific breed. Although not currently recognized by any of the major kennel clubs in the West, the Korean Kennel Club is affiliated with the Federation Cynologique Internationale (FCI), which is a major international dog club. Supporters of the breed continue to strive for further recognition. The Korean Sapsaree Association was created to assist in the preservation and promotion of the breed and by 2007 the breed was numbering approximately 3000 members. In time, perhaps the numbers and admiration for the Sapsali breed will continue to increase, allowing the rest of the world to enjoy this peaceful, sweet, loving, and devote Korean breed.
Unfamiliar to the true large breed dogs, the ancient people of Korea considered the Sapsali to be a large and impressive sized dog. Its broad skull and large feet contributed to its impressive appearance and it was often referred to as a “lion dog”. In comparison; however, to the true large breed dogs the Sapsali is only of medium size; males are 20 to 23 inches in height and weigh between 40 and 62 pounds and females stand 19 to 22 inches and weigh 35 to 55 pounds.
The skull of the Sapsali is large and globular. The face is deep and profusely covered in “bangs”. The muzzle appears short due to thickness of hair, but is appropriately sized in comparison to the face. Sapsali have large, rounded eyes and they can be any range of brown in color. The ears are slightly large and hang close to the face. The upper lip of the Sapsali covers the lower lip, and the teeth display a scissors bite. The nose of the Sapsali is large and glossy; often dark in color, the nose can however, be reddish-brown in lighter colored dogs.
A thick, strong neck gives way to muscular and well-balanced shoulders, and upright front legs that are parallel and long. The ankles turn slightly at an angle. The back is straight, with a deep chest. The body is profusely covered in thick hair, making it appear very robust and thick. The hindquarter is well-developed with muscular legs and a broad and flat thigh. The feet are cat-like with tight, firm toes. Developed to walk on challenging terrain and for long distances, the foot is thick and hard. Dewclaws are sometimes present. The tail is held straight or dropping and is adequately covered in long, shaggy hair.
The coat of a Sapsali is generally long, but can vary significantly in texture. Some members of the breed have very curly hair while others have only wavy or even straight hair. They have a coat similar to other sheepdog breeds in that it is a double coat with a short, soft, and dense undercoat that is covered by a longer, harsh outer-coat.
The color of the Sapsali’s coat is mainly blue and yellow, but from these basic colors came a wide range of coats that can be displayed by this breed. These colors include reddish-brown (chocolate), completely blue/black, blue with yellow feet, blue with lighter tones, gold colored/yellow, yellow with lighter tones, yellow with white hair on its head, yellow and white hair mixed, a mixture of black blue and yellow, pure white, and spotted.
A dog legendary for their devotion, the Sapsali breed is known to be protective and tender. The breed is exceptionally loyal l to their master. The Sapsali is a superb watchdog as it is keenly aware of strangers that come into the area. They have a full and rich bark that is an easy disincentive to any possible intruders or those meaning the dog or its family harm. The Sapsali is cautious when dealing with and approaching strangers; however the dog is unlikely to be aggressive unless it is provoked. Once their master has greeted and is comfortable with the stranger, the Sapsali will often be as accepting as its master is of the new individual. Although never one to start a fight, if attacked the Sapsali is merciless. The breed’s general attitude toward other non-threatening animals is however, gracious and kind.
The Sapsali has a calm and gentle nature making them a friendly breed that is well behaved with children and an excellent family dog. Being an intelligent breed, the Sapsali relies on early training and socialization to establish proper behavior as an adult dog. To prevent the development of any possible aggressive tendencies, the Sapsali should be exposed to new people, places, and things as early and as often as possible when they are puppies, and this exposure should continue even into adolescence and adulthood. Exposing this breed to different situations will assists the dog in knowing what is and is not appropriate behavior.
