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Every dog has its day

Shifting consumer preferences fuel popularity of various breeds, but excesses of puppy mills lead to surge in abandoned animals with adoption shunned

Updated: 2024-06-12 09:46
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A dog sports sunglasses at a pet competition in Nakseongdae Park in Seoul on April 27. YONHAP NEWS AGENCY/VCG

Editor's note: In this weekly feature China Daily gives voice to Asia and its people. The stories presented will come mainly from the Asia News Network (ANN), and of which China Daily is among the 20 members.

Park Ji-won, 34, often hears comments like, "It's refreshing to see a shih tzu. They seem so rare these days", while walking her 5-year-old dog.

The recurring remarks prompted her to ponder a question: During her elementary school years, shih tzus were everywhere. Where have all the shih tzus gone?

"Even when I encounter them occasionally, they're usually very old," she said.

Park's observation reflects a shift in pet preferences in South Korea over the past few decades.

In the early 2000s, shih tzus were among the most popular breeds in the country along with Yorkshire terriers, cocker spaniels and schnauzers. Trends have since shifted, with breeds like beagles, dachshunds and Samoyeds having their moments of rising and waning popularity.

As of 2024, the most popular breeds are Pomeranians, bichons frises, Coton de Tulears and Maltipoos.

Canine coverage

The popularity of certain dog breeds in South Korea is often triggered by media exposure.

In 2002, for instance, the SBS television show TV Animal Farm featured a cocker spaniel named Woongja, which increased the popularity of the breed.

Shih tzus experienced a surge in popularity around the same time after former television personality Ko Young-wook, who served time in prison after being found guilty of rape, showcased his mother's 10 shih tzus on the program.

Media attention on a particular breed is further amplified by pet shops and puppy mills, according to animal advocacy group Korea Animal Rights Advocates.

"To understand the origins of these trends, one has to know how dog auctions take place in (South) Korea," the group's head Jeon Jinkyung said.

At these auctions, puppy mill owners and pet shop owners share a mutual interest in current or future trends, in which certain breeds with desirable facial features have the potential to be sold at high retail prices.

"They may even engage in price-fixing," Jeon said, adding that the tactic is used to artificially inflate the price of a specific breed at auction, thus creating the illusion of high demand and manipulating dog breed trends.

These trendy dogs then reach pet shops.

The shop owners may recommend customers purchase trendy dog breeds that have appeared in the media and customers often are not presented with many other options.

Kim, 29, who visited a pet shop in Seoul in August, received a breed recommendation from a local pet shop.

As she entered the shop, she was initially recommended a Maltipoo, a small mixed-breed poodle.

The shop owner said Maltipoos are popular because they are manageable in size, easygoing and shed little fur, making them a perfect fit for apartment living.

Kim said that she could not help but notice the abundance of similar-looking small white dogs in the shop.

As she was taking some time to look around, the owner then suggested a mini bichon frise, assuring her it shared the Maltipoo's desirable traits.

"She also told me that it is the breed that singer Kang Min-kyung owns," Kim said.

Ultimately, swayed by the trend and the owner's recommendation, Kim decided to adopt the mini bichon frise.

In South Korea, buying dogs at pet shops is commonplace. A 2023 survey conducted by animal welfare research association Aware on 2,000 South Koreans aged 20 to 69 found that, when asked about their adoption method, 46.7 percent reported that they acquired their dogs through acquaintances, while pet shops came in second, accounting for 14.5 percent.

Pet problems

Pet industry insiders warned that the sale of trendy dog breeds without careful consideration, coupled with the excessive breeding of popular dogs by puppy mills, could lead to a surge in abandoned animals once the trend subsides.

Data from the Animal and Plant Quarantine Agency's 2018 research paint a troubling picture.

While the number of newly registered dogs in South Korea reached 140,000 in 2018, a staggering 90,000 dogs, about 64 percent of those newly registered figures, were abandoned and rescued in the same year.

The rise of abandoned trending breeds is particularly worrisome. In 2010, only 399 Pomeranians were listed as abandoned. By 2018, after the breed's popularity soared, that number jumped to 2,217. Similarly, abandoned bichons frises increased from zero in 2010 to 348 in 2018.

Jeon from the Korea Animal Rights Advocates argued that this trend-driven market also discourages people from adopting abandoned dogs, with many of them desperately needing families.

"While trendy dogs are being purchased, many abandoned dogs are being euthanized due to a lack of adoption," Jeon said.

She said that the market trend incentivizes breeders to produce ever-smaller dogs, which can lead to health problems in the dogs themselves.

"Breeders prioritize small, attractive dogs that sell quickly... often neglecting to screen for potential genetic diseases," Jeon said.


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