*As a disclaimer, this article is not meant to come off as xenophobic. I understand and appreciate the differences between every culture. I’m Taiwanese by descent, raised in Canada, grew up with Korean friends, and have traveled to 27 different countries in my lifetime. My observations are not to represent the entirety of the South Korean race, and although I generalize, it is only based on my own experiences owning a pet in Korea, as well as those of other dog owners here.

Ula Yangju ShelterA question many foreigners have prior to relocating to South Korea, is whether or not their new life can include their beloved pets. I’m here to give you a firsthand perspective of owning a pet in Korea. I’ve adopted 2 dogs since moving here; 1 is a 3-year-old, 20lb, white and brown, mixed breed who looks like a real-life teddy bear. The other is a 1-year-old, 45lb, white, Jindogae with an affinity for chasing plastic bags.

Although the number of households who own  a cat or dog as a pet in Korea are growing, it is undeniable that it is still a new concept here. When I take them out for walks, the reactions we receive run the gamut from sheer and utter fear, to astonishment, to curiosity, to excitement, to disgust, and if I’m lucky, to adoration. I have found that in the more affluent areas of Seoul, such as Mokdong, parts of Namsan, or in Gangnam, the majority of Koreans are much more acceptable towards my four-legged family members.

For the past 2 years, I have been living and teaching in a small “city” in northern Seoul. Although I have had a few pleasant encounters with people who showed interest towards my dogs and wanted to pet them, the overall impression has still been negative. Unfortunately, most children run away screaming, people methodically move as far away from me on the sidewalk as possible, insist on taking the next elevator, throw rocks or branches, try to kick or swat at them, or jump on benches (yes, this has happened with a grown man) out of fear. One of the first Korean phrases I mastered was how to say, “It’s okay, they don’t bite.” However, even after explaining this with a smile, most people still don’t believe me. This only works to fuel the fire; fear begets fear. My dogs are now very adverse to strangers because of all the negative experiences they’ve endured here.

“I guess it would be like a foreigner seeing a cow being walked down the street.”

Understandably, when Korea was struggling, dogs were seen as farm commodity and eaten as meat. I guess it would be like a foreigner seeing a cow being walked down the street. The difference is that there seems to be a fear that is instilled here and a lack of education on the humane treatment towards animals. I’ve often asked people why they are scared, and most of them have no reason to be other than because their parents taught them dogs were dirty, diseased, and will bite. These words come straight from their mouths. In a culture where elders are so revered, what they say goes and it becomes a vicious cycle of negativity.

However, the younger generation is starting to stand up for animal rights and petition against eating “boshintang” (dog meat soup), promoting adoptions rather than supporting puppy mills, and engaging in responsible ownership such as sterilizing pets. Slowly but surely, change will occur. I dream of the day when dog meat farms are banished, when puppy mills are closed down, when owners are fined for abandoning their pets, when vets who perform devoicing surgeries are stripped of their licenses, when pets are no longer treated as property, and when people receive fair punishment for cruelty towards animals. Not only in Korea, but worldwide.

The perception of what is considered a pet here is very black and white. Basically, anything larger than a Maltese should be used as a guard dog. They are not to live indoors with their family, they are not given affection or fed proper dog food, they are to be chained up, they are not given medical attention, they are not taken on walks, and they are not considered “pets”. Meanwhile, Pomeranians, Chihuahas, Shih-tzus and such, are given makeovers at the groomers, wear bejeweled collars, and live a life of luxury. White coloured dogs and purebreds are favoured, and of course anything that fits in a purse.

Moving on from the possible cultural hindrances of owning pets, let’s discuss the logistics of living here with a pet. The costs of owning a pet are definitely higher here. Finding good qualify food and accessories for medium to large-sized breeds can be difficult and expect to pay higher prices than in North America. I order their food from GMarket, but for foreign-made toys and treats, I go to Molly’s Pet Shop in the Shinsegae department stores. Other dog owners go to Costco, get them from army bases, or ask for family members to ship products from home.