Because the Sapsali is smart, and learns its lessons promptly, the breed will quickly understand what actions it will be commended for and as this breed learns through praise, they will continue to emulate those good behaviors. Sapsali have an innate desire to please their masters and because of this and the breed’s level of intelligence, even without special attention or instruction, they are an easily trainable breed.
These characteristics make the Sapsali an excellent candidate for therapy work, and their calm temperament only serves to further their success in this area. They have been used as therapy dogs in hospitals effectively since 1999. Their gentle demeanor and kind nature are shown to have a great affect on recovery patients in these hospitals, especially with those who have experienced abuse as a child or adult. The Sapsali’s devotion, loyalty, and readiness to express its love and affection has been seen to reduce the psychological burden experienced by people suffering from a fear or dislike of associating with other people. The dog’s ability to connect strongly with the needs and desires of its human companions, as well as its natural ability to learn with little instruction what is most needed of it, the Sapsali assists and allows the patients, over time, to learn to trust others again and to feel more comfortable opening up to people and society.
The Sapsali is an adaptable breed. They have been kept as house pets for many decades, and as such, they are very clean housemates. The breed will avoid urination/defecation indoors, as it is good at waiting on its master to take it for a walk. The Sapsali is extremely patient and can generally handle most situations without complaint. Although the Sapsali is a heavy looking breed with thick shaggy hair and appearing as they can hardly see past their bangs, the breed is surprisingly athletic. The exercise requirement for the breed is not however, excessive; but the Sapsali, like most sheepdogs, will require a long daily walk or time to play and run outdoors. As a loyal and devoted breed, time spent with family is important to the Sapsali and it will want to be included in all the family activities. Because of their requirement for moderate daily exercise and activity, this breed is best suited for a family with an active lifestyle. The breed can handle most living situations as long as its exercise requirements are met.
In some cases, the Sapsali can show aggression toward other dogs it finds threatening and because of this, the Sapsali should always be walked on a leash and allowed to play in a safely enclosed area, like a fenced in yard. Their medium size and hefty build also makes it necessary to supervise the Sapsali when playing with small children as the child could easily be knocked over accidently.
Originally bred to bring good fortune to their masters, the Sapsali is charming, devoted and a loving companion. The Sapsali is an ideal pet for an active family as their sweet and gentle temperament makes them great friends for children and adults alike. Their general nature to be friendly extends to other pets and animals as long as the dog is not provoked or does not feel threatened. Being of an intelligent and easily trainable nature, the Sapsali is a good choice for a first time dog owner as well as those who have previously shared their homes with a canine companion. Although still an uncommon breed outside of Korea, those who are able to acquire this loving and devoted companion will definitely feel lucky to have done so.
Like many sheepdog breeds the Sapsali is profusely covered in long thick hair, making it a challenge to groom. Sheepdog coats can require a lot of maintenance and this can be time consuming, even for an experienced dog owner or groomer. Dog breeds that possess long coats like the Sapsali’s require regular brushing; daily is preferred, to keep the coat free of debris and matting.
Matting hair can be painful for the dog and therefore special attention should be paid in order to prevent this from occurring in the coat of a Sapsali. Daily brushing is best; however several times a week may also suffice depending on the dog and its specific lifestyle. Dogs with long, thick double coats are heavy shedders, and in order to prevent hair from accumulating all over the home, these regular brushing sessions should be performed without neglect. Brush from the head down, and make sure to reach all the way to the undercoat to prevent any tricky matts from forming close to the dog’s body.
Like all dog breeds, the Sapsali should have its ears, eyes, nose, teeth, and nails groomed, cleaned, and checked regularly to prevent any health concerns from developing in these areas as well.
The Sapsali is a breed newly saved from extinction, with an average lifespan of 10-12 years. Because the breed was so close to being lost forever, the pedigrees and genetics for these dogs are still being developed. The Sapsali is however, a generally hearty and healthy breed. Like all purebreds, the Sapsali does experience some incidence of health concerns, they are as follows: