Linda Simon
Dr Linda Simon (MVB MRCVS, University College Dublin)
Photo of adult Sapsali
Sungdo Cho /

The Sapsali, or Sapsaree, is a medium-sized, long-haired breed of dog native to Korea. Interestingly, this breed is also known as a ‘ghost hunter’, as it was once thought to dispel evil spirits. Despite this slightly spooky superstition, the Sapsali is a good-tempered dog that is very sociable with people – especially his family – whom he very much adores.

Never historically used for a specific purpose, the Sapsali has always been respected as a companion animal – a role to which it is well suited. Quick to learn and with a sunny disposition, the Sapsali makes a pleasant student. In fact, they are even used as therapy dogs within Korean hospitals.

About & History

Originating in the region of Silla, an ancient kingdom of south Korea that existed in the first millennium AD, the Sapsali is known to be a truly ancient breed of dog. Depicted on murals, it is thought that this breed was seen as an integral member of Korean society. Used in the military, they were looked upon as good luck charms with the ability to ward off adversaries. In actuality, they never had a physical job in the military, but rather filled a symbolic role when brought to battle.

While originally a breed kept only by royals and aristocrats, over time, the Sapsali became a household pet for all social classes within Korea. They were a popular family member and were widespread throughout the country. Sadly, during the First and Second World Wars, most Sapsali dogs were slaughtered for their skin and fur, leaving just a handful of breed members in existence.

Luckily for the Sapsali, Kyungpook National University in South Korea took it upon themselves to save the breed from succumbing to the inevitable extinction it was heading toward, when in 1969, they rounded up all of the surviving Sapsali dogs in the region and developed a kennels for them. Following this, in the 1980s, a professor Ha Ji-Hong, son of one of the original Sapsali kennel founder and a geneticist who had studied in America, made a vigorous effort to re-establish the breed, bringing the dogs from a reported number of eight to a population of around 500. He utilised proven breeding methods, and even tested their DNA to reduce the prevalence of health conditions in the breed.

In 1992, the Korean government designated the dog a national treasure, just like the Korean Jindo and the Pungsan dog. At this time, the government also provided funding for the preservation of the iconic breed. While not yet internationally recognised, the Sapsali is a member of the Korean Kennel Club.


Sapsali Large Photo

The male Sapsali measures 50-60cm and weighs between 18-27kg, while the slightly more petite female measures 48-58cm, weighing in at 16-25kg. The body of the dog should be a little longer than it is tall.

While its nickname ‘lion dog’ may be a bit of an exaggeration, it is true that the Sapsali has impressively large paws and a broad and powerful skull. Their ears flop forward and their long fringe covers their circular, brown eyes. Their sizeable nose is dark and glossy, though may be brown in light-furred dogs. They should have a muscular body with a straight back, sturdy limbs and a profusely furry tail that they hold proudly above their body, with a slight curve to it.

The most notable characteristic of the Sapsali is its impressive, shaggy coat, which is abundant all over and can come in a large variety of colours, which may be solid or mixed, including:

  • Black
  • Gold
  • Orange
  • Brown
  • Grey
  • Blue
  • White

Character & Temperament

Kept for so long as a companion animal, the Sapsali is the perfect pet: kind, loving and faithful to their owners. This loyalty can lead them to become protective of their family if a stranger enters their territory. Initially, they will bark loudly, though will quickly back down if they see that the new person is accepted by the household.

There is, in fact, a Korean legend that speaks of the celebrated loyalty of the Sapsali. The story goes as follows. A sleeping man, who stopped by a riverbank on his way back from a party, accidentally sets fire to the land around him from the embers of his pipe. His Sapsali dog jumps into the river and puts out the fire with his wet fur, saving the man, but killing himself. The tale of this heroic and selfless act speaks volumes about how the Koreans value the breed. A stone monument of this dog exists within the North Gyeongsang province.

While they often do well with other animals, they have the potential to display dog to dog aggression in certain scenarios. This situation is best avoided by exposing young Sapsali dogs to a variety of friendly dog breeds from puppyhood. The breed tends to get along well with children and other animals as long as they have been introduced to them from a young age. Despite this, young children should be supervised with them, as they can be strong and boisterous when excited. They have even established themselves as therapy dogs in Korean hospitals, with one report of a Sapsali dog being used for the therapy of a boy who had been bullied.


An undeniably smart dog, the Sapsali has the potential to learn quickly. They are completely devoted to their master and so eager to please them that they will try very hard to perform any task asked of them. Non-confrontational, positive reinforcement training methods are highly advised in this breed, as they respond best to praise and treats. A versatile dog, they do well in most household situations, having been domesticated for many thousands of years.


While generally thought of as a healthy dog that should live past the age of ten, there are a number of reported health conditions in the Sapsali including:

Hip Dysplasia

This is an orthopaedic condition that is often tested for within the breed. A Sapsali dog affected with this condition will become progressively lamer on their hind limbs with age. Their malformed hip joints will have localised inflammation and will eventually become arthritic.

Patellar Luxation

A dislocated kneecap will usually result in a few steps of hopping, before it re-sets itself. Severely affected knee joints may remain permanently luxated (or out of position). As with hip dysplasia, the longer the condition has existed, the more likely it is to be associated with osteoarthritis and pain.

Congenital Eye Defects

Ocular conditions seen in young Sapsali dogs include: Cherry eye (a prolapsed third eyelid that gets its name from the bright red colour of the exposed gland), entropion (abnormally positioned eyelids that fold in, meaning the eyelashes rub on the cornea) and distichiasis (an eyelash that grows from an inappropriate location).


Atopic dermatitis and other skin complaints can be seen with relative frequency in the Sapsali dog. Keeping their coat in good condition, ensuring their parasite prevention is consistently up to date and avoiding exposure to any known allergens should help to limit symptoms.

Exercise and Activity Levels

A dog of average exercise requirements, the Sapsali will be content with a daily walk and some additional activities throughout the day, such as play time and training sessions. They can be kept in apartments and other small homes as long as they are given a sufficient outlet for their energy.


While the coat of the Sapsali may be straight or wavy, it is always long and abundant. Grooming several times a week will help to keep it glossy and prevent tangles. Professional grooming may be needed once or twice a year. Neglecting to care for their coat can result in severe matts and subsequent skin irritation and inflammation. They are known to be heavy shedders.

Starting their grooming regime from a young age is advisable to encourage the Sapsali to accept it as just a normal part of its day. It is particularly important to get them used to you brushing and trimming their long facial fur, as this can be intimidating for inexperienced dogs. Their floppy ears should be checked often for any debris or sign of infection.

Famous Sapsalis

A relatively unknown breed outside of its native Korea, there are no famous Sapsali dogs.


As the Sapsali was recently close to extinction, breeders are currently focused on establishing the breed rather than outbreeding with others.

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