Friendship Week - by usagrc

Speaking of boarding, what if you want to take advantage of your close proximity to island paradises such as Bali or Koh Phi Phi? What to do with Fido? There are a number of options you can choose from. Boarding them at a vet (normally only applicable to small dogs) where they will be locked up in a cage all day, finding a friend to pet sit, taking them to a “dog café”, or taking them to a boarding facility. There are more and more facilities popping up who will also train your dog during their stay, at your request.

Something important to consider is your housing. I lucked out and lived in a studio apartment my first year which allowed dogs. I almost never ran into my neighbors and fortunately never received a complaint to my dog’s occasional barking. Before moving to my new officetel, I made sure with the management that dogs of ANY size (this is crucial; many landlords will put a limit on the size and weight of your pet) were allowed. I REALLY lucked out this time and lived on the top floor with direct access to a grassy rooftop where my dogs could run off leash. My security guard/building manager also loved my dogs, as did my neighbor who went to university in Canada, so he was very accustomed to “larger” dogs.

You must be absolutely CERTAIN in the aspect of housing, and preferably have it in writing. Try to establish a good relationship with your neighbors, or find a building and neighborhood that is dog friendly. I have heard many horror stories of insane neighbors poisoning dogs with antifreeze because they could not stand the “constant” barking, or did not like the dog fur flying around. Landlords can also kick you out on a whim and if you are living in school-provided housing, you do not have much room to fight back unless you have got some dog-loving co-teachers willing to back you up. Be prepared.

Poop. Pick up after your dog, just like you would back home. Don’t give people more of a reason to dislike your pets. The difficult part is finding a place to dispose of it. South Korea has a serious shortage of public garbage cans so you may be carrying that stinky poopbag around for quite some time. Also, watch out for the random feces from an unknown culprit lying around while you just happen to be walking in the vicinity with your own dog, you may be forced by the almighty ajummas to pick that up too.

Friendship Week 2 by usagrc

Owning a car in South Korea would be really useful to dog owners, especially for those with larger breeds. Pets are not allowed on public transport unless in a crate and even then, other passengers can request that they be removed, if their presence bothers them. On coach buses, drivers will often insist dogs be put underneath with the luggage. This was a huge shock to me, coming from Toronto where dogs of any size are allowed, uncrated, on all forms of public transportation. Taxis will often turn you down if you have a pet in tow, so investing in a vehicle is definitely a good idea.

For the most part, eating establishments do not allow pets, even on the terraces, but head down to the foreigner zones of Itaewon, Kyungridan, or Haebangchon and your options will increase. National parks are not so dog friendly, nor are beaches. However, if you go during low season, you could probably get away with it. There is actually a dog-friendly beach on the east coast, in Gangneung, that opened last summer. It is the only one of its kind in South Korea, met with much controversy upon its inception. I’ve yet to visit myself, but that would be a great weekend trip with your pooch(es). The popular “dog cafes” also allow you to bring your own pets, taken into account they are healthy, neutered/spayed, and non-aggressive of course. An enclosed, off-leash dog park also opened last year in Seoul Children’s Grand Park – it’s small but well-kept and a rare treat for city dogs to stretch their legs.

If you have considered all the possible complications of owning a pet in South Korea and are committed to giving a dog or cat a permanent loving home, I suggest perusing this site: www.animalrescuekorea.org. It is a great resource in finding English-speaking vet clinics, vacation spots to take your dogs, the process of bringing your pet home when you leave South Korea, approximate and realistic costs for everything, pet-sitters or boarding facilities, adoptable animals or ones needing fosters, etc.

Before arriving in Korea, after coming across that site, I had already chosen a shelter to volunteer at on the weekends, in Asan. I’ve since changed shelters due to convenience of location, and volunteer as a foreign coordinator for Yangju Shelter. Being able to continue being involved in animal welfare has given so much meaning to my time here. I’m thankful I did not have to give it up. If you’re missing your furry buddy but can’t commit to adoption, consider volunteering at one of the many shelters across the country or being a temporary foster.

