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How Diego Took Korea By Storm - by Sandra Vanta

by Kristin Waters |

You may remember our June #Pittie2020 winner for Most Creative, @TUFF_SAUSAGE (Diego). When we learned Diego lived in Korea, we were so impressed that we asked his mom, Sandra Vanta, to write a guest blog post about their journey.  Breed discrimination is a global problem and this is a fascinating, inside look into the struggles a family with pit bull faces in South Korea.

This is a story about a Pit Bull, the military, and moving across the world!

Being in the military can be difficult. Owning a ‘dangerous breed’ can make life infinitely harder. Combine the two of them, and sometimes it is hard not to feel like there are hurdles that simply cannot be overcome. So when we found out we were going to live in South Korea for a few years, we panicked.



How do you fly a ‘vicious dog’? Do Koreans like large dogs? Do certain breeds have a stigma comparable to what you find in the US? Where will we live since we cannot live on base? (All services of the military have an arbitrary list of dog breeds they label ‘dangerous’ or ‘vicious’, and dogs of these breeds are not allowed to live on base housing. This is a huge obstacle on many levels, not just for people moving to different countries, and has caused thousands of families immeasurable heartbreak. It is worth a blog post in itself). So – will it be possible to find housing with Diego? What if he cannot come at all? We had more questions than I can remember now, and they all caused me more sleepless nights than I can count.

The answers to the questions above: You have to spend a lot of money. Unfortunately, most of them do not. Yes, they do. It is extremely hard in cities like Seoul and Busan, but easier in the area where our base is located. If he could not have come, I would have stayed behind and waited until my husband finished out the assignment.

All of the above comes down to two things: 1) Always, ALWAYS have a plan B (and C, and D) and 2) we have to remember we are fortunate, always. We are so lucky to be in a position to pay $1,600 (some airlines charge up to $5,000 to fly a dog labeled dangerous, and some will not fly them at all) and to be able to make emergency plans. But we are not the majority. We personally have seen dozens of amazing dogs given away or even being put down because of breed laws at home and overseas, and because ‘simple-to-fix’ things like outrageous fees and boarding. These deaths are unnecessary and heartbreaking.

The fact that we can have Diego here with us in Korea means everything to me. After facing, and luckily resolving, the many issues coming here with him, we thought once we’d get settled, and Diego got used to his new environment, we could start our new life here full throttle. Unfortunately, that did not work out the way we had planned it. Many Koreans are still extremely wary of large dogs, to a point of hysteria. When we first started taking Diego out on the beautiful trails here, we encountered screaming, kicking at him, people dropping to the ground weeping, and people running away sobbing. At first, I was offended that anyone could think my boy, who was happily trotting next to me, sniffing the flowers and completely oblivious to what was going around him, could hurt anyone. Then I realized it had nothing to do with Diego, actually not even with his breed. He was simply a large dog in a country where the only family dogs people have usually weigh about 5 lbs, and all others are chained as guard dogs, or worse, used for meat or dog fighting.

But then something amazing happened. We learned the words for ‘he is really nice’ and started saying them to every person we encountered on our walks with our Sausage (at this point I’m not sure he remembers his real name). While some people still ran away or swatted at him, the vast majority reacted wonderfully. They’d stop, and say ‘Really??’ then tried to pet him gingerly. The change was so drastic sometimes that it was almost comical. People who were crying frantically stopped in their tracks to smile and dared to walk past him. We always carry treats and make Diego sit and shake when other hikers are passing, so they see he is a sweet and gentle guy. We pass out treats to people when they stop so they can feed him as well. By now, we are somewhat of an institution on the trails! People recognize him, and there is a lot less screaming.

By no means am I saying nothing was in the course of changing until we got here. The younger generation passionately fights for better animal welfare laws, against dog fighting, the dog meat trade, and for better treatment of large dogs. There are more people with medium sized -and even some large!- dogs as family pets. But the impact Diego has had is visible where we live. People actually let their tiny dogs play with him instead of picking them up, yelling at Diego and sprinting away. Parents let their children pet him instead of telling them to stay as far away as possible.

Korea still has a very long way to go when it comes to the humane treatment of its dogs, especially larger breeds, and almost daily we observe things that are heart-wrenching and often make us cry. But seeing how little things can make such an enormous difference has been one of the best experiences of our military life. Diego has been a part of showing people how sweet, loving, funny and gentle both big dogs and pit bulls can be, and dozens, if not hundreds, of people have changed their way of thinking through an encounter with him during the past two years. We are so proud of our sweet Sausage, and his tremendous patience with those who judge him based on what he looks like, or sometimes even get physical. Living in Korea for 2 1/2 years would have been an adventure in itself, but living in Korea with Diego has been one of the biggest lessons we have had the honor to learn.

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