Does a Korean Dog Deserve a Shot at the American Dream?

A community fights to get its national breed onto the most elite stage in the nation

Joel Burslem/Flickr

The legendary Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show will soon draw to a close, and for the 138th time, the Korean Jindo was not among the competitors. Perhaps the Jindo’s absence from the greatest dog show in the world isn’t a surprise—introduced stateside by Korean immigrants in the 1980s, the Jindo is relatively unknown beyond its country of origin.

I recall my first encounter with the breed: I was in the sixth grade, visiting my youth pastor David Chung’s house. His Jindo’s name was Dalgi—Korean for “strawberry”—and she stood in the backyard, broad-shouldered, as dignified as an imperial guard. While our group met, Dalgi bared her sharp teeth and barked ceaselessly at the brick barrier separating the Chungs from their neighbors. I never saw her break free, but she tugged with a kind of cautionary force, pacing in clean arcs the full radial reach of her leash. Dalgi eventually breached the brick barrier to murder a litter of kittens belonging to my homeroom teacher, Mrs. Tietz, next door. When news broke in the classroom, I did not speak up, but a familiar pang of guilt flushed my belly. It was the same sour sensation triggered by any mention of Kim Jong-il, Reverend Sun-Myung Moon, or Soon-Yi Previn. Here was Dalgi—another one of our own, botching it up in the Western world.

A Jindo licks the face of a lioness
at a zoo in South Korea. (Reuters)

For better or for worse, Korean Americans closely identify with this confident canine—a medium-sized spitz-type dog with a curled tail, a fox-like head, and prick ears. These animals may occasionally murder kittens. In fact, they’re descended from primitive dogs, much like the Australian dingo. For thousands of years, they roamed feral on uninhabited Jindo Island, located off the southwest coast of Korea. But they’re known for their problem-solving skills, fierce loyalty to their owners, and overall toughness. (As my grandfather likes to say, “They can even eat rock.”) In South Korea, the Jindo is a beloved national treasure. It ranks 53rd on the country’s list of “natural monuments,” just ahead of a Confucian Shrine’s 400 year-old gingko tree. During the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, Jindos marched in the opening ceremony.

Ask any Korean and you will likely hear the same thing: Jindos are the world’s finest breed. And they are ready to take the spotlight at Westminster—the dog world’s equivalent of the Super Bowl and Academy Awards combined.

Jindo fans aren’t the only group lobbying the American Kennel Club for inclusion of their favorite breed. This year, three new dogs made their debuts: the Chinook, the Portuguese podengo pequeno, and the rat terrier. In the dog world, this is hugely significant: It means that the arbiters of America’s foremost dog registry have deemed these breeds to be of a trusted, rarefied lineage, worthy of standing alongside the French bulldog, the German shepherd, or the English setter. The Jindo has already gained this kind of acceptance on the world stage—the United Kennel Club and the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (World Canine Organization) have allowed the Jindo into their ranks. But the American Kennel Club remains unconvinced of the dog’s merits.

This matters to Korean Americans in a way that might sound comical to those outside our fold. The Westminster Dog Show is the longest-running continuously held sporting event in the country, second only to the Kentucky Derby. It began in 1877, prior to the invention of the light bulb or the building of the Washington Monument. It predates the admission of 12 states to the Union. In essence, Westminster is as American as it gets. Once a dog is crowned Best in Show, the winner becomes the canine equivalent of Miss America, fulfilling a year’s worth of duties as “America’s Dog.” It appears on national morning chat show appearances, rings the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, and visits the observation deck at the Empire State Building. A chance to compete at Westminster is a chance for a Korean to “make it” in this country.

So how can the Jindo earn a shot at this ultimate badge of acceptance? According to David Frei, Westminster’s director of communications and the co-host of the show’s television broadcast, there is no schedule or quota to fill when it comes to a breed’s eligibility. Admittance guidelines mostly involve a dog’s “following” in America. As Frei details, the breed must have “an adequate population in this country, a geographical distribution (they can’t all live in California), and a parent club (e.g., the Afghan Hound Club of America) that is advocating and overseeing the breed in this country.” Once the parent club has “done the work” promoting the breed, official AKC status is inevitable.

There is no official Jindo parent club established yet, but Jindo breeders like Kyong T. Chong from Jindo Ranch in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas are devoted to promoting the breed. It’s not easy to import a Jindo from South Korea—the dogs are protected under a Cultural Properties Protection Act—but Chong managed to obtain two dogs with “excellent Jindo qualities” for his breeding program.

Meanwhile, in an effort to elevate the Jindo to world-class status, a Korean organization—the Jindo Dog Promotion and Innovation Agency—offered Jindos to the Los Angeles Police Department in 2011. Chief officers were granted an all-expenses paid trip to Jindo Island, where they chose two puppies for gun detection unit training. The dogs, who were named Daehan and Mingook (collectively meaning “Republic of Korea”), excelled in obedience, but they were too attached to their trainer—focused less on the task at hand than on pleasing their master. Chief K-9 platoon training officer Sergeant Doug Roller told The Los Angeles Times that “the breed required a few more generations of specific selection to weed out unsuitable habits.”

But owners who have practiced patience and discipline with their Jindos will emphatically tell you that they’ve earned the trust of a magnificent dog—and been rewarded with a family protector that is as regal as an Afghan hound, as gentle as a Labrador. With the help of various Jindo rescue organizations, like Treasured K-9s and the Jindo Project, the dog has been quietly making its way into American homes for years—if not in the purebred, upper-crust manner of Chihuahuas or poodles. Dr. Phil, for one, adores his two Jindo rescues.

Meanwhile, Jindo owners have reason to be hopeful: Currently, the dogs are recognized by the American Kennel Club’s Foundation Stock Service, a registry that serves as a kind of junior varsity team. While Foundation Stock Service breeds cannot compete in any American Kennel Club events, like Westminster,  dogs do graduate from that list into the main Kennel Club registry. The Portuguese podengo pequeno, another primitive national dog, became a Foundation dog in 2007, just one year before the Jindo. Now it’s on the Westminster stage.

It’s hard to say if or when the Jindo’s moment of glory will arrive. But on that day, a throng of ecstatic Koreans will be there, cheering for their pooch. The fuss will be the equivalent of a Korean Cool Runnings. And when the first Jindo trots into the center arena spotlight, standing as dignified as an imperial guard, the bright flush of excitement in my belly will be one of pride. An entire nation will rejoice, and a whole island of dogs will wag their little tails in camaraderie, because on that day, a canine hero will have achieved an American dream.