Shelter Jindo Yangjae

Although owning 2 larger-than-Korean-standard-sized dogs has been met with many inconveniences, I don’t regret my decision whatsoever. The happiness they bring me far outweighs any negatives and of course, it doesn’t feel too shabby to know you’ve saved 2 lives. I hope this article has given you some honest and realistic insight into life with pets here in South Korea, so that you can be prepared if wish to bring your pet with you or adopt one here.

Photo Cred: Ula Yang. Flickr – usagrc

Have any experiences or advise you’d like to share about owning a pet in Korea or abroad? Leave a comment below!

Comments

  1. Whitney says:

    Hello,
    Thanks for the great article! I’m moving out with my husband in a couple months and we have a cat and a german shepherd/lab puppy who is currently at 40lbs. I just got back from a visit and definitely noticed the lack of larger breed dogs. We viewed (and of course fell in love with) an apartment, and was later told the max weight is 33 lbs for animals. I’m pretty confident we can find something, though it may not be as conveniently located near a station as we’d hoped. Any tips on getting them home from the airport? My husband will be with us, and doesn’t really have any car-owning friends.
    When you say the national parks aren’t “dog friendly”, does that mean we’ll be kicked out?
    Thanks again,
    Whitney

    1. Melissa Ghelman says:

      Hi Whitney,
      Have you already moved to Korea with your pets? How was the move?
      I think the only way to transport large pets from the airport to your home would be if they were crated and taken by train and/or taxi. Even crated, I think you will likely come across many people who will make the journey a bit difficult. I imagine it will take a while to find a willing taxi driver.
      Melissa

    2. Sarah says:

      Hi Whitney,

      I would love to hear more about your move if you brought your dogs as well. We’re moving in a couple of weeks, and I’m starting to get really nervous about housing with our two. If you have any tips or information, I would love to hear it!

  2. Kino says:

    Thank you for the article, im
    Moving to korea and i want to bring my dog here, its a big one, so i hope i have no problema with it. I will try to go to the beach you were talking about!

  3. Melissa Ghelman says:

    I have been living in and working in Jeju, Korea for the past year and half. I have also adopted a 9kg mixed dog while here. I’ve had her for a bit over a year and I have to say that you are 100% spot on in your description of owning a pet in Korea. Although amusing at times, the reactions you wrote about are accurate. By western standards, my dog is small, but here she is most often met with real fear and terror.

    For anyone else reading this, please take this statement into consideration: “My dogs are now very adverse to strangers because of all the negative experiences they’ve endured here.” For me personally, this is the most upsetting part of dog ownership in Korea. It is so unfortunate because my dog has become the same way. Strangers make her nervous because she has learned that they will act sporadically, screaming or jumping in sudden jerky motions. I can only hope that she will un-learn this upon moving back to Canada.

    That said, it is, of course, not all negative and I do believe that slowly, but surely, change for the better will occur. As dog owners, I feel that it is the perfect opportunity for us to teach the people around us that with the right care and proper training, any dog can grow up to be a safe and lovable life companion.

    Thanks for writing this!

  4. Jessica M DuBose says:

    Thank you so much for posting this incredibly helpful article. My husband and I are applying to work as Teachers and intend to move to South Korea. We have a 20lb dog and I have been wondering how we will be able to bring him with us. Thanks!

  5. Ellen says:

    Hi. This is such an incredibly helpful post! I’m planning to move to Seoul, and I am debating whether or not to bring my dog. She is an English Mastiff/german shepherd mix – she’s around 100 lbs – so she’s very big!

    But I was wondering in which general area was/is your apartment located (the rooftop one)? And I was wondering if you knew of any other regions that might have apartments similar to that?

    1. Sarah says:

      Hi Ellen,

      Did you already move to Seoul, and if so, did you bring your dog? My husband and I are moving there in two weeks and plan to bring both our dogs, one of whom is 87lbs, so I’m getting really nervous about finding housing and safe places to take them for walks. If you’re there and you have any helpful information, I would love to chat with you!

  6. Kaylah says:

    Hello, this is a wonderful article! I am planning to move to South Korea sometime within the next year, and I have to bring my Border Collie (weighing in at about 30lbs) as she helps me to know when I am about to have a seizure. I was wondering if people’s opinion there is the same with service dogs as they are with normal dogs?